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EAT MY WORDS: Mobsters, stuffed meat and holiday traditions

Braciole, Italian stuffed beef roll, long simmered tomato sauce, grated romano cheese, and parsley with whole wheat spaghetti. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)1 / 4
Braciole, Italian stuffed beef roll, long simmered tomato sauce, grated romano cheese, and parsley with whole wheat spaghetti. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)2 / 4
Braciole, Italian stuffed beef roll, long simmered tomato sauce, grated romano cheese, and parsley with whole wheat spaghetti. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)3 / 4
Braciole, Italian stuffed beef roll, long simmered tomato sauce, grated romano cheese, and parsley with whole wheat spaghetti. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)4 / 4

DULUTH, Minn. — We all have traditions, customary things we do, foods we eat and songs we sing to help us celebrate and commemorate events in our lives. This end of fall and early winter that we call the "holiday season" seems to be rife with them. Whether it's Thanksgiving, winter solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, St. Lucia Day or Diwali, there are parties to be had, songs to be sung and foods to be eaten by almost everyone.

Traditions can run strong in families, especially this time of year. When you ask your grandmother why we always light candles, hang wreaths and wrap the dogs tails in red ribbon, she'll tell you that it's what we've always done, this family is a tail-wrapping family.

Sometimes, when a young couple is just starting to find their way together in the world, they decide they should make their own traditions. Unfettered by their constraining familial ties, they decide that instead of racing around in a vain attempt to see everyone during the holidays, maybe they'll stay home and have a nice quiet time together. Watch some seasonal movies, pop some corn and drink hot mulled cider. Voila, a tradition is born. And no tails get wrapped.

My lady friend and I made a similar decision early in our life together. We would have our own holiday tradition. For my birthday the previous summer, she had gotten me a cookbook. It combined two things that I was very interested in at the time: the American mafia and cooking. It was aptly titled "The Mafia Cookbook" and written by Joseph "Joe Dogs" Iannuzzi.

The author had been an associate of the Gambino crime family in New York and, when not doing crimes, cooked for the family. After being an informant, turning state's evidence and testifying against the family, Iannuzzi went into the witness protection program and wrote a cookbook chronicling the foods he prepared and the mob members who ate his culinary creations.

Amongst the recipes for Shrimp Scampi and Veal Marsala and New York Strip Steak Florentine was a recipe for stuffed beef rolls called Braciole (pronounced bra-jole). As soon as I read the recipe, I knew I had to make it. Who wouldn't want thinly sliced beef topped with garlic, Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs and parsley rolled into pinwheeled logs and simmered for hours in a chunky marinara sauce.

Apparently not my lady friend. Something about having the oven on for hours in the middle of summer. I'd have to wait. By the time winter rolled around, I had forgotten all about the dish. We were living in a new town, working new jobs and were generally occupied with our new lives. My workplace was celebrating the winter holidays with an employee potluck, and I was wracking my brain trying to come up with a dish to pass. My lady friend suggested Braciole. I was ecstatic. Positive that it would be the biggest hit at the potluck, I made an extra large batch the night before the event. Everyone said they loved it, but with a dish that rich and heavy, there were bound to be leftovers.

It's a good thing Braciole is always better on the second (or third or fourth) day because I had made a ton of it. My lady friend and I reheated it the next day and had it over spaghetti. It was delicious. Rich and beefy and tender, the rolls melted in our mouths. We gorged ourselves and still had leftovers. The next day, as we watched the snow fall gently to the ground through our apartment window, we sliced the little beef logs into thin rounds and made sandwiches with mayonnaise on whole-wheat bread. It was then that we decided that this would be our new traditional Christmas dinner, Braciole with enough leftover for sandwiches. It felt good, having our own tradition.

We made Braciole again on a couple of different occasions, but it never really caught on as a long-standing tradition. That wasn't really the point. When we were together, eating those leftover Braciole sandwiches, deciding that this would be our tradition, we felt like we had really formed our own holiday for ourselves. We didn't need to make Braciole every year, or light candles or wrap dog tails with ribbon. We just needed to be together and value that time with each other. That became our true tradition.

Braciole beef rolls

1 pound beef, top round or sirloin, thinly sliced

2+2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

½ medium onion, finely diced

4 ounces crimini mushrooms, finely diced

½ cup spinach, chopped

⅓ cup walnuts, chopped small

⅓ cup parsley, minced

½ cup Romano cheese, grated

½ cup provolone cheese, diced small

1 tablespoon breadcrumbs

2 teaspoons garlic, minced

Salt and pepper

Place beef slices between sheets of plastic wrap and pound as thin as possible with a heavy pan or cast-iron skillet. Set aside. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium skillet and saute onion, mushrooms and spinach until tender, about 5 minutes. Refrigerate to cool. Lay beef out and cut into pieces about 4 inches by 7 inches. Combine sauteed vegetables with all remaining ingredients except salt and pepper. Sprinkle beef with salt and pepper and spread with filling. Roll tightly into 4-inch cylinders. Secure each roll with toothpicks or butcher's twine. Heat remaining olive oil in a Dutch oven or heavy bottomed stock pot and brown beef rolls on each side. Set aside.

Sauce

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

4 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped

2 teaspoons minced garlic

½ teaspoon dry oregano

½ teaspoon dry basil

½ cup dry red wine

1 28-ounce can crushed tomato

1 28-ounce can diced tomato

½ teaspoon red pepper flakes

½ cup beef stock or broth

Chopped parsley and grated Romano cheese for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heat olive oil in the same pan used to brown the beef rolls. Saute onions, carrot, mushrooms and garlic in the oil, scraping the bottom of the pan while stirring. Add the dried herbs and saute for 5-7 minutes until the vegetables are soft. Deglaze pan with red wine, scraping any bits from the bottom. Add crushed tomato, diced tomato, red pepper flakes and beef stock. Stir well and bring to a simmer. Add beef rolls and press down lightly until they are barely submerged. Cover and place in the oven. Bake for three hours until rolls are tender and sauce has a rich, beefy flavor. Remove from oven and serve over whole-wheat spaghetti (or other pasta) topped with chopped parsley and grated Romano cheese.

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