The guests will be as calm as you are. There’s no easier way to deflate a party by being nervous, which of course makes it even harder to be relaxed. You set the tone, and if you’re unflappable, so your guests will be. Speaking of which…
On drinking: With moderation and good timing, a drink or two can take the edge off. Sip while you cook, to give yourself a head start, but then cut it off. You want the right level of alcohol to relax, but not so much that you become incompetent (or, god forbid, incontinent). When guests arrive, everything will be jolly. Give them something immediately to put in their hands to soften your lead. Then, before you get sloppy and turn into a lousy conversationalist, pull back the reins. Put another way: Drink early, but not often.
On toasting: Let’s bring it back. Toasts are a delicate alchemy. They require a strange combination of humor, sincerity and unspoken permission from your audience. They’re hard. Which is why people respect a good one. You have to make them laugh, steer a wide berth around cliches, and remain earnest. The formula: begin with something polite, transition to something clever, and end with something true. Best bet is one you’ve spent enough time preparing that it seems effortless. But really, all that’s required is a simple and genuine thanks for showing up.
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers*
- 1 3-pound boneless pork shoulder roast
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon capers, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest (no white pith), from 3-4 lemons
- 3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 12 fresh sage leaves, crushed and coarsely chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves stripped and chopped
- 2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 bulbs fennel
- 1/4 cup dry vermouth
- 5 cups water
- 1 cup polenta or cornmeal
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
*Possibly one of the best cookbooks in the world to learn from. Highest recommendation.
While the pork roasts, bring the water to boil in a large saucepan, then pour in the polenta in a slow stream while whisking to prevent clumping. Once it’s all added, add the salt and reduce heat to low, stirring often as it thickens and the cornmeal becomes creamy, 25-30 minutes. If it appears too dry and the cornmeal is not yet soft, add more water and continue cooking; you can always cook it longer to evaporate any excess water. Once soft, turn off the heat until ready to serve. To finish, reheat and stir in butter and Parmesan.
Meanwhile, halve the fennel lengthwise and cut out the core. Put the halves cut-side down and slice thinly crosswise. Toss with enough olive oil and salt to coat it nicely.
Once the pork has been in an hour, use tongs to flip it over and tuck the sliced fennel into the roasting pan around the porchetta, tossing it well in the roasting juices. Return the roast to the oven and continue cooking for another 1 to 1 1/2 hours, to an internal temperature of 145º F.
Remove the pork to a cutting board and keep it loosely covered in foil while it rests for at least 10 minutes (the meat will reabsorb the juices, ensuring it’s as moist as possible). Put the roasting pan on the stovetop (with the fennel still in it), pour or spoon off any excess fat, and turn the heat to high. Add the vermouth to the pan, using the liquid to scrape up any caramelized bits left from the pork in the roasting pan. Cook, stirring often, until the fennel is soft and caramelized and the vermouth has mostly evaporated.
Slice the pork and serve with the polenta, along with some of the caramelized fennel and rich pan juices. Finish with some of the fennel fronds that (ideally) came attached to the fennel bulb. Serve.