Involtini. A flavorful pinwheel of meat and stuffing. I hadn’t had any in over twenty years. It took me a long time to realize that I was going to get to eat it again for Christmas dinner, even as I rolled my hands up to help cook it.
Seventeen people were coming for Christmas dinner and my mother-in-law Joan’s house. When I left Ukiah on Tuesday to take my son to visit with grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, I thought Joan was cooking a turducken and I was thrilled. I almost cooked a turducken for Thanksgiving, but went traditional banging out the perfect turkey; so my joy at trying this remakable ballotine was nearly palpable.
Turducken is a Lousiana specialty where a turkey is boned and stuffed with a boned duck, which was previously stuffed with a boned chicken, all further stuffed with cornbread and sausage stuffing; and a ballotine is a protein, meat, fish or fowl, that has been boned, stuffed, rolled, tied, and cooked.
When I arrived Tuesday, Joan told me that turducken was off the menu, she did not remove the poultry from the shipping container, thinking that there was enough dry ice to keep it well for several days. Sadly, most food is shipped with only enough dry ice to get it safely to your door and such was the case here, the turducken was unfrozen and not cold on the outside, and as it was poultry that meant that there was surely spoilage.
Joan told me that we would be having a “brah-zhule” on polenta. I didn’t know what a “brah-zhule” was, but didn’t confess to my ignorance.
On Wednesday, Joan and I started prepping Christmas dinner. I love cooking with Joan, she is a great cook, and our backgrounds do not overlap, so I always learn a ton cooking with her. Joan asked me to pound out some already thin carne asada meat, either flank or skirt steak, so that each steak was larger in surface area. I pounded each piece of carne asada until it was about twice the original surface area.
Meanwhile, Joan combined garlic, flat-leaf parsley, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, pine nuts, and bacon. Joan spooned the mixture onto the meat, rolled it up, and I tied each ballotine with cooking string.
With a flash of comprehension, I realized that “brah-zhule” was similar to what I knew as involtini. A check on the internet, and I find that braciole and involtini are the exact same food item and oddly has two names.
Traditionally, instead of spooning a lump of the stuffing mixture onto the meat, and wrapping it by rolling and tying, the stuffing is usually spread thinly along the surface of the meat, then rolled and tied. The only difference is that the involtini/braciole, when sliced, will present a pinwheel of meat and stuffing when prepared in the traditional manner.
Joan made meatballs and browned them, then put them in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Next, she browned and added to the pan both sweet Italian and hot Italian sausages, some boneless pork shoulder, and the involtini.
We covered the meats in an Italian red sauce of tomato, wine, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices, and set it in the oven to cook most of the way, just needing a little oven time on Christmas to reheat and finish.
On Christmas day, Joan set about cooking polenta in a crock pot, using a recipe by Michele Anna Jordan found in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Polenta is a cornmeal mush with butter and cheese, and is to Italian cooking what rice is to many other cultures. Put it on a plate, and top it with what you have available. Peasant food become fancy.
Okay, here’s the thing; I grew up eating a lot of involtini in Italian red sauce over polenta. I grew up in an Italian family, and the men hunted. Weekends would find twenty or more Italian men up at a 13,500 acre ranch, hunting by day and cooking by night. This is a dish I ate in endless variety growing up, the meat and stuffing changing, almost always cooked by men. Imagine the scene in the Godfather where Clemenza is teaching Michael the art of making spaghetti sauce for twenty, or the scene from Goodfellas where, in prison, Paulie is slicing garlic with a razor blade paper thin for tomato sauce. That’s how it felt growing up. Men cooked, not all the time, but almost always better than the women.
Other treats cooked up for Christmas dinner included my take on a Rachael Ray recipe potato dish: I cut up 1 1/2 pound each of baby fingerling heirloom potatoes, baby ruby gold potatoes, baby dutch yellow potatoes, and baby South American purple potatoes. I cut each baby potato in half length wise, then cut them from one end to the other into 1/4″ slices. I put the six pounds of sliced potatoes into a roasting pan.
To 6 cups of heavy cream, I added a stick of butter, 4 cloved of crushed fresh garlic, and 4 sprigs each of sage, rosemary and thyme. I cooked over a medium flame, stirring constantly for about 20 minutes, deeply infusing the cream with flavor. I strained the cream, adding about two ounces of microplaned (super finely grated) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and poured the super flavored cream over the potatoes.
Next, I microplaned five more ounces of Parmigiano-Reggiano into a large bowl, then spead the cheese on top of the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 50 minutes. Better than Rachael’s recipe, more flavorful, it came out just fine; think of an Italian rustic potato au gratin dish.
There was sweet potato wrapped marshmallow, on a pineapple ring, topped with a cherry, a spiral cut ham, a perfectly baked salmon with lemon, butter and herb, stuffed zucchini, baked oyster, green bean casserole, salad, french bread, and more. It was all great, but for me, it was all about the involtini.
For my first pass through the chow line, I ladled polenta onto my plate, on top of the polenta I put meats, the involtini, some meatballs, some pork shoulder, and some sausage, and on top of the meat I ladled Italian red sauce.
I also poured myself a glass of the 2008 Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois, a blend of Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With raspberry notes from the Zin, cherry from the Merlot, and blackberry from the Cab, this wine was loaded with rich juicy red fruit notes, and was a great wine for dinner as each food could find a different element of the wine to pair with. Inexpensive, only about $12 a bottle, I was impressed throughout the meal with this wine’s versatility and deliciousness. Honestly, better with food than without.
I spent quite a while with my first plate at dinner, scooping a little polenta, a bit of meat, and some sauce into a perfect bite, sipping a little wine, the emergent whole so much better than the sum of its parts. Each bite a joyful experience, and a trigger to memories of times spent with my father, my brother, and a bunch of old Italian men many years ago.
My second plate was a tasting of the other dishes. While good, some great – I have to get the stuffed zucchini recipe – none, for me, matched the magic of involtini, sauce, and polenta.
I had a glass of bubbly, Korbel’s first sparkler, their Sec. Korbel Sec is made with French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, and is a little sweeter than most bubblies, but not cloyingly so. It was nice to have bubbly on hand. One of Joan’s daughters (my son’s aunt) got married last week, and a grandaughter (my son’s cousin) will have a baby next month on or near my birthday. There were many reasons to be enjoying bobbly, but any day that ends in “y” is a good day to drink bubbly – no reason needed.
For Christmas, I received an electric pepper mill, an oregano dipping oil, a “green” water bottle, and a stack of old Cook’s Illustrated magazines, from the folks who produce America’s Test Kitchen on PBS. I am really looking forward to reading the food magazines, they look chock full of ideas for me to try out.
I was pleased to see my son’s face as he opened his presents. He listened to the rock songs featuring saxophone that I loaded onto his new iPod, is ecstatic about getting an XBox 360, and is old enough to be happy about getting new clothes.
It was great seeing family, it is nice that I am friends with my son’s mom, my ex-wife, and that her family still consider me their son-in-law, brother-in-law, or uncle. It was great getting to cook, and getting to help cook. It was fun learning that involtini is also known as braciole.
One of the best Christmas gifts I received were the memories of times spent with my father, triggered by food. My father passed away in 2008, but he was alive in my memory as I cooked and ate Christmas dinner.