Sunday, December 15, 2013

Maltese Bragioli, "Beef Olives"

Alternate title: "Lessons Learned When Pounding Meat."

Or: "Let the Butcher Do the Work for You."

Let me backtrack and explain what bragioli is before I get too ahead of myself. This is a popular Maltese dish, similar to the Italian braciole, except there's more meat and it's not rolled like a roulade. Basically, a thin cut of steak is wrapped around a mixture of ground meat, eggs, breadcrumbs, and herbs and then the whole bundle is simmered in a sauce. The little bundle somewhat resembles a stuffed olive, which explains the nickname for the dish.

There are many, many variations of bragioli. Sometimes ground beef is used, other times pork. Sometimes there's a mixture of bacon, pancetta, or sausage with hard-boiled eggs. Cheese might or might not make an appearance. The sauce can range from a simple beef gravy to something more akin to a tomato sauce. Luckily, Nanna left detailed instructions on exactly how to make her version. 

The bragioli recipe that Nanna had written out only lists the ingredients with no mention of quantities whatsoever, and we've long established here that Nanna wasn't one for writing directions. Fortunately, my mom has made this dish several times so I was able to consult with her. After listening to my many questions and requests for detailed measurements, she gave me some good pointers and then a vote of confidence by telling me, "You're a seasoned cook. You're basically wrapping steak around a meatloaf and then simmering it in a beef gravy. Trust your intuition."

Okay, meatloaf. I can do that. Beef gravy, I can do that too. 

Armed with the list of ingredients that Nanna always used in her bragioli, my mom's advice, and internet research, I came up with the measurements and wrote out a baseline procedure. I wanted to honor Nanna's recipe, but after my research, I was tempted to make a few tweaks. I added a little bacon to the filling since it's pretty traditional, and, hello, it's bacon! I also added a little red wine to the gravy for complexity. My mom's one insistence though, which I actually had a hard time accepting at first, was to use Bisto instead of a homemade beef stock. If you're like me and never spent much time across the pond, you've probably never heard of this Bristish "favourite." I certainly hadn't. My mom was quite nostalgic for it and tried to convince me of its attributes, insisting that it really wasn't worth it to make my own beef stock for this dish. Her final selling point -- "Don't you want your bragioli to taste like Nanna's?"

So I bit the bullet there, refused to look at the ingredient list, and used Bisto. I have to admit, those beefy little granules do turn out a pretty mean gravy.

The most difficult task for me was getting the steaks to the right size. I was in a hurry when I bought the flank steak from my local butcher, so I wasn't thinking about how thin I would actually need the steak. When I got home and unwrapped it, I saw that it was way too thick, beyond the help of a mallet. I precariously attempted to butterfly it, and somehow the steak survived without getting mangled.

My success there was only followed by more trouble. Despite my best efforts, when I used my mallet to even out the thickness of the steak, it only got longer instead of getting any wider. This was a problem because you want the steak to be fairly boxy so that you can completely enclose the stuffing on all sides. The skinny rectangles I ended up with were not ideal, and it took me quite awhile to seal the bundles. I also had to get creative with toothpick placement on a few of them. Out of the four, only one really resembled an olive.

From there it was pretty much smooth sailing. The bragioli seared nicely, I made a quick and tasty gravy, and the bragioli simmered happily in it for several hours as wonderful aromas permeated throughout the house.

When served over creamy mashed potatoes, the results were the very definition of comfort food.

Maltese Bragioli, "Beef Olives"
Adapted from Nanna

Serves: 4

Prep Time: 1 hour; Cook Time: 2 hours

For the bragioli
1 lb thinly sliced flank steak, skirt steak, or top round steak
2 slices bacon, diced
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/4 cup bread crumbs, seasoned
1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1/2 lb ground chuck
2 tablespoons olive oil

For the gravy
2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine, drinking quality
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 tablespoons Bisto
1 bay leaf

Cover steak with plastic wrap and, using the smooth end of a mallet, pound it flat, about a 1/4 of an inch. Cut the steak into four pieces, so that each piece is roughly 5 by 7 inches (or at least that aspect ratio). These will not be perfect rectangles, so don't fret over any irregular shapes; just try not to let them get too skinny. Set aside. 

In a medium bowl, add bacon, eggs, Parmesan, bread crumbs, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper, and stir until thoroughly combined. Gently mix in the ground chuck, making sure not to overwork it.

Even distribute mixture onto the steaks, mounding the mixture into the center of each. Gather the ends of the steak and, using a toothpick, fasten together. Secure the openings on either end with more toothpicks, so that the entire bragiola is sealed. Repeat with remaining steaks. If desired, sprinkle salt and pepper over the bundles.

Place a heavy bottomed Dutch oven or large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add oil and allow to heat. Once oil begins to ripple, add the bragioli, making sure to not crowd the pan; fry in multiple batches if needed. Cook for 1-2 minutes a side. Remove from pan and reduce the heat to low.

Add butter and onions to the pan, stirring frequently, until softened, about 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds more. Add red wine and using a spatula, scrape up any bits that remain on the bottom of the pan. Add water and increase heat to medium-high. Once liquid begins to softly boil, whisk in Bisto. Add bay leaf and return the bragioli to the pot. Cover, reduce heat to low, and allow to simmer for at least 1 1/2 hours, turning the bragioli occasionally if not completely submerged. Adjust seasoning of gravy to taste. Remove toothpicks before serving.

Serving Suggestions: The Maltese love to pair bragioli with potatoes! We love mashed potatoes in our family, but boiled potatoes would be lovely as well. A nice side salad pairs well as do green peas and carrots. 

-Have the butcher slice the steaks for you! Otherwise, you might have to butterfly them like I did.
-The toothpicks were actually a little difficult to pull out. I found the easiest way to remove them was to hold the bragiola with a fork and then use tongs to pull out the toothpicks.
-Bisto can be found in the British section of the international aisle at most grocery stores. If you can't find it, you can substitute it with beef base or replace the Bisto and water with beef stock. You will also want to make a cornstarch slurry to thicken the sauce.
-This can successfully be simmered in a crock pot for several hours on low. My mom used to do this all the time!


  1. ..I'm dying here...!
    They look so good!, just like my mother and Nana used to make.
    We need more!

    1. Thanks John!

      It's so intimidating to recreate those cherished family recipes, but it's well worth the effort when you finally succeed. I hope you give it a shot, and please let me know how it turns out if you do!

  2. Try using eye of round roast sliced into thin rounds and pound them into even thinner rounds.This is what Nana Esther always uses. One of my favorite Maltese dishes. YUM...

    1. Thanks for the tip! I will try that next time!

  3. I made this last night for the first time and it was amazing! My own nana passed away when my mom was just a girl soI have none of her recipes. THANK YOU!

    1. Aww, you're so welcome Tammy!! I'm really happy the recipe was a success for you! You might want to check out some of our other Maltese recipes. They might be able to help supplement other lost family favorites.