Braciole, Involtini, Rouladen: A Delicious Dish of Many Names
Braciole! Just the word activates my Pavlovian reflexes as I start to drool. I've had beef dishes all over the world, all the greats like Chateaubriand, Wellington, au Poivre, Stroganoff, Delmonico, and often in Michelin-starred establishments. However, there is nothing that compares to a Southern Mainland Italian braciola!
It's important to specify "Southern Mainland." Depending on where you ask for a braciola, you will receive something very different. In the far north, you'll get a barbecued cutlet with the bone attached while in Sicily you'll get tiny bite-sized beef rolls on a skewer!
In Northern Italy, you'll find a similar recipe called involtini, and in Germany, they'll call it rouladen. But in this case, we're talking about the one and only real braciola: a slice of prime, lean beef, pounded to within an inch of its life, filled with the most delectable mixture on Earth, rolled then browned to seal in all the goodness, and then dropped into a big vat of sauce to simmer all day long.
I have to balance myself on my chair now as I almost fell over at the thought of them.
There are some heretics who substitute beef for:
- Veal (where's the flavor?)
- Pork (ends up tasting like a messy sausage)
- Chicken (after a day simmering in the sauce, the chicken turns to limp shreds)
- Swordfish, Wild Boar, Horse (you've gotta be kiddin', right?)
There is only one meat for the real braciole, and it's a very lean cutlet of beef tenderized by a few thousand smashes from a heavy meat pounder. Heaven!
The greatness of the braciole lies in its fillings. You'll find all sorts of people recommending that you put all sorts of incoherent junk inside your braciole. Disregard them. You should feel indeed honoured as I'm about to share my Mamma's (and her Mamma's and her Mamma's) secret filling for the ultimate braciole. Ingredients are based on six braciole and 100g equals 3 ounces.
- 100g pine nuts (make sure they're sweet and plump, not dry and acrid)
- 100g dark seedless small raisins (never the golden ones)
- 100g mozzarella (not di Bufala, but a good quality pizza cheese)
- 100g San Daniele prosciutto (beware of cheaper kinds as they're often too salty)
- 100g bread crumbs (make them from day-old bread or get them from a bakery, don't buy the stale powder junk from the store)
- Chopped parsley, salt, and pepper
You can either go rustic or urban with your braciole filling. Rustic takes the ingredients and stuffs them into the braciole as is. Urban puts the filling ingredients through a food processor until they're the consistency of a chunky pesto. I'm a rustic man myself, but I won't turn down an urban braciola either!
1) Apply your filling to one side of the pounded beef cutlet, roll it up very tightly and now secure it.
2) There are three ways to keep your braciola well-rolled.
- Tying as shown (make sure to remove the string prior to serving).
- Fastening with toothpicks (you always end up leaving one in and having your favorite guest stab his tongue with it).
- The Master Chef Tieless Tie: Once you've rolled up your braciola so tight that it's as hard as a rock, very quickly roll them in hot oil. You're not trying to cook them, but just to brown the outside very fast so that the outside of the braciola "sets" and maintains its shape during the long cooking process ahead. This takes skill and experience, but when it's done well, it's incredible!
3) Regardless of how you've secured them, you want to brown them in a very tiny bit of oil until they are golden to dark brown all around (don't forget the ends). At this point, you're ready to fully cover them in a big pot of sauce that you intend to keep simmering for at least the next 4 hours, and 8 is better yet!
Yes, you can go with a conventional pasta sauce, but if you want to experience the ultimate braciola that will immediately make you an evangelistic convert to The Church Of Braciolism, put your scrumptious beef rolls into Neapolitan Genovese sauce (See my "The Greatest Pasta Sauce You've Never Tasted"). Once the sauce has simmered all day and taken on the flavour of the dark caramelized onions and oozing braciole fillings, you will be a braciolist for life!