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Braciole, Puglian Style

Have you ever had braciole?  Braciole is a stuffed meat roll, typically cooked in a tomato sauce.  As I understand it, the term for the rolled meat in Sicily and Southern Italy is Braciole. That is the term used in Italian American cooking as well.  Most of the rest of Italy calls rolled beef Involtini. Parts of Calabria call it Vraciole.  It can be served as a main or a side dish, and is usually stuffed with a mix of herbs, cheese and garlic.  You can use beef, pork, or fish for the meat, although beef is more common in Italian American braciole.

Growing up in an Italian American household, you would think we would have had it alot.  The truth is, I never remember my mom making it.  I do remember on occasion of large family get togethers, there would always be some there.  So I have memories of braciole, but they aren’t really strong.

Fast forward a several decades, and I now have new, stronger memories of braciole that I’d like to share today.  There is a recipe at the end, but I think you will find that like most everything I post, it is open for interpretation.  But part of the fun of this post for me is the story.  So please indulge me a bit and enjoy my tale before I get to the recipe.  

Here goes.

As things have turned out, I am very happy that we took our trip to Italy last year, and not this.  Things would be VERY different this year.  First, I doubt we would even make it.  And even if we did, many of our great experiences wouldn’t be possible in the “new (hopefully temporary) normal”.

But we did go last year. The Elegant Baker and I spent most of September last year in Italy.   It was a fabulous trip with many memorable experiences.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but I will share a few highlights.  And I promise, we will wend our way back to braciole!   

For our trip, we started in Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance.  You probably know by now, that the Elegant Baker and I both love art and history.  Florence represents an epicenter of where those two cross.  It was a great start to our trip.    We not only went to the Uffizi Galleries, we were literally the first people in on the morning of our visit.  Having the place virtually to ourselves for the first half hour or so was surreal.  We attended an opera in the birthplace of opera, Florence.  And we spent every day in the shadow of Brunelleschi’s Dome, a singular piece of architecture with a compelling legacy.

Beyond Florence

From Florence, we travelled south to Rome and the Vatican City.  Here we had breakfast at the Vatican Museums and an early entrance to the Sistine Chapel.  What a spectacular artwork — all the more powerful for seeing it with only a couple of dozen other people.  We totally avoided the THOUSANDS that would be crammed in there later in the day.  We traveled back in time touring the Roman ruins at the Palatine Hills and the Forum.  And we visited a still active church dating from the 4th century, and still sporting its original mosaics.  And we were the only people in the building.  Magical.   Of course we did the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, but we enjoyed our time out of the “tourist crush”

After the cities, we wanted to end our trip with a bit of a slowed down pace.  We also wanted to be a bit more off the beaten path.  We also wanted to be further south to keep in the warmer weather.  With all that in mind, we decided to try Puglia.  The stiletto heel of the boot. Knowing next to nothing about the area before we went, we were looking forward to the adventure.  We boarded the train in Rome for the four hour ride to Bari, Puglia’s capital.  From there we rented a car and drove to the small town of Polignano a Mare.  

The Adriatic Coast

Ahhh — Polignano a Mare.  Such a beautiful, quiet, peaceful, relaxing town.  The town had a quaint historical center, which is where we stayed.  We rented an AirBnB right along the water with a view of Polignano a Mare’s famous beach.  That is the window in our bedroom with the red arrow in the photo below.  The other picture is the view from that window. It was spellbinding.  But the best part of our AirBnB was our hostess — Santina.

We have stayed at dozens of AirBnBs around the US and Europe.  Most hosts are friendly and easy to deal with, but just an email or text message.  They hire a local to let you in and show you around.  That has been the vast majority of our experiences.  On a few occasions, have we actually met our proper host.  Those have been our best AirBnB experiences by far.  And of those, our experience with Santina was the absolute best.

In addition to the apartment being gorgeous, and set on an alley in the quaintest old town, Santina added a level of hospitality that was second to none.  After meeting us in town, she arranged for a local tuk tuk driver to bring us back to our luggage and return us to the old town (there are no cars allowed in the old town).  We saw her and her husband every day, and never once was it intrusive.  It was more like spending time with an old friend.  Santina’s English was as limited as my Italian, but we were able to get by more than adequately.  

So one afternoon, Santina texted and asked if the Elegant Baker and I would be interested in joining her and her husband in town for dinner.  We thought it was a great opportunity to connect with the locals so we happily said Yes.  

Dinner with our Host

So the time comes to meet for dinner, and Santina tells us that it will be a community event.  It turns out that it was a cooking demo/class arranged by the local tourist board. A platform was set up outside, in the middle of the V from a fork in the road.  Tables were arranged in a large U shape around what was to be the “kitchen” for that evening’s meal.  Our meal that evening was to be prepared before us in a live class from a local chef! 

There were about 20 people there split between locals and tourists.  In addition to Santina and her husband, we met several other locals, as well a wonderful couple from Australia, and  mother and  daughter from Czechia. It was great fun and really helped us to feel part of the community. 

As for the cooking demo, this is where the Braciole comes in.  The demonstration/class was led by the exec chef from Osteria Piga, one of Polignano’s top restaurants.  We had a caprese salad with burrata as a starter.  Then we had orecchiette pasta, a variety which originated in the Puglia region.  The chef then got on with the ‘main show’  — teaching us how to make what he called “Apulian Style Braciole”

Braciole Ingredients

Being somewhat familiar with braciole, I was wondering what made it Apulian Style. As he set it up, he told us that you could ask a ten Puglian Nonnas how to make braciole  and get twenty answers.  As if on cue, all of the locals in attendance began, in unison, describing how they made it, and discussing the finer points of which ingredients were ‘authentic’ and which were.  This went on for four or five minutes.  

Why I love Mediterranean Cuisine!

So there it was — the absolute essence of why I love Mediterranean food.  It is MEANT to be customized to what you like or have on hand.  Mediterranean food isn’t meant to be fussy or precise, just good and good for you.  It varies from home to home because and cook to cook, but follows the same basic framework.  If nothing else comes through to you on this blog, I hope that the idea of making your food your way and not being fussy is the thing you appreciate.  

As the Chef went on to describe Apulia Style Braciole, he said it was simple with not much for filling. He started with a thin cut of beef flank steak.  He gently pounded each slice a bit thinner.  Then he placed the topping on each slice of beef, rolled them up and held them closed with a toothpick.  As for the stuffing, his version had a few small pieces of garlic, a couple of parsley leaves and a small piece of mozzarella.  Very simple.  Nothing fancy.

The rolls were then browned in a saute pan, and placed in tomato sauce where they would slow cook for an hour or more.  We did not wait that long, as the Chef brought out a large pot with braciole he’d prepared earlier.  There were several rolls for each of us, and they were delicious!  

I suspect the simplicity was in part to make it more accessible to the home cooks that were his class that evening.  But I also suspect that a large part of the simplicity is because that is general approach to cooking throughout the Mediterranean.  Keep it simple.  Rely on good ingredients.  Use what is in season and local.  Enjoy. 

I am sorry there are no photos of the experience. I wasn’t expecting a cooking demo, so I left me camera at home. The images from my phone suffered from poor lighting, and are all very grainy and unusable. But the experience was wonderful and the food was excellent!

Back at Home

I found great culinary inspiration on our trip to Italy.  The Apulian Style braciole was definitely one I was going to be making at home.  I added a few touches of my own, but tried to stay on the path of ‘simple’.  Although braciole looks like it can be difficult and challenging, it is really quite an easy dish to make.  The challenge is in waiting for them to be cooked through in a sauce.  But the reward is a great tasting meal from simple cuts of beef and a few ingredients from filling.  

So I decided to make some braciole.  Beside the meat, you need a bit of tomato sauce.  I will not be sharing a sauce recipe here because for me that is a later post.  Too much to share!  Whatever sauce recipe you are most comfortable with for now will do.  Set your energy on learning how to stuff, roll, and seal the braciole.

First, you want to buy  thin sliced beef.  Many grocery stores sell this as ‘sandwich steaks’ or something like that.  NOT shaved steak — that is too thin.  IF you can’t get ‘sandwich steaks’, you can always get a top round roast and have the butcher cut ¼” thick slices for you.  Most will happily do that for you if you ask.  

Keeping on the ‘simple’ theme, I did use parsley, mozzarella and garlic to stuff mine.  Keeping with the ‘make it your own’ theme, I also added a small piece of mushroom and prosciutto to each roll as well.   The process is fairly simple.  The ‘tricks’ are getting the meat nice and thin and sealing it when you are done.

Make the Braciole

Start by laying a piece of meat out inside a small plastic sandwich bag.  This keeps your counter clean and contains the meat as it spreads.  Because the meat is thin to begin with it won’t take much pressure to make it thinner.  I simply used the heel of my hand and gently ‘pounded’ on each to thin it further.  They should grow between 25% to 50% in surface size while getting thinner.  Be sure not to get so thin you go right through the meat.  When done with a steak, set aside and repeat the process with the remaining steaks.

Once they are all thinned, lay them out on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper to season.  Then begin to add the filling.  I started by putting a small piece of prosciutto on each steak.  I then added a couple of slices of mushroom, small piece of garlic, baton of cheese and parsley.  The picture below shows a progression of how I filled each steak.  I offset the filling from the center, so when I rolled it would be in the middle.    Try to bunch the fillings together to make rolling easier.

Braciole Stuffed Before Rolling

I rolled each steak up, and used a single toothpick threaded through the loose flap to secure.  Use whatever you need too — if you find it easier with a couple of toothpicks, go for it.  You can also use butchers twine to tie them if you think that would be easier.  

Once they are all rolled, spring the outside with salt and pepper as well.  Heat a skillet to medium high heat.  Brown each roll on each side.  You should only need about 30 seconds per side to brown them.

Braciole Browning
Into the Sauce

When they are all browned, add to your sauce.  This is where the patience comes in.  You want to let the braciole gently simmer in your sauce for at least an hour.  More time is OK too.  Because they are embedded in the sauce, they won’t dry out.  The long cooking time with a gentle simmer allows the flavors of the sauce to penetrate the roll.  It also allows for some of the flavor of the meat to blend into the sauce, giving it an overall deeper flavor.

Braciole Cooking

After they have simmered, go ahead and serve them.  I served mine alongside some penne dressed with the sauce they braciole braised in.  You can also serve them on an antipasto platter as an appetizer, or as a side with a main dish.  I have also seen them stuffed in a bun like a meatball sub and topped with a bit of sauce.  The point is, serve it however you like.  

Braciole In Tomato Sauce

Braciole is a bit of effort, but it is not overwhelming.  This won’t become an everyday weeknight meal.  But there is no reason you can’t add this to the list of foods worth the occasional extra effort.  Braciole is a great way to use an inexpensive cut of meat and turn it into a bit of a culinary adventure.  However you make it, I hope you enjoy!

Braciole, Puglian Style

Braciole, a Southern Italian dish of rolled meat with a savory filling and slow cooked in a tomato sauce. This version from Puglia is easy and delicious
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time1 hr 30 mins
Total Time2 hrs
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian, Mediterranean
Keyword: Beef, cheese, Tomato
Servings: 2 servings, 4 braciole each
Ingredients
  • 8 thin cut flank or top round sandwich steaks
  • 2 oz thin sliced prosciutto
  • 2 crimini mushrooms thin sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic thin slice
  • 2 oz fresh mozzarella cheese cut into small chunks
  • ¼ cup parsley leaves
  • 2 – 3 cups tomato sauce of your choice
  • 1 TBS extra virgin olive oil
  • kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Instructions

  • In a sauce pan large enough to hold the sauce and 8 braciole, slowly heat your tomato sauce
  • While the sauce heats, prepare the braciole
  • Take a one small steak and place in a ziploc bag you have cut open on one side
  • Using the heel of your palm, gently pound the steak until between ⅛” to ¼’ thick (3mm-6mm)
  • Repeat for remaining slices of beef
  • Spread beef slices out on a flat surface. Sprinkle each with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
  • Divide the prosciutto into 8 pieces, then place on on each slice of beef
  • Add the 2-3 slices of mushroom, several pieces of mozzarella, several slices of garlic and a few parsley leaves to each piece of meat. Place them closer to one end than the other.
  • Starting at the end nearest your filling, roll each piece of beef into a cylinder. Try to tuck in the sides to hold in the filling as you roll
  • Secure with toothpicks.
  • Heat a small amount of olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
  • Place the beef rolls, seam side down in the skillet and brown. This seals the seam. .
  • Cook, turning the meat occasionally until each roll is nicely browned on all sides, 4 -5 minutes total..
  • When all the braciole are browned, place them in the tomato sauce. Give them a gentle push to make sure they are each submerged or mostly submerged, in the sauce
  • Cover and cook on low heat, turning occasionally until beef is tender about 1 1/2 hours. When done remove toothpicks and serve with pasta

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