Saturday, September 24, 2016

Braciole - An Italian Feast

When you want to impress with an Italian feast, braciole are certainly the way to go. They take some effort and show off your cooking skills to those attending your big Italian dinner.

Julian's Braciole with Sausage
What are known as braciole in the United States are called involtini in Italy. There the dish is usually served as a second course. When cooked in tomato sauce, the flavorful sauce is used to dress the pasta for the first course, giving a consistent taste to the whole meal. In Sicilian this dish is also called bruciuluni and farsumagru; the former is an older name used among Sicilian-Americans in Kansas City and New Orleans, and the latter term is Italianized as falsomagro. Whatever you call them, these are meat (usually beef) pounded thin and layered with a stuffing of prosciutto, bread, cooked eggs, raisins, pine nuts and cheese, then rolled, browned and simmered in a hearty tomato ragu.

Sliced Open to Show Interior after Cooking
I think this dish makes an excellent family style feast. My Italian mother didn't make it much, but my aunt Mary did. Then one of my work colleagues invited me to her Italian mother's for dinner, and she too served barciole. Mama Scalaro made an excellent braciola and today I'm sharing the recipe from Lidia Bastianich of Public TV fame. This is largely her recipe although I may have made some minor variations over the years.

Beef selection: Here in the States you most often find barciole made with bottom round of beef, although other cuts can be used. Bottom round has a good beefy flavor and is somewhat more tough, so it will hold up well to the long simmer and be both tender and flavorful when done.

I show you the above photo of a cross section of beef (a round steak) so you have a better understanding of the beef you are selecting. Your butcher's case may have only top round or eye of beef round. These cuts work in this dish as well. The most important thing is to get a large piece of meat sliced for you by the butcher that are as rectangular as possible. The slices of beef should measure about 4-6 inches long before pounding. To obtain pieces of the right size, look for and then ask your butcher to cut, 1/2-inch-thick slices from a whole piece of round 4-6 inches long.

Keep in mind it is some work to do the pounding. This is a tough piece of meat when raw and it needs a good pounding to both tenderize and to flatten it further and make it more ideal for rolling. You are taking a 1/2 inch thick piece of meat and placing it on a pounding surface (I use a large wood board) and pounding it out to 1/4 inch thickness. Your arm muscles will get a work out.

Stuffing Ingredients
1 1/2 cups milk
2 cups bread cubes (1/2-inch)
         cut from day-old bread with crusts removed
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raisins (brown not golden)
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
2 garlic clove, chopped fine
3-4 pounds beef bottom round, cut into slices, each about 1/2 inch thick
12 slices Prosciutto (about 6 ounces)
1/4 pounds provolone cheese, cut into 1/4 x 1/4 inch sticks
Freshly ground pepper

Sauce: You'll need a large onion and two cloves of garlic, some white/red wine and tomato sauce and seasonings or other ingredients like crushed tomatoes or mushrooms, or whatever you prefer for classic pasta sauce.

Stuffed and ready to roll.
Pour the milk into a medium bowl, add the bread cubes and let soak until the bread is very soft, about 20 minutes. While it softens prepare the ingredients by doing the chopping and grating as noted above. Quickly toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet until golden. Squeeze out excess milk from the bread with your hands and return the bread to a medium sized bowl. Stir in the chopped eggs, parsley, Parmesan cheese, raisins, pine nuts and garlic. Mix well and set aside.

With the toothed side of a heavy meat mallet, pound each slice of beef round to a thickness of about 1/4 inch. If pieces are very large after pounding and could be made into two rolls, cut them in half. Arrange one of the pounded meat slices in front of you with one of the short sides closest to you. Top with a slice of prosciutto and press into place.

Spread stuffing over the prosciutto, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Place a stick of provolone crosswise over the edge of the stuffing closest to you. Fold the border closest to you over the provolone, and roll as tightly as possible without squeezing out the stuffing. Secure the end flap with a toothpick or tie with butchers twine. A toothpick is quicker now, but harder to find and remove after cooking. I prefer the butcher's twine for this reason. Proceed to finish all, then season the rolls with salt and pepper.

Toothpick vs. Butcher's Twine
Leave a toothpick "handle" for easier removal.
Heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook 2-3 pieces of the braciole on all sides until browned. Set aside to a plate as they finish and continue until all are pieces have been browned. Brown any sausage or meatballs you may also be including and remove to the meat with the braciole.

Sauce: Add the chopped onions to the drippings and brown bits and cook for 3-4 minutes.  Add a clove or two of crushed garlic and stir for another minute or two. Deglaze with a little white or red wine scraping up the brown bits, and add your tomatoes, sauce and seasonings to make the pasta sauce. Make a sufficient quantity to cover the meat. Heat until the pasta sauce is simmering. Add the browned meat(s) to the sauce.

Simmer for 3-4 hours, adding a little water to the sauce if needed during cooking to maintain volume. The meat must remain submerged during cooking and you'll want enough of the flavorful sauce to dress your pasta.

Remove the braciole from the sauce and remove toothpicks/twine. Mound the meat(s) on a platter and cover to keep warm as you prepare your pasta. Sauce the pasta and serve both dishes family style.

The braciole can be prepared up to 2 days in advance, then reheated over low heat until heated through. If you plan to freeze braciole, this should be done before cooking, then thaw and brown as noted above.

Browned and ready for the long simmer in pasta sauce.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Comforting Chicken and Noodles - An Amish Country Favorite

This slow cooker recipe has been going around the internet quite a bit lately so I decided I'd give it a try. Thick country style noodles with chicken in a creamy sauce are popular in the region where I grew up near Amish country. So this easy-to-prepare dish looked particularly comforting and delicious to me.

Julian's Chicken and Noodles
However, upon trying the original recipe I thought it lacked flavor, and as such modified it to improve it's overall flavor and appearance. The original recipe seem to be created to make it the least possible work. While my version is still very easy and quick to prepare, it does require cutting up a few vegetables. You could replace those we frozen, but they won't add as much flavor as fresh.

I noted several people are serving this over mashed potatoes, which is also an Amish country favorite. But all that starch really isn't necessary as the noodles are plenty starchy enough on their own. I served the dish with a side of fresh green beans.

In the slow cooker ready to serve.
I also tried preparing it with and without the stick of butter. It really isn't necessary as it adds only a little improved flavor while upping the calories from fat quite substantially. So feel free to omit if you are trying to eat more healthy.

2-12 ounce packages of Reames Homestyle Egg Noodles
I purchased Reams frozen eggs noddles for this dish as they are more thick and similar to what you often find hand-made by the Amish. You can substitute dry noodles if that is all you can find. If you substitute dry noodles, the final cooking time will be longer.

Click to Enlarge

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 carrots, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 can mushrooms or fresh, sliced (optional)
2 cans cream of chicken or chicken/mushroom soup
32 ounces chicken broth
1 8 ounce stick of butter, sliced (optional)
24 ounces frozen egg noodles
Water as needed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chop the carrots and onion. In slow cooker (Crockpot) put chicken on bottom. Add the carrots, onions and optional mushrooms. In a bowl, whisk together the canned soup and broth. Pour the mixture over the chicken and vegetables. Top that with the optional butter. Put the slow cooker on low and let cook for 6 hours covered.

Remove the chicken pieces and shred with a fork. Add back to the slow cooker. Stir in the frozen noodles. Cook for 1 more hours stirring after 30 minutes. Add some extra water as needed to maintain consistency if you are going to hold them for a while, as continued cooking will dry them out. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Beans and Greens with Optional Sausage

This low carb comfort dish is great if you have vegetarians in the house, and if you have carnivores you can add the optional sausage. In fact, it's easy to split the ingredients and add the sausage at the end if you have both types in your home. Whichever dish they choose, they will find a flavorful nutritious meal. I like to serve it with crusty toasted bread to deep in the flavorful sauce.

Julian's Beans and Greens with Sausage
If you are using the sausage then I prefer Polish kielbasa. But any good turkey or chicken sausage will work great too. I just figure I could have the vegetarian version, but if I'm going to live dangerously and have the meat, I might as well have the kielbasa. It tastes yummy!

In this recipe I'm using canned beans, because I happen to have them in the house. I rarely buy canned beans, but since they are here I will use them in this dish. Normally I would use dry beans. If you want to use dry white beans, they must be soaked first. To do this place the beans in a stock pot dry. Bring a tea kettle or pot of water to boil and pour over the beans. Put the lid on and soak them over night. In the morning, rinse the beans and they will be ready for use when you need them.

Also please note that the recipe is not fussy. You can use more or less of anything here and it will still be a delicious dinner, which for some reason I love to make and serve on a damp or cool evening. I didn't have carrots on hand today, so I tossed in some chopped green and red pepper. I also had some leftover mushrooms, so those went in too.

3/4 to 1 pound sausage (optional)
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 medium onion, diced
1-2 stalks of celery, roughly chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup white white or dry sherry (optional)
2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups Cannellini or other white beans, canned
1 large tomato diced (substitute one can)
1 small bunch of spinach leaves or kale (stems removed)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cut the sausage into bite sized or slightly larger pieces. Place a large pot or Dutch Oven over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Add the sausage and brown slightly on all sides. Add the onion and stir to deglaze the bottom of the pot as the onions cook, 2-3 minutes. Add the carrots and celery and cook an additional 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and stir to combine for another minute. Sprinkle the flour over and stir to combine. Cook another minute stirring regularly. Add the white wine and simmer for 2 minutes scraping up any items stuck to the pot.

Add the stock to the pot and stir to combine. Place on medium high heat and bring to a simmer. Add the oregano, beans and tomatoes and stir. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cook for 30-60 minutes uncovered. Taste to ensure the beans are cooked to your preferred tenderness. Once beans are tender and the flavors will combined, add in the spinach or kale and stir in. Cook just until the leaves are wilted, another 2-4 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper to taste and serve.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake

Nothing says home like freshly baked coffee cake. Every good cook should have a great coffee cake recipe on hand that you make several times a year, particularly when you are expecting guests. This cake has a filling layer of cinnamon and pecans which makes it extra special and always a hit with friends and family.

Julian's Classic Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake
This was originally a Martha Stewart recipe which I think is still pretty true to the original. I added egg yolks to increase moisture. In the photos shown here I've also reduced the amount of streusel topping as I don't like it piled quite so high. But I make the entire batch and reserve the excess to use on other baked goods. It holds well in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Also the glaze drizzle is optional and I rarely use it.

A nice cinnamon nut later in the center.
I'm using my round spring form pan with the tube insert. I like this cake pan because it bakes the dense cake more evenly. In other words it bakes from the center and outside at the same rate ensuring the cake's evenly baked without being overdone near the edges. With that said, it is tricky to get out of the pan, as this type of pan is designed for a cake with no topping. Normally you would turn it out upside down. Or with the flat insert (no tube) you would open the side, remove the outer ring and slide the cake off the bottom plate. But with the tube in the center that isn't possible with my pan. So after cooking, I carefully lift it off the base and ring.

Cutting in the butter to create the streusel.

Topping and Center
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped pecans

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
food release or butter for the cake pan
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large whole eggs, plus 2 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream

1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons whole milk


Make the streusel topping: Mix together 1 3/4 cups flour, only 3/4 cups of the brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon of the cinnamon, and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cut in butter using a pastry cutter or use a food processor to pulse until small to medium clumps form. Mix in 1/2 cup pecans. Note this is not the full amount you have chopped. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Make the streusel center: Mix together remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1 cup pecans.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Make the cake batter: Spray or butter a 10-inch spring form tube pan (removable bottom, open center). Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt into a bowl.  Beat butter and granulated sugar with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in eggs, 1 at a time, then vanilla. Beat in flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with sour cream, beginning and ending with flour. Continue to beat until well combined.

Spoon half the batter into pan. Sprinkle streusel center mixture evenly over batter. Top with remaining batter, and spread carefully to cover the streusel. Sprinkle streusel topping mixture evenly over batter until fully covered.

Bake until cake is golden brown and a pick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45-55 minutes. Check frequently to ensure it does not over bake. Transfer pan to a wire rack, and let cool 15-20 minutes. Open the spring form pan and lift out the cake. Let the cake continue to cool on a wire rack with the bottom piece/tube in place. When room temperature, carefully lift the cake off the base and center tube and transfer to your serving platter or cake saver.

Make the optional glaze: Mix together confectioners' sugar and milk, adding milk a little a time until you get the correct consistency. This should be thin enough to drizzle over with a spoon but thick enough not to run down and off the cake. Let set for 15 minutes before serving.