There is a tradition in Italian homes of the big Sunday "dinner," which is really more of a slightly late lunch. We would sit down, usually sometime between 12 and 1, and have a HUGE meal. There were elements of it that changed. Sometimes we'd have a leg of lamb, or sometimes roast beef. Sometimes there would be chicken, roasted with breadcrumbs and lemon (always my favorite), and then there would be salad of some kind, usually involving the leftover vegetables from the week, "refrigerator pickled" and then fruit for dessert. We didn't usually have a fancy Sunday dessert. Perhaps a cannoli from the bakery on the way home from church, but that was unusual.
The constant for all of those dinners, was pasta with what everyone called "Sunday sauce."
Every Italian has a soft spot in his or her heart for those tomato based sauces that were used on just about anything and everything During the week, we would have pasta several times, always served with red sauce and cheese. I still love a plate of that good stuff. But on Sunday, the sauce was augmented with meat: LOTS of it. There were always meatballs, and sausages. Nana would add things if she had them. I remember the occasional pork chop (my stepfather always got that one), or a breast of chicken (Mom's favorite). But there were always braciole. And that was MINE.
Braciole is another one of those dishes where, if you ask ten cooks how to make it, you'll get ten recipes. There ARE some constants. Braciole is a "meat roll", but what kind of meat? I know it with beef, but I know people who have had it, and swear by it, with pork, or veal. What CUT of meat? I know it from round steak or flank steak, but others say shoulder, or some other cut. (It DOES seem that the weight of majority falls on round steak though). The meat was always sliced, or pounded thin, filled with something and then rolled, tied and cooked. What kind of filling? Oh, heavens, there were so many things. I have seen it with prosciutto wrapped in it, and also either whole, or sliced eggs. Grated cheese, always, but what kind? Parmesan or pecorino, or something else. Parsley? Sometimes. Bread crumbs? Yes and no. Raisins or currants? Yes and no. Pine nuts? Yes and no.
Then there is the question of how to cook the meat. Nana would put her bracioles directly into the sauce and cook them that way. I like to fry mine before hand, and then add them to the gravy (which is what we all called that red sauce that was ALWAYS in the house), but I will admit that Nana's version was SO good (someday, someone is going to write a paper on the psychology of having food cooked for you. It always tastes better, and to this day, when I eat a braciole, either of my own making or in a restaurant, if I'm lucky, I find myself thinking back to those wonderful ones that Nana made).
I find myself thinking about braciole because my friend James asked me about them a week ago. And I realized I haven't made them in years. But it's one of those things like riding a bike, I guess, if you know how (I don't): you don't forget. I think I could make braciole in my sleep, because I used to make it a lot. Nana used to let me help her do it, and it was so much fun. Her hands were so much more experienced than mine and she would get four done to every one that I did. Now, when I'm working with a cooking novice and watch my own hands move quickly while they move along tentatively, I recall my wonderful Nana's patience and how much I learned from her without knowing it. So it's time to revive these wonderful "beef rolls" as you'll see them referred to.
The key thing to making a good braciole is getting the meat cut thin enough. If you have a good butcher, and you tell him or her that you want to make braciole, they will know exactly what to do. If they don't, go to another butcher, or learn to get the meat ready on your own.
You are going to need thin slices of beef. If all you can get is a BIG round steak, or a flank steak, what you'll need to do is cut pieces, wrap them in plastic wrap, and pound them to thinness with a meat pounder of some kind. I have actually found that minute steaks, or as they now call them, "sandwich steaks" have the right thickness and flavor for bracioles. I'll be using those.
I use Nana's filling, with a simple modification. I add pine nuts. I think that if Nana could afford them on her budget, she would have used them. She liked pine nuts. What you do is make a filling of a half cup of dry flavored bread crumbs (remember. This is down home Italian American cooking), a half cup of grated pecorino cheese (you could use parmesan if you like), and then a few tablespoons of chopped parsley (you could leave this out, or use a different herb). You also need about three or four tablespoons of plump raisins (soak them in water if they're dried out. Some people, especially Sicilians, use dried currants. By the way, did you know that dried currants are not dried currants? They are dried grapes. Ain't that interesting?). Finally, a couple of tablespoons of pine nuts. You may want to add some salt to this and some pepper.
I don't use an egg, but if you want to, what you want to do is use a half of a hard boiled egg for a smaller braciole, a whole one for a bigger one. What you do is take the slices of meat, and spread a few tablespoons of the mixed filling onto the meat. Then, starting at an end, roll it. If you use the egg, put the egg on top of the filling. Roll the meat to the end. Then, tie it at several points. There's a fancy technique that I've seen professional chefs use to do this, but I don't know how to do it. Sometimes, Nana would use tooth picks. How she kept them from coming out in the cooking process, I don't know. It was part of her magic.
After you have them all rolled up and tied, either drop them just as they are into a pot of hot tomato sauce (with meatballs and sausages in the sauce), OR, panfry them in olive oil until you get a brown coating, and then add that to the sauce.
Let this simmer away for a good hour and a half, or longer. The sauce should barely break a bubble as it cooks. The braciole will get very tender in the cooking. A knife should go through it very easily when it's done.
Traditionally, you take the bracioles out of the sauce and snip off the strings before you serve them. To me, chewing on those strings was always something I loved doing. But that's an idionsyncracy. You can also slice the bracioles into slices before you serve them. But again, for me, the fun of that first cut in the rolled braciole is something I would not want to give up.
"Formal" service says take the meat out of the sauce, eat the pasta with the sauce, and then serve the meat. We always ate them as one plate. And the pasta was always ziti or rigatoni or something like that.
Nor will I give up the memory of walking into the kitchen, my hands in my pocket, and not saying anything as Nana was cooking. She knew. Out came a small plate a spoon went into the sauce, and I got a braciole before Sunday dinner was served. And then another one with the dinner. I can visualize those moments now, as if it happened yesterday.
I will never love anyone the way my Nana loved me, but there are an awful lot of people I love dearly. I think it's time for a nice pot of Sunday sauce. With bracioles. And if one of you slip into the kitchen while I'm prepping, with the puppy dog eyes that I used to give my Nana, you may very well get an extra one yourself.