25 January 2012

Braciole a la Nonny

We may have overestimated how many quarts of tomatoes we would need for the winter.  Or perhaps I'm just limiting the possible uses for tomatoes.  Tomatoes can only mean gravy to me.  Yes, I call it gravy, not spaghetti sauce, which earned me many annoying and inquisitive looks in grade school.  I was taught at a young age by my Papa that real Italians call it gravy.  I wasn't about to dispute authenticity with a stern, barrel-chested man named Rocco.   

There are numerous ways to prepare a gravy.  My mother mostly made it with Italian sausage.  My Nonny made it with pork neck bones--true cucina povera.  The bones are inexpensive but produce the most flavorful gravy. 

I make mine with sausage or neck bones and, occasionally, meatballs.  Very few gravies receive the attention as that made from braciole (pronounced brajole by most American Italians).  Let's be honest, the gravy is secondary to the braciole.  Braciole are pounded meat cutlets (veal, beef, or pork depending on your family history) wrapped up with a delicious filling and cooked in tomatoes until tender.       

The first time I made braciole, I called my Nonny for the recipe.  There is no recipe.  We don't really have family recipes.  She just told me how to do it:  pound out some pork cutlets, sprinkle them with seasoned breadcrumbs, grated cheese, fresh parsley, salt/pepper, roll them up, tie them with string, brown them, then drop them in your gravy to cook until tender.  And that's what I did.  I never asked for amounts or techniques.  That's the great thing about home-style Italian cooking:  it's hard to get wrong.  You could cook a shoe with breadcrumbs and grated cheese in tomato gravy and it would be delicious. 

Since then, I've made braciole about a dozen times.  I've made them with beef.  I've made them with pork.  I've made large ones that must be sliced to serve.  I've made small individual ones.  They're never bad.  I checked out some recipes from a few trusted sources.  There are simple peasant ones and elaborate gourmet ones with pine nuts and golden raisins.  Most of the recipes mimicked Nonny's except for slight variation.

toasted breadcrumb mixture
This time I did deviate a bit from our traditional way of making them with some leftover toasted breadcrumbs and dried parsley instead of fresh.  Also, I chopped the few surviving pieces of prosciutto di parma from my Caputo's run and added it to the filling.  We always like a little pork-on-pork action in our house.  I didn't pound the cutlets because I decided to braise them.  The whole point of braising is to make a tough piece of meat tender so I couldn't see taking the extra time to pound them as well as spraying pork juice all over my counter tops.  (Note: putting meat in ziplocks before pounding reduces sprayed juices)    

Standard ingredients:
assembled braciole
for the braciole:
pork cutlets (Some people use veal or beef, but Nonny is right.  Pork is the best)
seasoned breadcrumbs (I use a 1:1 ratio with the cheese.  1/4 cup of each was plenty for 8 cutlets)
grated romano cheese
olive oil for browning

for the gravy:
one quart canned tomatoes
several minced garlic cloves

Mix breadcrumbs, cheese, parsley, salt and pepper in a bowl.  Assemble the braciole by sprinkling each cutlet with the mixture, rolling tightly, and securing with kitchen string on each end.  In a braising pot or dutch oven brown the brasciole on each side.  Once browned, add minced garlic. Deglaze the pan with the tomato liquid and add tomatoes.  Bake for 1 1/2-2 hours at 325 degrees.  If you need to use two separate pans, make sure you deglaze your pan with the liquid and then add to the baking dish--those bits of browned pork are essential for flavor!
braciole bathing in gravy

This is the first time I ever braised the braciole.  They were supremely tender and it saved my stove top from the usual tomato splatterings.  I braised them covered for 1 1/2  hours and then uncovered for the last 30 minutes in order to evaporate some of the moisture from my watery tomatoes.  If you have a thicker tomato puree, you can leave covered.

*Remember to remove strings before serving

I served the braciole over pasta.  If you're up for the extra dishes, you can break the meal into the pasta and gravy for the primo piatto and the braciole for the secondo piatto.  It doesn't matter because those eating the dish will only remember the braciole.  They are the tender and delicious main attraction of the dish.  The rest is gravy.

braciole over pasta paired with an unfiltered, unpasteurized Italian ale--not a standard pairing, but we enjoyed it


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
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    1. Thank you, Sheena! I very much appreciate you reading along and commenting :)

  2. I'm sitting in a choir rehearsal in peoria. And I'm starving! Hope my rumbling stomach isn't out of tune...