Angela, my Italian grandmother, defied stereotypes in the most disappointing way - she wasn't much of a cook.
A first-generation American, she learned authentic Italian cooking from her mother, who hailed from the Abruzzi region of Italy. But good training didn't stop Angela from substituting waxy slices of American cheese for fresh mozzarella, if it was cheaper or easier.
Depression-era anxiety and a meager family budget stalked her through the supermarket. And, though it was nearly unheard of in her Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s, she held down a full-time job while raising her family.
At the end of her shift at the IRS office where she operated the switchboard, cooking was just another chore. And it showed.
But I draw inspiration from memories of my grandmother's food anyway. I have to, since they're the only childhood memories of home-cooked meals I have.
While other girls might have been helping their moms make meatballs or osso bucco after school, my mother worked from the time she was 10, scrubbing floors and doing laundry for strangers. So she never learned even basic kitchen skills, and when she had kids of her own, she simply kept the freezer well-stocked with our favorite frozen foods and showed us how to safely operate the microwave.
I taught myself to cook in my 20s, desperately hungry for the homemade food I so rarely had growing up, and I'm proud of my achievements behind the stove.
I know Angela would be, too. In the last years of her life, she was more than happy to turn the wooden spoon over to me, letting me show her a few recipe upgrades.
And though her efforts often missed the mark, certain flavors from her kitchen whisper to me through the years, asking me to mine my best memories of this family food and to redeem her dishes.
I can still taste the tangy, rich flavor of her tomato sauce, rippled with orange currents of beef fat, soaked into a warm Italian roll.
This gravy was at its best whenever she made her trademark Sunday dish: braciole, thin slabs of beef rolled with a garlicky bread-crumb filling and braised. My grandmother stuffed her braciole with a scant mixture of bread crumbs, Romano cheese, and a flurry of dried herbs.
The meat rolls emerged stringy and livery, dry in spite of a long bath in the tomato sauce. Even as a child, I knew this couldn't be what it was supposed to taste like. As a food-crazed adult, I set out to bring this dish back to my table, but better.
For clues about how to cook a batch of braciole worthy of the time and effort, I called Joe Cicala, chef at Le Virtù restaurant in South Philadelphia. He has studied and cooked all over southern Italy, where this preparation has its roots.
"People forget this, but Italian food is the food of poverty," he said. "Braciole's main purpose was to stretch a cheaper cut of meat to feed a large family."
In Italy, braciole is made with secondary cuts of goat or lamb - never costly beef. The recipe changed when immigrants applied the thrifty cooking techniques of home to the abundance of ingredients in American markets.
Today, most family recipes call for "braciole meat," which you can readily find at Esposito's in the Italian Market or request at the grocery store meat counter. It's always top round beef sliced thin.
According to Cicala, for optimal tenderness, you should pound it even thinner at home.
That's one place my grandmother went wrong. Skipping that step means the meat won't reach its potential, no matter how long you braise it.
Patience, a quality that doesn't exactly run in my family, matters, too. Slow and low is the mantra of correct braising, and I suspect my grandmother's flame was high while she hurried through the cooking process.
The first time I attempted this dish, before I talked to Cicala, I simmered my braciole for the measly one hour specified by many recipes. The leathery texture of the final product proved that it wasn't enough.
On my next try, I hewed to the flavor profile Cicala described as his favorite, stuffing the beef with a mixture of bread, garlic, pine nuts, and raisins, adding a glug of red wine vinegar to the tomato sauce for a sweet-and-sour effect. (The vinegar, explained Cicala, also helps tenderize the meat.) This time, I braised my braciole for a full three hours and let it cool slightly in its sauce before digging in.
As the beef unraveled into glistening shreds at the touch of my fork, I could feel my grandmother's pat on the back from beyond.
But the truth is that this bruiser of a braciole was a bit heavy for my palate. And the food writer in me relished the possibilities: What about chicken thighs? These would braise in a fraction of the time, and the meat's mild flavor would let the stuffing shine.
I filled poultry paillards with a puree of smoked mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and almonds, to delicious effect.
For my final tweak, I developed an unfussy braciole-inspired meatball. Spheres of ground beef run through with the classic flavors of prosciutto, garlic, raisins, and cheese.
These come together quickly enough that even my grandmother would have had the wherewithal to make them after work.
With my trio of new recipes for her signature dish, I felt almost as if we had spent the time working it out together (aided by cookbooks, my husband, the Internet, and chef Cicala, of course).
For some people, keeping a grandmother's memory alive means replicating a recipe exactly as she made it. In my case, it means honoring my grandmother's best intentions, making things the way my great-grandmother probably taught her.
And though her values about food and ideas about cooking were different than mine, I know she wanted to make food that would bring her family together. And she wanted it to be remembered.
Not My Grandmother's Braciole
Makes 12-14 braciole (about 6 servings)
2 cups (2 slices) cubed white bread, crusts removed
1 cup milk
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese (1 ounce)
1/3 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds braciole meat (top round beef, sliced thin), pounded into 12 1/4-inch-thick pieces
1/4 pound prosciutto (about 12 to 14 thin slices)
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
4 cups basic tomato sauce (homemade or bought)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
2. Make the stuffing: In a medium bowl, combine the bread and milk and let stand until the bread has softened and absorbed most of the milk, about 5 minutes. (Pour off any excess milk.) Add the parsley, cheese, raisins, pine nuts, and garlic and stir to combine. Reserve.
3. Arrange the beef slices on a large cutting board, and top each with a slice of prosciutto. Divide the filling evenly among the beef slices, and spread it out, leaving a 1/2-inch border around the edges. Take hold of the short edge of one slice and roll the beef and filling up into a fat but compact log. Tie the roll with butcher's twine like a gift, cinching the edges shut, and season with salt and pepper. (Alternatively, use picks to secure the rolls.) Repeat with the remaining rolls.
4. In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat and brown the braciole logs on both sides, about 4 minutes per side, working in batches as necessary to avoid crowding. Add more olive oil for a second batch, if needed. Remove the braciole to a plate as they are browned and set aside. Don't worry if any stuffing falls out as it braises; that will become part of the sauce.
5. Add the tomato sauce and red wine vinegar and bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pot as you stir to loosen any brown bits. Nestle the braciole into the liquid and cover. Transfer to the oven, and cook for about 3 hours, or until the meat is tender. Remove the butcher's twine.
Per serving (based on 6): 584 calories, 58 grams protein, 20 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 30 grams fat, 145 milligrams cholesterol, 1,271 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber
Makes 18 meatballs, about 9 servings
2 slices white bread, cut into cubes
1/3 cup milk
1 pound ground beef
1/4 pound prosciutto, minced (or ask the butcher counter to grind it)
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese (1 ounce)
1/4 cup grated sharp provolone cheese (1 ounce)
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup raisins, chopped
1 egg, beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 cups basic tomato sauce
2 tablespoons vinegar
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
2. In a small mixing bowl, combine the bread and milk and let stand.
3. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, combine the beef, prosciutto, Romano and provolone cheeses, nuts, raisins, egg, garlic, parsley, salt, and red pepper flakes. Drain any excess milk from the bread cubes, and add them to the beef mixture. Mix gently until evenly blended.
4. With wet hands, form the mixture into meatballs (about 2 heaping tablespoons each). Arrange them on a baking sheet lined with a nonstick baking mat or parchment, and bake until they are brown and cooked through, about 15 minutes.
5. While the meatballs are in the oven, combine the tomato sauce and vinegar in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat.
6. When the meatballs are finished, add them to the saucepan and stir gently. Simmer the meatballs and sauce together for five minutes to allow the flavors to blend. Serve with pasta or polenta.
Per serving: 240 calories, 23 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 86 milligrams cholesterol, 1,115 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.