Braciole is an Italian dish that has always had a very soft spot in my heart. This is a dish of meat worthiness for those who aren’t aware. It’s a thin slice of top round, flank steak or even pork loin. It’s pounded flat to about a ¼ inch, seasoned and stuffed with a variety of ingredients, rolled and then securely tied or held together with toothpicks. It’s placed in a sauce and braised for hours until the meat is very tender. The sauce is a delicious concoction of tomatoes, aromatics, herbs and meaty wonderment.
An old friend introduced me to braciole a few years back. He came from an Italian family and every Sunday they would have family dinners that would last for hours. He would make tomato gravy (not sauce!) from a recipe that was handed down for generations in his family. This was the first time I heard of making a gravy (not sauce!) using meaty pork neck bones. I grew up in a family who didn’t make gravy. When my family made spaghetti sauce, it wasn’t nearly as complex or creative as Frank’s father’s gravy. And it certainly didn’t take all the simmering time necessary that Mr. Cicchetti put into making his gravy.
My first experience with braciole was like a scene out of a movie where the character bites into a piece of food, tears well up in his eyes, violin strings begin to play and a look of extreme food pleasure completely takes over his face. That was, and still is, braciole for me. In fact, Frank took me to the restaurant where I had my first piece of braciole. Several of us piled into my friend Fernando’s Volkswagen Beetle and headed west of Chicago to this Italian restaurant that was located in a strip mall. It was a very nondescript restaurant, nothing fancy. But you knew when you walked in the door that you were in for a meal that was going to be special. We ordered enough food to feed a third world country, and it was one of the most heavenly food comas I have ever experienced.
My next experience with braciole happened a few years later at a restaurant called “Lawrence of Oregano”. I was there practically once a week for their braciole. The restaurant closed a few years later and then it was what I thought, “farewell to braciole for me”.
It took several more years before I experienced braciole again. The next time was with another friend, whose name also happens to be Frank. He invited several of us over for a family-style Italian dinner. I had mentioned to him my love of braciole and how impossible it is to find on restaurant menus. I enjoyed a delicious braciole that evening.
My ultimate experiences with braciole are due to the genius touch and love that my friend Dan’s mother Vicki puts into every thing she cooks. Whenever Dan’s parents are in town visiting from Maine, his mom would cook this old school, family-style Italian dinner. If you’re of Italian heritage and talk to me about Italian food, I’m going to bring up braciole. I want to know if you can make it for me, if your mother or anyone in your family can make it for me or where is the best restaurant for me to find braciole. And that is how I was able to sit down at the dinner table at Dan and Steve’s with a big platter of pork and beef braciole placed in front of me.
As a tribute to the brilliant Italian cook who is Vicki Smith, I recently hosted a semi-potluck, old school, family-style, Italian dinner party at my place with some friends. It was going to be my first attempt at making gravy with pork neck bones and, of course, braciole. So this was finally going to be my chance to conquer my long held fear of making braciole.
When you talk to people who know and love braciole, they always mention their favorite type of stuffing that is placed inside the meat to be rolled. And the discussion usually always includes whether the braciole should be made using top round, flank steak or pork. That’s one of my favorite things about Braciole, all the varied ingredients to fill and stuff your chosen meat with.
For my braciole, I chose to use thin slices of top round steak. Being it was my first attempt at making braciole, I ended up having my butcher thinly slice the top round for me. I wanted to make this as simple as possible, and Paulina Meat Market can always lend a hand. If you’re going to prep the meat yourself, make sure to have a very sharp knife and a meat mallet on hand. Slice your top round into slices and with the meat mallet pound them until they’re about a ¼ of an inch and place each piece separately on a parchment lined sheet pan until you’re ready to stuff, roll and tie the bracioles.
Have your stuffing ingredients already prepped and ready to go. I used prosciutto, toasted pine nuts, minced garlic, parsley, fresh breadcrumbs, raisins soaked in Marsala wine and a combination of Parmesan Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses to stuff the bracioles with.
Here's what you need:
- 10 ¼ inch slices of top round beef or flank steak
- 10 slices of thinly sliced imported prosciutto, I prefer the imported, domestic can be a bit salty.
- ½ cup of toasted pine nuts
- ¼ cup of finely minced parsley
- 1 cup of breadcrumbs made from day old white bread with crusts removed
- ½ cup of golden raisins soaked in ¼ cup of good Marsala wine, or white wine if you prefer, and then drained
- ½ cup each of Parmesan Reggiano and Pecorino Romano cheeses
- Butchers twine or several tooth picks
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil for the stuffing
- 4 tablespoons of olive oil for frying
In a medium bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, pine nuts and drained raisins and two tablespoons of olive oil. Have ready another bowl of the parmesan and romano cheeses blended together. Have 30 pieces of butchers twine or 30 toothpicks ready to secure the rolled meat.
Assembly is as follows:
- Lengthwise lay your slice of top round on your work surface, smaller end facing you and season with a bit of salt and pepper.
- Top with a slice of prosciutto.
- On top of the prosciutto, in the center place a small sprinkling of the cheeses lengthwise on the piece of prosciutto.
- Spread a couple of tablespoons of the breadcrumb, raisin, parsley, olive oil and pine nut mixture.
- Sprinkle on a bit more of the cheese mixture.
- Gently fold in the lengthwise sides of the meat just a tiny bit, to hold in the stuffing mix.
- Have the smaller end of the meat facing you.
- Being very careful to keep any of the stuffing from falling out gently roll up the meat ending up with the seam side down.
- Tie and secure with 3 pieces of butchers twine or three toothpicks, placing each piece on a sheet pan.
Next is the searing:
- Using medium heat, pour the 4 tablespoons of olive oil into a large heavy bottomed skillet, making sure the oil is heated.
- Add the braciole, about 5 pieces at a time, being careful not to overcrowd the pan and drop the temperature. If the temperature of your pan drops too much, you won’t achieve a golden brown sear.
Place each piece of seared braciole on a paper towel lined sheet pan and then place in the sauce to simmer. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and simmer the bracioles for 3-4 hours until tender.
Before placing on a platter and serving, be sure to cut and remove the butchers’ twine or remove the toothpicks. Top with some of the remaining gravy and serve.
So, did I conquer my fear of making braciole? The answer is a huge thumbs-up. The guests loved it! The great thing about facing your cooking fears is making mistakes and learning from them, trying it again and then ultimately creating something pretty tasty and exceeding what you were hoping it would turn out to be.
Now that I have this dinner party behind me, it’s off to Haiti and then on to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for my annual month-long trip.
If you want to conquer your cooking fears, there's no better class to help you do that than The Chopping Block's Culinary Boot Camp. If a week-long class isn't an option for you, we're now offering the classes individually on weekends. Check out our new a la carte options to fit your schedule.