In past times in the “Old Country”, meat was not eaten as regularly as it is today, given scarcity and lack of ability to keep it fresh. When it was served, it was critical to serve it properly, maximizing the flavor and using it creatively. That’s where the recipe we share with you today, braciola, found it’s roots. Braciola means “slices of meat” (with the plural braciole often used as well), and originate in southern Italy, particularly Sicily, which is where my family comes from. My family brought this recipe over from “the Old Country” when they came to the United States, and it continues to play a central role in the cuisine in my family.
Braciola can be cooked with a variety of meats (for example, pork or chicken), but is traditionally cooked with beef, and in tomato sauce. It can be served as a main dish or a side dish. Typically, I cook it with a tomato sauce that I am making, including meatballs, porkchops, sausages and other meats (see Episode 1: Classic Tomato Sauce and Meatballs). I prepare and cook the braciole seperately, and let it cook in the sauce with the other meats for about 2 hours. Once finished, I serve it with pasta and the other meats. Otherwise, braciole makes a great meal into itself.
Ingredients for the braciola
You will need the following ingredients to make enough braciola to serve 3-4 people: 4 cuts of butterflied top round beef, 3 hard boiled eggs, 4-5 inner, tender stalks of celery, 1/2 cup of pine nuts, 3 cloves of diced garlic, 1 small white onion diced up, 1/2 cup of grated percorino romano cheese, 2 tablespoons of salt, and a 1/4 cup of olive oil. You will also need toothpicks and butcher’s string to tie the meat. Finally, you will also need to prepare your tomato sauce (see Episode 1).
Getting the right cut of meat
Braciola is made with the leanest cut of beef from the top round. You will need to ask your local butcher to cut the meat properly for you. Ask for a thin, lean cut of top round beef, and have the butcher butterfly it for you. Butterflying the meat will make it thin enough and wide enough for you to make braciola. If the butcher looks at you like you have 3 heads, go find another butcher. A good, quality butcher will understand what it means to cut the meat the way you are asking. When one of my sons picks up the meat for me, they tell the butcher that they need it cut properly or their old Italian mother will crucify them. That usually gets the butcher to cut it properly 🙂
Preparing the braciola
Once you get the proper cut of meat, you are ready to begin. Braciola is simple to make (as are most of the recipes I share with you), and will take about 15 minutes to prepare. You will need to cook it in your sauce for about 2 hours after the initial preparation.
To make 4 braciole, you will need 4 cuts of meat. Take the meat and lay it flat on a dish. Slice up the inner, tender celery stalks and spread them evenly on the meat. Do the same with the hard boiled eggs, spreading them out across the meats. Take the pine nuts and sprinkle them on the meats evenly, along with the diced garlic and onions. Finally, spread the cheese and salt across the meat.
Once all the toppings are added, you are ready to roll the meat. Rolling the meat is not difficult, but it will take some practice. Getting the proper roll is critical for braciola since it will help ensure the meat is cooked properly and is served properly when sliced. Start by taking one end of the meat and gently folding it on itself until you reach the other end. You want to make sure none of the fillings inside come out, and remain tucked inside the meat.
Once you have it rolled, you are ready to seal it shut so that it can be dropped into the sauce for cooking. Start off sealing the meat with the toothpicks, which will help with the initial seal. Put toothpicks on both ends, as well as the middle of the meat to keep it sealed. Next, get about 2 feet of butcher’s string and begin tying the meat securely. Start on one end, getting a solid tie, and follow that by wrapping the meat all the way up until you reach the other end, where you will seal it shut similar to the other end. Cut any excess string off and dispose. Repeat the same process on the other braciole.
Now you are ready to cook the meat. Place the olive oil in a wide, flat frying pan and place on high. Once the oil is heated, place your braciole in the pan, turning the heat down to medium. Once the meat is slightly browned, rotate it. Once it’s slightly browned on that side, rotate again. Keep rotating until the meat is browned on all sides. Once you are finished browning the meat, take it directly from the pan, and place it in the tomato sauce. Let it simmer in the tomato sauce for about 2 hours. This length of time will ensure the meat is cooked to a proper level of tenderness and that the flavor of meat is infused in the sauce.
After the meat has simmered for 2 hours, you are ready to remove, slice and serve. Start by taking the meat out of the sauce and putting it in a casserole dish. Remove all the string from the meat, using a clean scissors. Next, take a sharp knife and slice the meat width-wise into nice circular cuts. Spread some tomato sauce on top, and place into the oven at about 350 degrees for 7-8 minutes. Remove, and serve right away.
I often will freeze the braciole in a freezer-friendly container, for serving at a future date. It will preserve nicely in the freezer, and serve as an easy way to pull together a quick meal.
Hopefully you will give braciola a try, eventually making it part of your regular cooking tradition. Let us know what you think by sharing your comments to this post. Buon appetito!