Sunday, August 28, 2011


One of the great things about being married is marrying into the cuisine of the family of the person you are marrying. I can tell you from experience that I have learned quite a lot about Italian cooking from my wife and her family.

One of the nicest surprises was when I had spaghetti and meatballs at my in-laws' house before I got married. It seems that everybody has their own take on Italian sauce, and I remember hearing an interview with somebody that grew up in Brooklyn or Queens that on a Sunday evening, he could walk around his Italian neighborhood and just from smelling the "Sunday Gravy" cooking at each house, he could tell what part of Italy the family came from... one family might add a bit of cinnamon, one family might add some other special spice, etc. Sandra's mother's sauce was different than the one I made. It was tasty and delicious (not to take away from my own recipe, now...!), and a couple of things were noticeably different. First, she cooked her meatballs directly in the sauce, whereas I would sauté them first. Second, where I would sometimes throw a bit of beef into my sauce, Sandra's mom would have this special kind of stringy meat that was incorporated with egg and some other stuff. She called it "braciole," which is the title of this blog entry.

For nearly a dozen years or so, my only experience with braciole was when Sandra or her mom would make it. Sandra's technique is to take a thin slice of flank steak, added sliced hard-boiled eggs, some spices, and Parmesan cheese. Next, she'd roll the steak (like a jelly roll), and secure the meat with toothpicks. She would put the entire roll of meat into her tomato sauce for it to cook with her meatballs. Before serving, she would remove the toothpicks, and slice the roll, putting the disks onto a platter and adding a bit of sauce on top. This would be a separate dish from the meatballs and sausages.

My first time having braciole outside of Sandra's family was at a restaurant (which won't be named). I saw braciole on the menu, and realized for the first time that this was how it was spelled. Knowing that I loved Sandra's version, I ordered it. What I received surprised me. It contained bread crumbs. There were no eggs. It was kind of bland, actually. I was disappointed, but I always had Sandra's to fall back on.

Another time I ordered braciole at a restaurant was a different experience. I was at Kitty's restaurant, a place in North Reading, Massachusetts that's been in business for almost 65 years. I'll probably write about this restaurant in another column, but I must say that this place has some very, very good Italian food, and their portions are huge. Anyway, I noticed braciole on the menu, and figured I would give it a try. This was much closer to the braciole that Sandra and her mother made with one very noticeable exception: garlic. Not just "garlic," but "garlic to the extreme." At Kitty's, the braciole is chewy and garlicky, and very, very good. (It has since become the one thing I order there.)

Other restaurants had braciole, I started to notice. Some used pork tenderloin, some used beef. I've found I like a few different types, but Kitty's is probably my favorite from a restaurant.

So, after having the braciole at Kitty's, guess what I do? I try to "improve" Sandra's braciole, of course.

Now, anybody that is married will know that one of the big no-nos in a marriage is to try to improve something that your partner is proud of. I knew it in my heart, but I was just thinking, "if we could just add a bit more garlic..." I'm still married, and I didn't sustain any injury, and to her credit, Sandra did let me add more garlic to her recipe. The end result was a slight improvement (to me), and a slight deterioration in its taste ("Too much garlic," she decided). The end result is that when she makes it, she makes it her way, and when I make it, I make it her way, with a bit more garlic on one of the bracioles, and let her have one with the "right" amount of garlic for her own consumption.

Taking a bit of a detour here, I'm also a fan of barbecue. I saw this gigantic book in a bookstore about ten years ago called, "The Barbecue Bible." In it were some recipes that I noticed were very similar to braciole. It was flank steak with different cheeses, rolled, and then tied up (using butcher's twine instead of using Sandra's toothpicks). It was grilled, and wasn't served with tomato sauce. I tried making some of these, and Sandra wasn't particularly fond of any of them, but the ideas they contained were useful.

When I make my own version of braciole nowadays, I have Sandra butterfly the flank steak for me (she does this very nicely). I also use Sandra's standard ingredients, except for some extra garlic on one of the rolls. I also sometimes "jazz" it up using things that Sandra and I agree on up front. For example, we sometimes use slices of Parmesan or shaved Parmesan instead of graded or shredded cheese. Another thing we agree on is occasionally using uncut leaves of basil. I've tried precooking the meat by sautéing it in a bit of oil before adding it to the sauce, but I didn't taste any great improvement, and Sandra thought it tasted worse, so we just throw the raw meat into the sauce and take it out cooked after an hour or so. We always slice it and serve it with the meal, separated from the meatballs and sausages.

So... at our house, when I'm cooking, it's "compromise braciole," which is about 98% Sandra's (and her mother's) recipe, and about 2% my "improvements" (garlic, and other minor changes). See how a happy marriage works?

Bon appetit!

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