A properly extravagant Christmas dinner
When having guests over for dinner, I enjoy cooking a big piece of meat surrounded by a few light sides to balance it all out. At Christmastime, I follow the same rule but with the volume turned proportionately up. You can go with a prime rib or roast loin of beef, sure, but the great thing about Christmas dinner, as opposed to Thanksgiving, is that there’s more variety in what you can make. You can truly serve anything you want, so go big. And I mean really big.
Instead of a braised lamb shoulder or spatchcocked chickens, I serve something that’s sure to elicit wide eyes from even the meatiest eaters: porchetta. Though it’s not a difficult preparation, it looks that way, and that always impresses your guests more than anything they can see themselves making on a Tuesday. A porchetta is an undertaking but a completely manageable one, especially suitable for the holidays.
I start by dry-brining pork belly with sugar and salt for a day to season it to its core. Then, I rub the belly with an herb paste spiked with chile flakes and lots of citrus zest. I keep the herbs classic — rosemary, sage and thyme — and add a warming, classic note of anise with fennel pollen and fennel fronds saved from the crudité platter. If you hate that flavor, both ingredients are optional. And if you don’t want to splurge on fennel pollen, ground fennel seeds make a great substitute.
Once the belly is rubbed with the herbs and spices, I roll it around a trimmed pork loin and tie it tight with kitchen twine. Most recipes for porchetta use the belly only, but I like to wrap it around a loin so guests who like leaner meat are satisfied too. The pork roll renders slowly in a low oven for a few hours before being roasted at high heat to crisp up the skin and turn it from tough and leathery to shatteringly crisp and audibly crunchy.
I serve the porchetta with tart, herby Italian-style salsa verde made with spicy and bitter lettuces like watercress and Treviso. But to amp the Christmas spirit, I roast lemon halves alongside the porchetta as it puffs and crackles, then stir those caramelized lemon juices into the salsa for a more intense, warmer hit of acid.
And with such an intensely flavorful, showy and, yes, expensive preparation of meat, I like to keep the sides very, very simple. Polenta is a classic dish with pork. I cook it simply with a branch of thyme infused into the cooking liquid and a little butter and grated Parmesan added at the end to enrich it just enough to keep it smooth and silky. Also with pork, I must have cabbage. I shred the red variety and sauté it over high heat so it’s lightly caramelized but still toothsome. A showering of toasted breadcrumbs dotted with fried, crumbled chestnuts adds a bit of whimsy and contrast to the cabbage without making it feel overly complicated. The best part? Both dishes can be quickly made on the stove — and not take up oven space — while the porchetta is resting.
The whole affair should feel really special but also really cozy and warm. You’re not at a restaurant, you’re at home, so treat it like any other meal, except with a lot more flair. Pick off the porchetta’s crispy skin with your fingers and drag it through the polenta and encourage your guests to do the same. This is hearty home cooking that’s best enjoyed with elbows on the table and revelry to spare — which is exactly what the holiday is about.
It's a date
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