Friday, January 17, 2014

I Can Only Promise One-Half Authenticity

One of the benefits of working from home is that, when you are having a slow day—meetings are cancelled, work is done ahead of time, etc.—you can get some stuff done around the house, too. Wednesday was a day like that for me, so instead of doing the mountain of laundry I had waiting for me, I made Sunday sauce, the slow-cooked Italian meat sauce that many Italian-American families make in some version. This was a good choice because:

  1. I friggin' hate laundry. I hate it so, so much. I love Sunday sauce, though!
  2. I'm only 1/2 Italian, so sometimes my 1/4 Swedish and 1/4 English/Scottish/Irish/Who-Knows-What "They showed up in America in the 1600s" takes over, and makes me subversive. Sunday sauce on a Wednesday, take that, tradition!

Sunday sauce, for me, starts with a nice chuck roast, cut into pieces, dried off, salted and peppered, and seared on all sides. Then there are onions, chopped roughly, to pick up all the meaty fond at the bottom of the dutch oven. Garlic, spices, tomato paste, then cook, cook, cook. More fond = add wine, Wednesday's was a pinot noir, but I'm not choosy. Put meat back in, then...wait for the weirdness...add some milk. Yeah, that's right. Milk. Cook the milk down until no liquid remains, and you've basically cooked the milk solids until they are nutty, then add crushed tomatoes, and broth or water (as necessary). Bring to a simmer, lower the heat, cover, cook forever, and/or all afternoon, in a low oven.

When it is done, you get this:

Eat me, in all my meaty goodness.
Just this sauce, with a spoon, is really worth the time. I say spoon, because thanks to the glories of melted interstitial fat, the meat falls apart just by looking at it, no fork and knife required. I didn't stop here though, because all this magic was made to be served with a once-a-year family delicacy: braciole.

Every culture has some kind of "meat pinwheel," and this is ours.
When I was a kid, I hated braciole. Kids can be really, really dumb, especially when it comes to deliciousness. Braciole was made for our big family Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter celebrations, and all of us dumb "don't know what is good for us" kids would watch the adults fight each other for extra pieces, wondering why they would fight for something so yucky. I mentioned all the D-U-M-B, right?

My Uncle Al, my dad's brother, used to be our benevolent helper, whispering in our ears as we got served our slices that we shouldn't balk, we should just say, "Thank you," and then he would be happy to come and get our portions later so we didn't have to eat them. What a hero, right? We thought so! No one wanted to be told by Nana that they were ungrateful for the food that they were served, and this eliminated that whole risk. Look obedient, skip the offending food, everyone wins. Once we got smart enough to eat braciole, his slow-braised gold mine got shut down.

Around junior high, the knowledge kicked in: miss out on braciole, miss out on the big shebang. I have memories of my cousins and I sneaking into my aunt's dining room, before the meal was served, to grab a piece of hot braciole in our hands, then somehow run to another room to eat it—no plate, no utensils, no napkin, no manners—without being observed. Hot, dripping with meat fat, falling apart tender, covered in tomato sauce—this was never a good plan, especially dressed in holiday finery, but we didn't care. Our uncle had mentored us well: whatever it took to get extra slices was worth it.

As an adult, at some point my need to learn to cook for myself in order to stay alive morphed into a need to cook to be creative, to be inspired, to be alive in the bigger sense. Cooking and baking new foods brought adventure; cooking and baking family recipes brought connection. I thought a lot about braciole—at first, I thought about how I had no clue how to even spell it, much less make it. It wasn't one of those recipes we wrote down, it was something that was passed along, and I hadn't asked for my own braciole-making class. Then, in 2002, while I still lived in Arlington, Virginia, I started watching Lidia Bastianich on PBS, observing her Italian techniques, trying to replicate things that my family had been making for years. She then came out with a cookbook specifically for Italian-American cuisine—not Italian cuisine, but the hybrid cuisine created by people like my family, cooks using Italian techniques and respect for ingredients, but with access to the ingredients that were most available in the United States when they immigrated. I had to have the book. I bought it the first week it was on the shelves, and low and behold, I found (her version of) a family treasure right on the first page of the beef section.

Need to make something you love in your favorite (American) Italian restaurant?
Here's your book.

Braised Beef Rolls, aka "Braciole," with the spelling I had only guessed at
confirmed for me in the opening paragraph.
Lidia's version has a bread stuffing inside, which is different than our family's, but the general idea is there. Take some beef, take some pork, take some hard-boiled egg, take some herbs, wrap it up, cook it forever in sauce, slice it and be in heaven.

The PBS series starring Lidia began featuring recipes from this cookbook, and I would try them out as I saw her demonstrate.  When I discovered, quite at the last minute, that she would be speaking and signing books at a Border's bookstore in Falls Church, I took time off of work just so I could leave early enough to make it there from DC, book in hand. When I got to talk to her, I blathered on about how I felt like she was teaching me things that my Nana, now suffering from dementia, and years from actually cooking our meals, could not. I told her how I could now make oven-roasted vegetables that tasted like those made by my Aunt Ellen, my grandmother's sister, and a killer cook in her own right. I even attempted to use some of the Italian I had learned in college. Basically, I sounded like a star-struck idiot. She was really kind, though, and told me how pleased she was that I could now pass all this along, too, and to keep cooking. Then she signed my book, and I started to breathe again.

Grazie, Lidia.
Over the years, I have gotten a lot of cookbooks, and I have gotten rid of a lot, too, because I couldn't keep every book just for one or two recipes. The internet is now so handy, too, I can find things from recipe books and Cook's Illustrated (my go-to cooking magazine, which I wait for in its print version with excitement each month) online, printing out or cataloguing only what I need. A few books have made the cut, though, including this one by Lidia, as well as a few of her others, too. At forty, I've embraced learning all kinds of cuisine with the zest that I had for first learning both Italian and Italian-American foods back in my twenties.

Mom 100 was a gift from my kid for Christmas, because, as she put it,
"You are a cooking mom, Mom!"
You'd think that with all of this fine cooking writing backing me up, I'd have made braciole many times by now. The truth: I never have, and I've never had to, really. I've made our Swedish family's cinnamon rolls with my mom and, when she was alive, my grandmother, more times than I could count, but that's a whole other set of blog posts. Braciole is still on my cooking bucket list, but for now, remains truly a holiday treat with family, made by family. Knowing how special it is, my dad makes extra braciole, which he freezes, vacuum seals, and sends home with each of us every Christmas. Featuring thinly sliced, pounded flank steak, bacon, hard boiled egg, parsley, oregano, basil, salt, and pepper, all cooked in sauce until it is barely holding together, Andreoli-family braciole is probably the best gift we get every year. That's what I sliced into on Wednesday, and served in the meaty sauce deserving of its greatness.

All rolled up and ready to go;
Dad sends us home with one of his braciole every Christmas.
(This only look dirty if you have a dirty mind, btw.)
Cut from its strings, sauced and heated, ready to eat
One of the great things about cooking is that you can always, always learn more. There is no end. I'm sure this is what frustrates some cooks, too, always realizing you could do it better next time, but since food often still tastes good even when it isn't at its best, the risk is pretty minimal, from my perspective.

I like the challenge of cooking, and I like the idea that someday, I'll make braciole on my own, just like my grandmother and my dad have done. I like that once I've made it once, I'll make it again, and practice it, and maybe even put my own spin on it. I like the idea that I can take my own comfort in making my own comfort food, all while stretching my brain and being creative. And quite frankly, I just like how braciole tastes, especially with a nice glass of wine. 

The parsley makes the finished pasta look classy;
the unwiped sauce from the side of the bowl
makes it look like I'm a cook, not a chef.
Rombi, meat sauce, fresh parmesan.
This is how food looks in real life, not in cookbooks.

There are vegetables in the sauce, and fruit in the wine,
and I promise I ate a great big healthy salad the next day.

1 comment: