There’s a wonderful Italian roasted meat dish called Porchetta (por-ketta). Though there are many ways to prepare it, the classic version consists of a pork belly that is seasoned and then wrapped around a pork loin. The meat is tied, then roasted slowly for hours, basted with wine and the meat juices until the pork is cooked and the outside skin is crackly and crispy. Then it’s sliced like a log and served as a sandwich or a main dish. It’s absolutely fantastic! (If you’re in New York City, go to the small restaurant called Porchetta on the lower east side and taste this porky awesomeness the way it was meant to be.)
I recently purchased a beautiful hunk of grass-fed beef brisket from Pat’s Pastured, a wonderful farm here in Rhode Island. I decided to watch the You Tube series “BBQ with Franklin” starring the lord of brisket himself, Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, Texas, to learn how to properly smoke it. What I learned was that the hunk of brisket Franklin was using was a bit smaller but much thicker (5 to 6 inches) and fattier than the really large but thin piece (about 1 1/2 inches) that I had purchased. If I was going to use Franklin’s method of smoking this thing, it would totally dry out.
Then I said to myself: “What if I cook it like Porchetta?” I searched through a dozen Porchetta recipes and used whatever herbs and spices I liked to make my own special seasoning for this slab of meat I now re-named “Brisketta.” For the most part, I used common ingredients in Italian cooking, but I added toasted fennel seeds, an ingredient in Porchetta, as a tip of the hat to that classic dish.
I flipped the brisket fat-side-down on my cutting board and carefully sliced it down the middle horizontally to make two large–even thinner–slabs of meat. The bottom half, with the fatty side of the brisket, would eventually be my outside layer. The top half would be my inside layer.
I took the top half and slathered some of my seasonings on it. Then I rolled it up into a log as tightly as I could. I slathered more of my seasonings onto the bottom half of the brisket, the rolled it around the first log as tightly as I could, so that the fattiest side of the brisket would now be on the outside of this large meat log. I seasoned the fatty side with any leftover seasonings I had.
Now, rather than having a piece of meat that was only 1 1/2″ thick, I had a meat log that was 6″ thick. Much easier to cook and control. I tied the meat log up tightly with butchers’ twine and let it rest in my fridge overnight.
The next day, I removed the meat log from the fridge and let it sit on the counter for an hour, so that it would come back up to room temperature. Meanwhile, I started my digital smoker (an electric one), setting the temperature at 250 degrees. I placed the meat log on a rack in my smoker, and a bowl of water on another rack to help keep it moist during the cooking process. I closed the smoker door, and then cooked it low and slow for about 4 1/2 hours. My smoker has a side chute that lets me drop wood chips inside, and I used slivers of oak to add some smoke. (I decided that a wood like hickory, though one of my favorites to use when smoking, would overpower the subtle seasonings I used.)
After 4 1/2 hours, I removed the Brisketta from the smoker and tented it with foil, letting it rest for an hour before slicing it.
7 lbs. beef brisket
1 tablespoon fennel seed, toasted and cooled
5–3″ strips of bacon, cooked and cooled
2 tablespoons oregano
2 tablespoons parsley
2 teaspoons basil
2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons granulated onion
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
Grated zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup olive oil
Pour the fennel seed in a hot, dry pan on the stove. Toast the seeds until they release their aroma, but don’t let them burn. Set aside to cool.
Crumble the bacon strips and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add the cooled fennel seeds, oregano, parsley, basil, salt, pepper, onion, garlic, and lemon zest.
Run the food processor and slowly pour in the olive oil, until you have a paste much like pesto.
Slice the brisket in half horizontally. Save the piece with the fatty side for last, because this is the piece that will wrap around the others, with the fatty side out. Smear the rub on the first piece of brisket and roll it tightly into a log. Smear the rub on the second piece of brisket and wrap it around the first piece, making sure the fatty side is on the outside.
Once you’ve rolled both pieces into a single meat log, scored the fatty exterior with a knife and rub any leftover seasoning paste onto it. If you have none left, simply season with salt and pepper.
Tie the meat log tightly with butchers’ twine, tucking in all loose ends.
At this point, you can place the meat log in the fridge until ready to cook, remembering to remove it at least an hour before cooking so that it comes back to room temperature.
Pre-heat an oven or smoker at 250 degrees. Place the meat log directly on the grate, with a pan underneath to catch the dripping fat. Place a bowl of water in there as well, to keep the meat moist while it cooks. Cook for 4 1/2 hours, or until the interior temperature reaches 130 degrees. Let it rest an hour before slicing…if you can wait that long!