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.

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