Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beef Braciole in Tomato Sauce

On a really cold and windy day, nothing hits the spot quite like warm comfort food. And, if you're feeling a little international, nothing says comfort like Italian food (OK, and Ethiopian food, but I have yet to try making Ethiopian cuisine).

I made this dish a year or so ago and forgot to write it down, so I had to go from memory to recreate it for tonight's dinner. This is "almost" as good as the original. The measurements are anything but exact, but it's a forgiving recipe, so adjust according to your preferred tastes. It cooked/braised in the tomato sauce for more than two hours, so it was incredibly tender and packed with flavor. This is definitely a dish that needs to cook for a long time. And, you definitely want the smell to permeate the house. I served it with creamy polenta.

Beef Braciole in Tomato Sauce

1 pound lean ground pork or sausage
2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
4 tbsp (or more) minced olives or tapenade
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup bread crumbs or Panko
1/2 cup Parmesiana Reggiano
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, minced (optional)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped (optional)
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp celery salt
Red pepper flakes and/or chipotle powder to taste
Salt and pepper
1 pound sirloin, very thinly sliced into four pieces with the grain
8 slices provolone
Handful of fresh spinach, stems removed
Searing flour (all-purpose will work)
Olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 325.
2. In hot saute pan, toast pine nuts, stirring frequently, until fragrant and golden.
3. Combine pork and next 13 items (through salt and pepper) in a bowl and gently mix until well incorporated. Set aside. (Best to let it sit in the fridge for at least a few hours to have the flavors meld. Make the tomato sauce -- see below -- while the flavors get happy.)
4. Pound meat between sheets of waxed paper or plastic wrap until very thin. On each piece, layer provolone and spinach. Starting at a narrow end of the sirloin, spread sausage mixture onto spinach and provolone, covering approximately 2/3 of the sirloin. Tightly roll the sirloin and tuck the end under. Repeat for each piece. Dust each sirloin roll with flour.
5. Heat saute pan, add a little olive oil (no more than 1 tbsp) and heat to almost smoking. Add sirloin rolls and sear on all four sides until a brown crust forms. This should take no more than a few minutes total.
6. Place beef rolls in deep, oven-safe dish. Pour tomato sauce over the rolls (recipe follows). Cover and bake for two to three hours. The larger the roll, the longer it will need to bake. Uncover for last 30 minutes of baking. The rolls are done when you can cut into them with a table knife or a fork.
7. Top with Parmesan and enjoy.

Tomato Sauce

2 large cans crushed tomatoes
2-3 cloves garlic, minched.
1/2 Vidalia onion, diced
1 tbsp good-quality balsamic vinegar
1-2 tsp sugar, depending on sweetness of tomatoes
Red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil

1. In a sauce pot (yes, a sauce pot, not a saute pan), saute onion in a little olive oil until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot and bring to a simmer. Simmer, stirring frequently, for at least 20 minutes, although longer is better. The longer the sauce reduces, the richer the flavor will be. Taste to adjust seasonings. (Note: The sugar is not necessary, especially if the tomatoes are already sweet or the balsamic is fruity. The onion measurement is just a suggestion. Adjust to personal preference.)
2. Carefully transfer the sauce to a blender in batches and blend until smooth. Pour over beef rolls and bake as directed above.

Substitution Suggestions: OK, get comfy. This is going to ramble. Let's start with the ground pork. You can absolutely use prepackaged pork sausage instead. The lean stuff will work fine, but if you can find something with a little kick already incorporated, even better. If it's got kick, omit the red pepper flakes from the mixture. Whatever you do, don't use the stuff with maple syrup in it!
Some recipes I've seen call for flank steak. I found thinly sliced sirloin at my favorite grocery store for a great price, so that's what I went with. It was fantastic. Just make sure that no matter which cut you use, that it's pounded thin (but not so thin that you can see light through it).
Cheese: Romano works. So does Pecorino. I'd stay away from cheddar. Any Italian cheese should work, although mozzarella might melt too quickly and become stringy.
Spices: You know what you like. Change up the spices to suit your tastes. If you're unsure if you have enough salt in the sausage, fry up a little bit of it in the pan you'll use to sear the rolls. If you like a lot of garlic, add more. If you hate olives, don't add them. Add mushrooms if you like. If you use seasoned bread crumbs, go easy on the other spices. You definitely don't want to overdo it.
Tomato sauce: I didn't do it this time, but you could definitely add a healthy splash of red wine to the sauce before you reduce it. A bay leaf wouldn't hurt either, but remove it before you blend the sauce. You could also add fresh basil and/or oregano. If you get really lazy, a jar (gasp!) of spaghetti sauce would work, although if you're going to go to the effort to make homemade braciole, why would you use jarred sauce?

Lessons Learned: This may have a long list of ingredients, but most of them are pantry staples and any well-stocked kitchen will already have all of them.
Don't pound the meat too much. It's already dead. You don't want it to turn to ground beef. Just make it thin enough that it'll roll easily -- 1/4 inch should be good enough.
I ended up with extra sausage mixture, so I made pork meatballs with the rest of it, seared them like the sirloin rolls, then added them to the baking dish with the sauce. They were great.
Some recipes will tell you to tie the rolls before you sear them. If you pound the sirloin thin enough and then roll it tight enough, it will hold its shape when you sear it, thus negating the need for the annoying string to  keep it together.
I'm not sure the spinach adds any noticeable flavor, but it does make me feel nominally healthier because it has roughage in it. I only did a single layer of spinach in each roll.

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