Braciole

 Growing up, Sundays around our house had a fairly predictable and comfortable routine.  We weren’t church folk…the combined result of a very mixed religious background and my father’s work schedule. 

Dad worked Monday through Saturday…including many evenings. Sundays truly were his “day of rest.”  As long as you could count visiting with family and catching up on house and garden chores “rest.”  

We’d get up and go through the Sunday papers…even as a kid, I would read at least the comics; get dressed and then head intoTrenton to visit my grandmother. 

We’d pick her up and run around to Palat’s Dairy on the corner of Cooper and Market Streets. 

“And for you,” Mrs. Palat would ask, peering over the counter that was taller than she was. 

Our order was pretty standard:  ¼ pound of lox and a ¼ pound of nova (less salty); some creamed herring and a nice, plump, golden scaled, smoked whitefish. The quantities might increase depending on whom and how many were expected to be at table that morning.

Palat’s was a wonder to me.  The aroma when you walked through the door was like nothing else on earth.  I would love to have the opportunity to breathe deeply of that salty, dusty, garlic air once more.

From there, we’d walk down the street to Kohn’s bakery and then on to Kunis’ to gather the fixings for breakfast. Bagels, “half moons” and some onion rolls from one bakery; maybe a nice loaf of pumpernickel too; then some fruit or cheese Danish and some sticky buns from the next. 

I love lox anyway and how I can get them.  But lox and eggs and a bagel on a Sunday morning; sitting at the table with extended family and friends.   Now that’s heaven on earth. 

¼ pound smoked salmon chopped fine

Melt the butter in a large frying pan and add the onion.  Cook over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent.  Add the salmon and stir.  Immediately pour the eggs into the pan, stirring to mix everything and evenly.  Reduce heat if necessary and continue to move the eggs around the pan until they are just cooked through but still moist.  Serve family style with good bagels, sweet butter and/or cream cheese.  Serves 4

Responding to the sound of pounding coming from the kitchen, I wandered from what ever it was I had been doing to see what all the noise was about.

At the kitchen table sat my father.  In front of him was a sheet of waxed paper upon which rested a thin slice of red meat.  I watched as he laid another sheet of waxed paper over the meat and proceeded to seemingly indiscriminately flail at it the rubber mallet he used when recovering chairs (a sometimes hobby of his).

I was fascinated and sat down to watch what he was doing.  He placed the nearly translucent piece of what I came to find out was beef on a plate with some others he’d already done and set up to attack a couple more.  I asked what he was doing.

“Making braciole,” was the answer.

Now I can’t remember what the occasion was, but it must have been some kind of special dinner or we were expecting special guests.  Something.

Braciole was not a common accompaniment to our meals and certainly I didn’t remember being around when Dad made them.  Hence my curiosity at the process.

I continued to study my father’s moves.  After pounding out the meat, he seasoned the pieces and then covered each with a filling he’d made up of cooked, crumbled bacon, hard-boiled egg, and breadcrumbs.  Then each piece was rolled up and painstakingly tied with heavy cotton thread.  After browning them in frying pan, the rolls of stuffed meat were plopped into the pot of sauce Mom had going on the stove; left to simmer away until dinner time.

Braciole, for those who don’t know, is the Italian version of rouladen.  Although there are many variations, the basic form is a piece of thinly sliced meat, pounded even thinner, rolled and tied around a savory filling and cooked.  I think the most common…and certainly the norm for the Carluccis…was top round steak.  This would be served along with or in place of the meatballs and sausage that accompanied ravioli or lasagna at a “company” or celebratory meal.

I don’t know if someone showed Dad how to make braciole or if he just figured it out from the experience of eating it.  That afternoon watching him was the only lesson I ever had in making them.  It was years after that I first gave it a try and I haven’t looked back.  It’s still something I reserve for special meals and one of my favorites is to make them to serve with polenta.  I kind of like the “fancy” nature of the braciole as a contrast to the humble presentation of polenta eaten right off of the board.

It’s not a particularly difficult process, just a little time-consuming but it adds a really nice touch to an Italian inspired meal.  The recipe below is based upon what I saw Dad do all those years ago but has evolved a little bit to reflect the ready availability of things like pancetta, pignoli and such.  Enjoy.

Brown off pancetta in a large skillet over medium heat.  Remove meat,reserving rendered fat.  You can set the pancetta on a piece of paper towel to absorb extra grease or just place in a mixing bowl.

In the reserved pork fat, cook the mushrooms over medium heat until tender and they’ve released all of their moisture.  Remove mushrooms from pan, leaving the fat, and add to the mixing bowl.

Toast the pignoli in a clean, dry skillet over medium high heat.  Watch them closely and keep shaking the pan so the nuts don’t burn.  When you can smell the fragrance of the toasting nuts, remove from heat and add to mixture in bowl.

Add the cheese, parsley, chopped egg, garlic, bread crumbs and some fresh ground black pepper.  Mix thoroughly and set aside.

Working between two sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper, take each slice of top round and pound it to a uniform thickness of approximately 1/8 of an inch. (NOTE: you can use a heavy skillet, pounding disk, or a rubber mallet as I still do.  Just be sure to strike the meat and draw the mallet towards the edges in one motion).  Repeat until each slice has been tenderized and stretched.

Take one of the pounded slices and lay it out on the counter or a cutting board.  Make sure it is flat.  Salt and pepper the top side.  Spread some of the filling mixture over the steak, leaving a small border (1/2 inch or so) all around.

Starting with one of the short ends, tightly roll the steak up, tucking in the sides to enclose the filling.  Using a piece of butcher string, tie the bundle snuggly.  Repeat for each piece of meat.

Once you’ve got all the braciole rolled and tied, reheat the pan with the pancetta drippings in it.  If needed, add a little olive oil to make sure there is enough fat and brown off the braciole on all sides (3 minutes or so a side). Don’t forget the ends! Use a pair of tongs to hold each roll on end for a couple of minutes. 

Once they are completely browned off, add to a simmering pot of your favorite tomato sauce and let cook on low for three hours.  Remove the strings before serving.

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