Saturday, December 31, 2011

Braciole for the New Year: Fancy Peasant Food

 My favorite Christmas gift this year was the book Frankies Spuntino: Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual, a cookbook that is more a "how to make your own fine Italian restaurant" by Peter Meehan and the two Frankies (Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo) behind Frankies Spuntino restaurants in New York. It was a gift from Steve's daughter Catherine and her boyfriend Homer, who enjoy my cooking and garden. Homer's mother, a native New Yorker now living in Brooklyn, is famous for her Saturday market routine, which involves rising very early to get to the farmers' market by 6 a.m. and then traveling all over the city for various goods. I'm not an early riser, but I'd like to think that the next time I'm in New York, if things align, I could accompany her.

My own two years in Brooklyn (1989-91) were very important to me in terms of my food experience. I was in my mid-twenties, in graduate school, living in Park Slope above a video store on 7th Avenue. I'd walk to 4th Avenue to the first real fish market I ever encountered (as a Midwesterner, not surprising). It had a screen door that slammed shut behind customers with a slap like a summer cabin in the Catskil

I tried to recreate dishes I had at the local restaurants, including the pasta primavera with seafood at an Italian restaurant down the street. My friends Frances Storey and Jim Mindnich introduced me to more good food and some tucked away places that were cheap, ethnic and delicious. They lived in Carroll Gardens, and I could ride my bike to their loft, where we often had Sunday dinner and a movie. I particularly loved riding my bike home afterward through the quiet but still active neighborhood streets.

Shortly after I began reading the book, I became fixated on one particular dish: the braciole (pronounced bra-JOEL, with joel pronounced like a French name with a soft 'j'). It's peasant food, a cheap cut of pork tenderly prepared and cooked in simmering tomato sauce for three hours. It's the Italian brisket, that other great peasant food, that makes a masterpiece out of a fatty piece of gristly meat. I couldn't wait to try it, and set my sights on New Year's Eve.

I loved everything about making this meal, including gathering the ingredients. I went to our local fine grocery, Byerly's, for the white pepper and the Italian tomatoes. I used two cans of LaValle tomatoes, which at $2.59 a can were a luxury-- and were the most luxurious, sensuous canned tomatoes I've ever had the pleasure of crushing between my fingers. I added two jars of my own canned tomatoes, draining off a bit of the water. The tomato sauce consists of olive oil, 18 cloves of garlic (13 but I used 5 more), salt and the tomatoes. I started it cooking at 2:30, thinking I needed four hours, but really I should have started even earlier. As soon as I finished the chocolate tart at noon I should have started it simmering, but I'll know better next time.

I bought the pork roast, a boneless butt, a while ago from Newmans farm, a couple who sell their meat at our farmer's market. Not sure it was the same as "boneless pork shoulder," I stopped by the meat market and asked for just that. They said, "Oh, you'd want a boneless butt roast," looking kind of dubious about it. I told them that I had one of those, bought some local Gruyere (the recipe called for aged provolone, but I just love this Gruyere, and it is locally made), and left. I realized the butcher's puzzled look when I cut into the roast. It's a cheap cut of meat, quite fatty. The Newmans sold it to me along with a finer cut of pork, suggesting I roast them together. The fat from one would help keep them both moist. I'm glad I found a better method of cooking it than throwing it in a pot with some liquid and hoping for the best.

You cut the roast in 6 filets, butterfly them and stuff them with cheese, parsley, salt, pepper and garlic, then roll and tie them with kitchen twine. After the tomato sauce has simmered an hour or two (in my case, 45 minutes) you "tuck them into the sauce" and simmer for three more hours. You skim the grease off the top (a combination of pork fat and the olive oil) and let the meat sit a half hour before putting it over pasta, slathering it with sauce, and serving it.

The only question-- the big question-- is, will it be worth it? For me, it was a lovely afternoon. I proofed the galleys of the book while making trips to stir the sauce, breaks to prepare the shaved raw Brussels sprouts  and dressing, have a little wine, stir the sauce again, have a glass of Pellegrino, etc.

Tim and Annie came for dinner, and I have to say, yes, it was worth it. I will make this again, definitely. As peasant food goes, it's the fanciest, and it was tender, flavorful, and really not difficult at all. Fun, even. With some dinner rolls, the Brussels sprouts and chocolate tart, it was a wonderful meal, and we all left the table stuffed and satisfied. My brother had provided the wine from Portugal, a 2008 Quinta de Infantado, full-bodied and smooth.

For me, this meal was the perfect end to 2011. It captured so much of what I've tried to incorporate into my life this year: my garden tomatoes, organic Brussels sprouts from the Minnesota Market Co-op in St. Joseph, local meat and cheese from the meat market and farmers' market. It was slow-cooked with love and delight and served to family in my warm and festive kitchen, preceded by some homemade cheese and crackers.

My goal for 2012 is to visit the actual Frankies Spuntino in Carroll Gardens and check out the braciole in person. They say the biggest compliment they get from Italian Americans is "it tastes like mine," which means it is as good as mama made it back in the day. Perfection would be to have Frances and Jim come with me, but that is mostly a New Year's wish, with thoughts of old friends and good times in places far away. 

Happy New Year, everyone. May it be a good one for us all.

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