It may not sound like the most intuititive dish but this homely recipe originating from Emilia-Romagna is one that should be part of your repertoire. It's not an elegant, dinner-party dish, but it is a comforting, homely dish, perfect for a family dinner or a night in – and the leftovers are even better.
It is a dish that should be rushed; give it time but also don't let it out of your sight – milk has a tendency to reach a point where it evaporates quite quickly.
Much like buttermilk chicken or yogurt marinades, cooking meat in milk gives you wonderfully tender results. The lactic acid present in milk tenderises the meat, making it juicy, sweet and also being a good vehicle to carry other flavours.
As the milk comfortingly bubbles away for hours, it begins to curdle, turning into a ricotta-like mass, becoming nutty and flavoursome after all the mingling with the onion, garlic and prosciutto.
All the classics of Italian cuisine include this dish and there are different ways to make this, with slightly different results. Pellegrino Artusi instructs to cook the milk until it boils away completely. Elizabeth David has the milk reduced until there is just “a small cupful of all the delicious little bits of bacon and onion.” David nominates coriander seed, majoram, basil or fennel, ground, as a rub to spice up the pork. Others may use bay leaf, sage or rosemary. A peeled zest of lemon rind commonly appears. Artusi doesn't even mention any herbs but keeps his simple: pork and milk accompanied by bread, grilled over a fire, to soak up the saucy bits. Marcella Hazan's Bologna style maiale al latte is as simple as Artusi's – no herbs, no garlic. As essential as you can get. She adds the milk bit by bit, allowing it to cook down each time to a nutty, caramel colour before adding more.
A must for cooking this dish is a heavy-bottomed cast iron pan or casserole pot for nicely even, slow cooking. Avoid nonstick pans. You just won't get the goodness that comes from the onion and ham browning on the bottom of the pan.
Traditional recipes use loin but shoulder – a relatively cheap cut – will result in a much more tender meat with this style of cooking.
This recipe is largely influenced by Elizabeth David's recipe from Italian Food (1954). —Emiko
(900 grams) of boneless pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt), without rind
(1 liter) whole milk
1 1/2 ounces
(40 grams) butter
1 1/2 ounces
(40 grams) prosciutto, chopped into small cubes
onion, finely diced
clove garlic, smashed
Salt and pepper
1 to 2
In This Recipe
Prepare the pork by trimming away any excess fat. Truss with kitchen string to help the meat retain a nice, rounded shape for even cooking. Rub with salt and pepper.
Heat the milk in a small saucepan until nearly boiling. Remove from heat.
In a heavy-based (preferably cast iron) casserole pot, melt the butter and gently saute the prosciutto, the onion and smashed garlic clove. Cook, stirring occasionally until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the pork shoulder and sear on all sides until nicely browned. Don't be alarmed if the onion and prosciutto begin getting sticky and dark on the bottom of the pan – the milk will deglaze the pan and it will also contribute to the wonderful flavour.
Once the pork is browned on all sides, add the hot milk and bay leaf.
Simmer for about 11/2-2 hours or until the meat is tender and the milk has not only reduced significantly but curdled and resembles flecks of ricotta. Test for tenderness by simply sticking a fork in the edge of the meat; it should come away easily. If not, continue cooking. If the milk is reducing too quickly, you can add more (heated). If it hasn't reduced enough but the meat is ready, remove the meat to a separate plate and reduce the sauce on its own.
Let the meat rest at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving with spoonfuls of the sauce. Leftovers are also excellent cold the next day, though the sauce does better when reheated a little. Serve with some sauteed greens or a crisp salad.
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.