This post comes to us courtesy of chef and writer Anne Brown.
My father-in-law has an often-said motto: “I don’t eat to live, I live to eat!” His motto allowed me to ditch the usual sports and weather icebreakers when I first met my in-laws nearly ten years ago and go straight to talking about food.
At first, talk of food served its simple conversation starting purposes. We’d share recipes, some favorite dining experiences and a few cooking experiment horror stories. But as our relationship developed I realized using culinary chat as an icebreaker was no shallow conversation starter. It was a unique and intimate way to get to know my future family members.
Our shared love for food was one of the ways we figured out how to get to know one another. Once we started cooking what we talked about together, the conversations always ended with a plate wiped clean and an empty wine glass… or bottle.
I’ve used this icebreaker often since I learned of its effectiveness. It’s very unusual to get a brief response when you ask, “What is the best meal of your life?” Often the edible details of a life-changing meal are only a small part of the story; people unknowingly share some of the best parts of their lives with you in an effort to answer the question. I have heard about adventures all over the world, visits with loved ones rarely seen, tales of pride in trying something one never thought they would, side-splitting anecdotes of attempts to recreate the meal gone wrong, even lingering sadness in knowing the meal — and whatever brought people to it — could never be recreated again.
One of the favorite dishes my husband and his family would bring up often was an Italian dish my father-in-law’s mother would make called “brush-all” (this is all I could make of the word before I finally learned of its correct spelling, ate it, and never blasphemed again). They had gotten out of the habit of cooking it, and I wanted to surprise my husband by making it for him at home. The problem was, I couldn’t find the recipe to save my life. I had almost given in and thought it was a dish known by his family, and his family alone, until I asked my father-in-law for help in a last ditch effort. I told him I had Googled it, searched in every Italian cookbook I picked up, asked people I knew… nothing. He wrote a quick recipe down for me and on the top of the scrap of paper it said, “Braciole.”
Before I had the chance to make the braciole on my own, my in-laws decided to make it for Christmas dinner, but with a fun twist. My mother-in-law made a fantastic stuffed version and my father-in-law stuck to a more basic version of the incredible flank steak roll, filled with coarse ground black pepper, lots of sliced garlic and grated Romano cheese, tightly rolled and slowly braised in spicy red sauce. That Christmas dinner was one of the best meals of my life, and it started our family tradition of “Braciole Wars.” I will never dare to say which one wins, but I will say it’s not always the same winner from year to year. I am sharing my version of my father-in-law’s braciole here, not because I choose his over my mother-in-laws, but because it is a great simple version to start with for those who have never tried it.
2 pieces flank steak, about 2 pounds each
2 cups grated Romano cheese (my father-in-law insists on Locatelli Romano; it is what I use, but it’s not always easy to find)
Enough coarsely ground black pepper to coat one side of the flank steak
2 whole heads of garlic, cloves separated and sliced
About 72 oz. of your favorite red sauce (we use 50% arrabiata and 50% marinara)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Lay the flank steaks flat on a clean surface and pound until a little flatter and of even thickness. Season both sides with sea salt. Generously coat what will be the inside of the roll with coarsely ground black pepper. Layer the sliced cloves of one head of garlic for each piece of flank steak over the pepper and follow with one cup of the grated cheese for each.
Roll lengthwise so the seam of the roll is parallel to the grain of the meat. This way, when you slice the rolls, you won’t have long stringy pieces, you will have short, fork tender slices.
Tie the rolls tightly shut with cotton cooking twine. Start by tying a knot on one end, then drawing the string about a 1/4″ up the roll, wrapping it around the roll and looping the end under so it makes a “T.”
Continue until you reach the end of the roll and tie another knot to secure. The finished roll should look like this:
Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a large, wide dutch oven (I use my Le Creuset 6 3/4 quart wide dutch oven) and bring to medium-high heat. When hot, add the rolls and brown on all sides. Really get them deep and beautifully brown, this adds an incredible amount of flavor to the meat and to the sauce it cooks in.
Pour the red sauce over the rolls and place the pan in the oven, covered, for 3 hours. After 3 hours, remove the lid and check to see if the rolls are fork tender. If they aren’t, cook em’ longer. And if the sauce could stand to be a little thicker, cook for about a half an hour with the lid off.
Remove the rolls from the pan and place on a heat safe cutting board. Remove the strings and slice to desired thickness. Serve with pasta, or if you’re feeling decadent, serve it my favorite way: with a simple Parmesan risotto.
Serves 8 people who have never had it before — so they won’t grab as much on the first go round. Or, serves 6 people who are being polite and possibly shy and won’t grab as much as they really want to. Or, serves 4 with a little leftover for a killer midnight snack.
About the author: Anne Brown, a Michigan native, is a chef and writer who lives with her patient husband and a scrappy terrier. After her obsession with getting her favorite recipes right began to haunt her dreams, she enrolled in culinary school. After culinary school, Anne realized she liked to talk about food as much as she liked cooking it. In 2010, Anne earned a journalism degree and launched Anne Brown Creative, a copywriting firm dedicated to all things culinary. While she appreciates the song and dance involved in a five-course meal, she craves a great meatloaf followed by a warm chocolate chip cookie more often.