Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I Am Not An Italian Nona

I don’t know if you knew that about me, but I’m not. In fact my WASP-y heritage prohibits me from becoming one, even though this is my lifelong dream. Basically, this means that I want to be really good at cooking Italian food. I’m not bad at it, but it does not come to me with ease or grace.

While in college some of my closest friends came from Italian backgrounds, and I was able to learn some basic principles from them through their family recipes. But as you can imagine, it is hard to cook gigantic dinners in college apartment s and dorms. Not impossible, but hard.
My group of friends and I would try to have “Family Dinner” on Sundays or at least once a week. This would be at various people’s apartments and usually consisted of giant quantities of food (we are talking college aged men here - they eat a lot). My sophomore year college dorm room had a tiny kitchenette that consisted of a sink, a small stove and oven and a refrigerator. There was approximately 2 square feet of counter space, which lead to creative storage and dish drying spaces. When I moved in, my mom unloaded all of her old pots, pans and utensils on me –most of which I actually still have.

In particular she gave me a gigantic stock pot. When I first got it, I said “Mom, I am never going to use this thing – it’s HUGE!” And she replied with a “Well, just keep it, you never know.” And once again the wisdom of mother panned out. I managed to cook up to 3 pounds of pasta at one time in it, which was just about how much was needed for a group of 6-8 college students.
I learned how to make marinara sauce, meatballs, eggplant parmesan and other dishes though the tutelage of college friends. And now, with Joe’s family, I have been able to learn even more about the art of Italian-American cooking. But the very intense crazy 'grandma-only' dishes have yet to be conquered by me.

For example, I tried to make Joe a 'welcome home' dinner this past Sunday of braciole. For those of you who don’t know what braciole is, it is magical. I had a bit of it from a friend’s grandmother once, and I would have had some from Joe’s Nana, except that he ate all of it before I could get my fork in there. Braciole is a piece of meat, either veal or beef, pounded thin and then wrapped around breadcrumbs, seasoning and hardboiled egg. It’s then braised and served with a tomato sauce and pasta. Like I said, magical. So I found a recipe online, and thought I could spend all day Sunday making it.
To make a long story a bit shorter, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Joe mentioned that he was glad he was not around to witness the debacle. There was profanity and the throwing of things. Wrapping meat around a filling successfully is my kryptonite in the kitchen. The braciole didn’t look good, but it tasted fine, and the sauce that went with it was great. So that is what I would like to share with you here today. If you know how to make braciole, or if you keep a small Italian grandmother hidden away for such occasions, please feel free to add it to the recipe.

Meat Braised Marinara Sauce As adapted from Tyler Florence’s “Ultimate Braciole”
I typically find Tyler Florence’s recipes good if not a little too involved. But this one looked promising. If you care to find his recipe for braciole, go ahead and give it a shot, but I am just going to share the sauce portion, which is still very good over pasta.

3Tb Olive oil
2 cloves
6 sprigs of thyme (washed but not chopped)
1 small (1-2 pounds) beef roast, or flank steak
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 ½ c beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 28oz. can crushed tomatoes (with no additional seasonings)
4 whole vine ripened tomatoes
½ pint grape tomatoes, whole
Salt and pepper
2 Tb balsamic vinegar
3 Tb parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°, and season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven and add the garlic cloves and thyme. Once the garlic is fragrant, add the meat and brown on all sides. If the thyme and garlic start to brown too much, remove them from them from the oil, and set aside. Once the meat is browned, remove it to a platter and set aside.

Next add the onions and sauté until soft, about 3-4 minutes. Then add in beef broth and bay leaves, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Once the beef broth is boiling, add in the can of tomatoes, the reserved garlic and thyme and stir to combine. Once the mixture is fully combined, add back in the meat.

Nestle in the whole tomatoes around the meat, and toss in the grape tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Bring the entire mixture to a simmer, then cover and place in the oven. Cook for about 2 hours, or until the meat is form tender (it will shrink in size a bit). Then remove the pot from the oven, and set the meat on a platter, and shred with a fork. Remove the whole tomatoes from the sauce, as well as the bay leaves and thyme springs. Blend the remaining mixture in a blender or with an immersion blender until combined. Then place the pot over medium heat.

Peel off the skin from the large whole tomatoes, and crush, then return them to the pot. Also, add back in the shredded meat and any juices that may have accumulated. Bring the pot to a simmer. Add in the balsamic vinegar and parsley and simmer for about 5 minutes. Check for seasonings, and serve over cooked pasta.

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