During its six season run on HBO, I was a huge fan of "The Sopranos", tuning in every Sunday night to watch mafioso Tony try to balance the conflicting requirements of being the head of both a criminal organization and of his unconventional family. Unpredictable, engrossing story lines, well-rounded characters, and believable dialogue were some of the things that made this multi-Emmy winning show so popular. There were two other more subtle, but important aspects that served as strong supporting characters for the show: the music and the food. Try listening to Journey's "Don't Stop Believin" without thinking of that final nail-biting and controversial diner scene. And every time that I see braciole on a restaurant menu, I now not only pronounce it like I am a North Jersey Italian grandmother, but I am automatically transported to Sunday dinners at the Soprano house.
I don't think that there were many episodes in which either Carmella Soprano or Artie Buco didn't mention that they had some "leftover braciole in the fridge." The first time that I heard this, I had no idea what this dish that they were referringto was, let alone how to go about preparing it. So naturally, being the curious cook that I am, I had to find a recipe for braciole so that I could give it a try (Of course, I had to figure out how to spell the darn thing first).
In Italian-American cooking, braciole (pronounced "bra-zhul" if you want to sound authentic) is composed of thinly sliced meat that has been rolled around a filling, which can include cheeses, herbs, vegetables, Italian meats, nuts, sausages, dried fruits, and breadcrumbs. In other words, the sky's the limit. The roll is then braised for several hours in a tomato sauce or "Sunday gravy", until it is cooked through and tender. Recipes for braciole are open to variation, with many families passing them down over several generations. As you can imagine, it is not the world's best diet dish, but I substituted turkey sausage and omitted the cheese to help lighten the caloric blow. Fortunately, you don't need a huge portion, as each bite of this hearty meal contains enough flavor to even satisfy a big tough guy like Tony. Here are some tips for this hearty beef braciole:
- Cut the prep time for this recipe by asking your butcher to butterfly the steak for you in advance. This can be a challenge to do on your own at home.
- The braciole, filled with all of the ingredients, rolled, and tied with string, can be prepared one day in advance. Cover and refrigerate.
- Serve the braciole over soft polenta. mashed potatoes, or cous cous to soak up all of the sauce.
- Pancetta is carried by most grocery store deli counters, but if you can't find it, then substitute thinly sliced prosciutto, ham, or even salami.
- This recipe prepares quite a bit, but it reheats beautifully, and the flavors really develop with the extra time, so save it for leftovers.
- Keep an eye on the pine nuts while they are toasting. They burn very easily.
Flank Steak Braciole
Serves 6 to 8
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
3 ounces thinly sliced pancetta
1/4 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup raisins
3/4 pound Italian turkey sausage (3-4 links)
3 cups beef broth
1 (750-ml) bottle dry red wine
1 (26-ounce) bottle marinara sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Open the flank steak on a work surface and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Rub with 1 tablespoon olive oil, followed by the parsley, oregano, thyme, and sage. Arrange the pancetta slices atop the herbs. Sprinkle the pine nut and raisins over the pancetta. Arrange the sausages crosswise, about 2 inches from 1 short end of the steak. Beginning at the short end near the sausages, roll up the steak into a log. Tie string around the steak at 2-inch intervals to secure.
Preheat the oven to 325F degrees. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide oven-proof pot. Add the steak and cook until browned all over, about 7 minutes. Add the beef broth and wine, and then the marinara sauce; bring the mixture to a boil. Cover and transfer to the oven. Roast until the sausages are cooked through and the steak is tender, about 1 hour 45 minutes. Transfer the braciole to a work surface and tent with foil to keep warm.
Add the sugar to the sauce and then boil the sauce in the pot until reduce to about 4 cups, 15-20 minutes. Slice the braciole into 1-inch slices. Pour the sauce into a large deep platter. Arrange the braciole slices over the sauce on the platter and serve.