Winter Feasting

Dec 8th, 2006

Growing up in the Midwest brought with it a variety of cuisines. I think many people think one dimensional if you mention Chicago, Detroit or even Cleveland for its perceived lack luster food and concord style grapes that are relegated to jams and jellies and never wine. The truth is that these cities offer a melting pot of culture and great food. Growing up in Cleveland (Ohio) I often reminisce of the Friday morning drives to the market with my dad in his grand Cadillac (it always seemed grand to me) and the stops we made along the way. One such stop was the Lebanese bakery, about three miles from our destination and the best coffee and pita in the world! Well, you will have to take my word on that, but it is hard to beat the aroma and flavor of freshly baked pockets of dough hot out of wood fired ovens, slathered with sweet butter and served alongside dark roasted coffee….euphoric.

On the other hand it only got better as the day went on. Ice cold buttermilk from the dairy farmer, only hours old and artisan cheeses, cut to spec as you watched with anticipation. Charcuterie made old world style from Italy, Germany, Lithuania and Poland, all reeking of exotic aromatics from their points of origin.

Multitudes of fish from the great lakes cut and cleaned from tanks where moments earlier they swam without a care in the world.

All this fresh food made us appreciate the effort put forward by the craftsman and women who rose before dawn and slept little to deliver the fruits of their respective labors. I am confident that this is one reason I work as I do today. The other without question is due to my childhood where cooking was an integral part of the Neroni household. With a Jewish mother and Italian father, I often joke that there was a lot of good food and greater guilt! All kidding aside, being the youngest with four sisters, it was part of the daily routine to be in the kitchen with mom and dad preparing, playing, testing and eating new and old family recipes. One such recipe that I often recreate is Dad’s Braciola.

Braciola (bra-chee-oh-la) is kind of an Italian pot roast. My dad’s version used lesser, tougher cuts of meat like chuck or clod that were fanned out, stuffed and rolled jelly roll fashion. A favorite stuffing was sautéed escarole, pine nuts, garlic and golden raisins. After stuffing, the meat is usually tied with butcher’s twine, seared for browning, and then slowly braised in a marinara sauce until the tomatoes and garlic fussed with the beef turning it tender and succulent. Fresh made pasta drizzled with olive oil from Galucci’s downtown always accompanied my dad’s Braciola! The recipe comes together pretty quickly and simple substitutions can be made if needed. One thing will be clear as your Braciola is cooking—garlic is good and you will want to have a lot of crusty bread so that none of it goes to waste. Enjoy!

My Dad’s Braciola, as I remember it!
BRACIOLA (say, “bra-chee-OH-la”) A braised beef dish that is served with fresh made pasta! Here it is with Spaghetti squash instead of pasta
1 ea spaghetti squash
1 ½# chuck roast*
1 head garlic, minced
1 large onion, minced
1 head escarole, chopped
2 TBS pine nuts, toasted
2 TBS currants
1 TBS dry oregano leaves
2 tsp dry thyme
4 oz bacon, minced, rendered (fat reserved), optional
2 quarts Marinara sauce

Squash method: wash and cut squash lengthwise; brush with EVOO and season with sea salt, pepper and coriander; wrap with foil and roast at 375ºF for approximately 45 minutes or until tender and squash-meat begins to pull away from the skin; remove and flake pulp into warm serving dish; toss with EVOO and adjust seasonings.

Braciola: fan out chuck and season with salt and pepper- reserve cold; heat 3 TBS EVOO in large sauté pan; add garlic and onions and cook until aromatic; add escarole and cook to wilt; add nuts and currants and cook to incorporate; add herbs and bacon and remove from heat – cool completely. Lay filling out over the fanned out chuck and roll/tie; meanwhile bring sauce to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Heat large skillet with EVOO and sear meat on all sides; cover with sauce and simmer/braise for approximately 2 hours or until tender. Remove twine and cut into individual portions.

*You might ask your butcher to “fan” out the beef so you can fill it when you get home. Or ask if he’ll fill and tie it for you if you bring in the stuffing. You can also use flank steak or top round steak, which do not require fanning.