Saturday, January 08, 2011

Brasato di Cervo (Braised Venison)

Well that's Christmas over for another year, and for the first time in many years we've not been able to get to Italy to see the other side of the family and celebrate with them. There's a very good reason we've not been keen to travel far, the arrival of our Son, Max, but that doesn't mean we're not disappointed and feeling a bit low about it. The Italian trip has become something of an institution and it feels like something is missing somehow.

Luckily Nonna did manage to visit before Christmas and meet her grandson briefly in December, and she also brought practically an entire suitcase full of food for us, mostly local from the region. I swear she thinks I starve her daughter back here in England, and the food here is desperately in need of some hearty Italian additions! I have to admit I struggle to disagree given what she brought, the small crunchy breads called Bibanesi for example which I love and can't find in this country. There's also the wonderful Cotechino, a form of pork sausage that's probably quite bad for you but tastes delicious, especially when served with puy lentils cooked with vegetables and butter. There's also the truly local food, venison shot in the Italian alps by the Italians father or one of his friends - it's never entirely clear who shot what it seems. This time around we had mince and something labelled "Rosbeaf Cervo", which I think was some sort of topside joint. Either way I decided to do it in Nonna's style, something I've had many times when visiting the in-laws, a braised dish with root vegetables and wine.

Brasato di Cervo

The trouble with wild food is that you're never entirely sure what you're getting. Farmed food has the reliability of mass production at least, if not the flavour of wild, but it does mean that when a cut ends up on your kitchen sideboard you can't be 100% sure how best to cook it. Braising is something of a fallback in this respect, as there are very few cuts that won't be delicious after slow cooking in a moist flavour rich environment. This dish is something I've seen made a lot in Italy by the Italians mother as well, so I did have something of a head start on it, plus a handy recipe check just a phone call away.

The meat as it arrived - just what is this?!
Nonna is actually a fabulous cook, but in that home style way that is so often overlooked. She cooks simple food incredibly well, something which perhaps could be said is a hallmark of all great Italian cuisine, but something that can be tricky to replicate back home. I find the tendency is to overdo the frippary and miss  the more basic - but critical - aspects of the cooking, which is why proper Italian food is so hard to find outside of Italy. By that I mean the underlying aspects such as how long to cook each part of the recipe, and the correct quantities of each of the ingredients.

This brasato recipe is a case in point, deceptively simple, easy to make, but hard to master. You start with a quick sofritto, then spend some time browning the meat exceptionally well, next deglaze with white wine and then very slow cook until tender.

Step 1: Sofritto

Sofritto is the Italian word for what the French call a mirepoix, a combination of onion, carrot and celery chopped into small dice that is slowly fried in oil or butter to form the base of other dishes. Here is is used as the base flavour for the braise, and also as the sauce used to dress some pasta for the primo.

Often when I cook onions I prefer to do them long and slow, creating an underlying sweetness and mellow onion flavour, but seeing as this is a slow braise anyway there's not so much need. One thing that is important though is to add the ingredients one by one, not all together. This means you can more accurately judge different lengths of cooking for different vegetables, and also that you won't overload the pan cooling it down. The golden rule is:
  • Onion first, 5 minutes or do
  • Carrots next, another 5 minutes or maybe a few more
  • Celerey, for just 3 minutes or even less
Now I should be using celery here, but a trick I've used a few times in the past is to swap this for celeriac leaves instead. I first started to do this as I had some celeriac leaves left over and didn't want to throw them away, but have found that they flavour just as well as celery and in some ways add more interesting notes and texture to a dish. I love the way the leaves end up as speckled flecks of green through the sauce.

Onions in first
Then the carrots after 5 minutes
Next some rosemary and bay
Now for the roughly chopped celeriac leaves
The finished sofritto
I also used a little garlic in this recipe, sliced thickly and added after the celeriac leaves. No need to cook it out, it will soften and flavour the sauce in the long slow braising. There's also some rosemary and bay, but you can add whatever herbs you like really or have available. I wouldn't bother adding dried though, there won't be much flavour left from them by the end.

Thickly sliced garlic
Step 2: Frying the Meat

Once the vegetables have been cooked till just softening it's the meat's turn. Simply turn the sofritto out into a dish on the side, and a little more oil into your pan and then get the meat frying.

Sofritto left on the side. Doesn't matter if it cools down a little, it'll soon be hot again.
Meat is often browned before cooking, and this was once thought to 'seal the meat', keeping it juicy by creating a crust on the outside that keeps moisture in. It's now pretty well known though that this simply isn't true, moisture can escape just as easily from browned meat, what keeps it moist is the cooking technique. What browning does do though is create the Maillard reaction, that wonderful rich dark brown colour imparts all sorts of delicious flavours to the dish.

As usual in many recipes the meat is first tossed in seasoned flour, which will act as a thickener for the sauce. Unusually though the meat is browned for a very long time, 15 minutes or longer. This is something that I've learned from Nonna, and is an absolutely critical part of this dish. It imparts such a deep an rich flavour to the finished brasato it has to be tasted to be be believed!

The meat tossed in seasoned flour
The very well browned meat
The wine has just been added, but the pan not yet deglazed.
Sofritto and meat together, ready for braising.

Once the meat has had it's 15-20 minute browning, delgaze with a generous glass of white wine, and then add the sofritto back in and it's ready for the long slow braise.

Interesting point here - the addition of white wine rather than red wine is another hall mark of Italian cooking that I've discovered. More often than not I'd have used red wine before I met the Italian, but have since learned that it is much more usual to use white wine even in red meat dishes, and I think it does produce a finer result.

Step 3: The long slow braise

Finally, time to do nothing! All you need do now is get the meat on a very slow heat, cover it and leave it alone. When I say very slow, you should be able to see the odd bubble coming up from the bottom of the dish but nothing more than that. The very worst thing you can do to a braise is cook it fast, nothing will toughen meat up quicker. As for timing, you should be aiming for at least 2 hours for a piece this size I would say, longer for larger. If it starts to dry out at all just add a tablespoon or two of water.

The finished dish, a couple of hours later.
Serving: Primo and Secondo

Back home in Italy this would probably be served in the traditional way, primo first then secondo, with the same dish providing the sauce for both. Pasta and rice are usually only served as a 'primo' course, not as a main, with meat and vegetables or salad as a 'secondo' course. A braise like this is perfect as you have a sauce for both.

First take out the meat and leave it to rest as usual - this will help the meat to become even more tender as it relaxes. For this dish I then blitzed some of the sauce in a food processor to make a smoother sauce for some fresh pasta, keeping about half the sauce in the pan with the resting meat.

Sauce on the left for meat, water boiling for pasta, and blitzed pasta sauce warming.
Fresh egg tagliatelle. Hand cut rather than machine cut this time, so a bit rough!
Fresh pasta like this really only needs a minute or so cooking, depending how thinly you've rolled it. I served the braise with some dauphinois potatoes left over from New Year's Eve's dish, so pretty easy food all in.

The primo, fresh egg tagliatelle with the sauce slightly blitzed.
Secondo, slices of braised meat and dauphinois, dressed with the braising sauce.
Hopefully this dish doesn't look too complex, and I hope you'll find time to try it. The flavours really are wonderful, and of course you get leftovers so you only have to cook it once and you can get several meals out of it.

P.S. There's a full library of images from this dish on my Picasa Web Album, Brasato di Cervo. This also includes pictures of making beef, red wine and wild mushroom ravioli - more left overs from New Year. When making pasta it's always a good idea to make a fair bit as you can either freeze it or dry it for another time. Making ravioli like this is a great way of using up leftovers too.


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