martedì 27 agosto 2013

Braciole, Southern Italian style beef roulades

On Sundays, my grandmother made a big tomato sauce, a.k.a. sugo.  And in every sugo she put meatballs, a rack of pork ribs, and a big hunk of sirloin.  Sometimes she also put sausages.

The Christmas sugo and the Easter sugo followed the same recipe as every Sunday, with only one difference: the addition of the braciole. 

I couldn't understand why so many recipes for Neapolitan braciole were almost identical to that of my Sicilian grandmother.  I did a little research.  I discovered that the invention of braciole is attributed to the Cavalier Signor Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duca di Buonvicino.  The Duke was the author of a very important cookbook, Cucina Teorico-Pratica. And the moment that I saw the year of the book's publication  — 1837 — I immediately understood.  It falls neatly within the years of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (1816-1861), when southern Italy was under Bourbon, therefore French, rule.

That very era spawned the cuisine of the monsù. The word “monsù” (also written “monzù”) is a corruption of monsieur. It refers to the chefs of this era, like the good Duke, who were influenced by French cuisine.  And many recipes of the monsù were very similar in the Kingdom of the Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily.  (A very good example is the sartù di riso, a type of timballo only with rice instead of pasta.)

Who knew that this recipe by my humble grandparents was such a noble dish! 

My grandmother was a creature of habit.  She rarely experimented or improvised in the kitchen; she repeated the same recipes and procedures every year.  Braciole were no exception.  She always used thin steaks from the top round. (Even though they're thin, you still have to beat them with a meat pounder and wax paper.)
The steaks, before pounding.

My grandmother's fillings were always the same:
  • slices of prosciutto or ham
  • slices of salame or soppressata
  • slices of mild provolone
  • fresh parsley
  • freshly grated pecorino (My grandmother never used parmigiano.  Parmesan was not part of the cuisine of the Southern Italian farmers of the olden days.)
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • raisins (Certain recipes say to soak them in water first.)
  • pine nuts (I prefer pistachios, which are less expensive, more delicious, and more Sicilian! Even though ours are from California, they are excellent.  You could halve them if you want; all you need is 6 or 12 of them.)
  • some homemade breadcrumbs (not shown)*
  • one oil-cured black olive (In my grandmother's fridge, she always had a jar of these wrinkly olives.  She would put one of them in certain dishes, e.g., her pizza (Sicilian-style, with a thick crust), or her "spinach pizza" which was actually a calzone of spinach, ground beef, and a few cold cuts for flavor.  I would say to experiment with other olives; either kalamata or the big green Sicilian olives would be perfect.  But I say this hesistantly, for these oil-cured olives were for my grandmother something of a trademark.)
* = Addendum (September 2016): Last month I was going through a file of old, yellowed recipes. I found a slip of paper on which I'd taken down my grandmother's recipe for braciole. I had no recollection that she and I ever discussed it. True to form, there was more detail about how to fasten the braciole than there was about how to cook them! (She was a seamstress!) Fortunately, in this blog post (which I wrote from memory), I remembered everything, except for one single ingredient: she added a little bit of breadcrumbs. Certainly a Sicilian touch. However, if you add them, be sure to dampen them a little with oil, milk, or water.

Here I will confess that sometimes I found my grandmother's braciole a little dry.  I saw a recipe that suggests to spread a little lard or olive oil on the meat.  I got the idea to make a paste.  I often have homemade lard in my fridge, but today I didn't.  And in the garden I didn't have much parsley, but I had a good amount of thyme.  Thyme being a wonderful complement to beef, I chose that.  Therefore, in the food processor I put olive oil, thyme, pecorino, black pepper, and I added a garlic clove. A paste like this does wonders in many types of roulades.


However, here I made a little mistake.  I decided to add also the pistachios to the food processor.  The paste was fantastic and very interesting.  But at the end, when I ate the finished braciole, I couldn't sink my teeth into the pistachios, which make an important contrast to the sweet raisins.

So, how do we bind the braciole? In my memory, my grandmother used only steel pins.  However, my mother says that before, my grandmother used to use kitchen string.  I don't know why she changed methods.

The next step is to brown the braciole.  In her biggest frying pan, my grandmother put olive oil, sliced onion, salt, and pepper. (You wouldn't put garlic if there is already some in the braciole.) In this pan, she browned, in turn, not only the braciole, but all the meats that were going into the sugo.  The big hunk of sirloin ... the rack of pork ribs ... the sausages if she was using them (but sometimes she put them raw into the sugo) .... and the famous meatballs ...

Now, how do we deglaze this pan, which now contains all the flavors of Heaven?

My grandmother never put either wine or broth in her sugo.  To deglaze this pan, she put one 6-oz. can of tomato paste and two can's-full of water.  This tasty sughetto ("little sauce") went into the big pot which already contained the rest of the sugo.

(A short digression on meatballs.  To put garlic, or not to put garlic?  If we put raw garlic, it's too strong.  If we don't put any garlic, a little something is missing.  What did my grandparents do?  Many a time did I witness this procedure.  They kept their slices of stale bread in the cold oven.  After a couple of days they got very hard. My grandfather took a garlic clove in his fingers and physically scraped it into the hard bread. Then, he put this very fragrant bread into the hand-held grater — the type that they use today for parmesan, except that in those days the graters were all steel.  This is how they made homemade breadcrumbs that then went into the meatballs. Just imagine the aroma!)

In total, Grandma's sugo cooked for several hours.  The already-browned meatballs went in only 30 minutes before the end.  The other meats each had their own cooking time.  The braciole she put in an hour before the end.  (And by the way, she put in the basil only 5 minutes before the end!)
At this point, I must stray from Grandma's kitchen, for she never made braciole separate from the big sugo.

You will definitely have opportunity to make only the braciole, without a big sugo.  In fact, the original, 19th-century braciole were like that, with their own sughetto. 

After browning the braciole, deglaze the pan.  I used just water. Red wine would be delicious, especially if you use Nero d'Avola or Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio.  For goodness sake, please don't use Chianti or another wine that clashes with Southern Italian food. (Ironically, two wines of the extreme North concord beautifully with a red sauce: the bold Barbera and the docile Dolcetta d'Alba.)

If you don't use wine, you could use homemade beef or pork stock.  But water works perfectly well.  And the braciole already contain a complex array of flavors. Don't hesitate to use simple water, like I used.

Into the deglazed pan, put peeled tomatoes that you've already puréed in the blender. (Don't use canned tomato purée or tomato paste.) Add a little salt and pepper, but never add sugar to a sugo.  Grandma used raisins and a piece of carrot.  You would do well to add a third ingredient: a few sun-dried tomatoes.  (I never saw them in my grandmother's kitchen, but she spoke nostalgically about sun-dried tomatoes, which figured prominently in her mother's cooking. It's not like they could afford much meat!  That was one advantage of marrying my grandfather, a butcher!)

Cook the sughetto slowly for one hour.  During the cooking, you can add a little water as necessary. But you never add wine or broth after the initial deglazing. You don't want to overwhelm the flavor of the tomatoes.

I never took the braciole out of the pan, even during the deglazing; I cooked them a half hour per side.  If you want to cook them less, you can brown the braciole, take them out of the pan, deglaze the pan, cook the sughetto for 30 minutes, then put the braciole back into the pan and cook them 15 minutes per side.  The total cooking time in still 60 minutes.

You can see that I was so anxious to cut one open that I didn't bother to cut the string off first! If you refrigerate the leftovers and gently reheat them the next day, they cut cleanly and beautifully. But why would you have leftovers?

Like other recipes of the monsù (e.g., Agglassato), this sughetto makes for a phenomenal sauce to put on pasta. This way, you can make the first course and second course simultaneously. That's just what I did, choosing campanelle as the pasta.  In my opinion, campanelle are the perfect pasta for this sughetto; I can't give you a logical reason why.

This recipe first appeared as part of "Our Grandmother's Recipes."

2 commenti:

  1. These looks particularly appetizing, Leonardo! Angelina put braciole in her ragù as well, but the filling was much simpler: garlic, parsley and cheese, not much else. I'll need to try these 'fancy' ones real soon, it's been far too long since I've made a real Sunday sauce.

    And yes, Cavalcanti is essential reading. Too bad I've never been able to find a copy in print! My exposure to him is mostly through Francesconi, who includes many of his recipes in her own modern classic. There is, on the other hand, a virtual version you can find at the Accademmia Barilla web site...

    1. Frank, I don't deserve your compliments. You are the superior chef in every way. I do recommend these "extra-filled" braciole, in any case. They are harder to close neatly. (You can see the trouble I had in the photos above!) But trial and error solves that. And, so what if they don't close well? A little flavor from the fillings enhances the sughetto! Regarding Cavalcanti, I have a complete PDF, and I have been thinking seriously of doing a series of Cavalcanti recipes. Maybe I'll name December "Mese Cavalcantesco" (Cavalcantese? Cavalcantiano?) and spend the month recreating la Cucina dei Monzù. In any event, thank you again for your encouragement!