Friday, November 4, 2011

A roast for a rainy day

There’s nothing worse than having guests staying with you when it’s raining. They’ve come all the way from sodden Belfast expecting, indeed demanding sunshine, only to get three days of relentless rain forecasted. Italy isn’t exactly a country that shines in the rain. There’s nothing to do. We can’t do the passagiata, we can’t sit outside the bar and look pretty and stylish to passers-by and we can’t walk on our beloved beaches. Italians just don’t look their best in the rain. Tans are sequestered under raincoats and designer sunglasses stay in their cases. What’s to see under the canopy of an umbrella?

In response to the changing seasons, Italians go into hibernation. We bury ourselves behind an enormous woodpile and don’t come out until the last bough is smoldering on the fire.

As for myself, I’ve developed strategies for when the rains come. First, I light the fire. Next, and this is important, I throw a nice roast into the oven. There’s nothing quite like the aroma of a slow cooking joint of meat to lift the mood. Any roast will do, just as long as it’s slow roasted – the slower the better.

Today I opted for a tasca ripiena – literally ‘stuffed pocket’. It’s a dish that’s popular in Piacentine cuisine, particularly in parts of the province bordering with Liguria. Like so many of Italy’s better dishes, it’s one that has its origins in cucina povera - or, food of the poor. In order to make a piece of meat stretch further, the idea was to cut a hole in the joint and stuff it. The joint most commonly used here is known as the spinacino cut of meat, also known as the fiocco. It is traditionally made with veal but beef can also be used.  It’s a joint that comes from the hind of the animal.

In Piacenza the tasca, or pocket, is usually stuffed with a mixture of chard, egg, parmesan and spices. The meat is then sown closed and slow cooked – either boiled or roasted. It’s important to cook it slowly so that the meat does not split. Once cooked, it’s allowed to go cold and then sliced and served with a parsley sauce. This dish is very similar to Cima alla Genovese, the Ligurian version. In another variant of the dish, also made in Liguria, the pocket is stuffed with a mix of veal mince, offal and brains, peas, parmesan and eggs. A richer dish by far, I think it’s best saving for those even rainier days!

Stuffed slow-cooked roast beef
Tasca ripiena

Serves 6
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 2- 2.5 hours

1-1.2kg piece of beef
500g chard
100g parmesan cheese
30g fine breadcrumbs
1 egg
2 garlic cloves
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt & pepper

Chop the chard into 2-3cm pieces. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add the chard stalks.  Boil for 5 minutes and then add the leaves and continue boiling for another 5 minutes.  Drain the chard very well, removing as much excess water as possible and chop finely.  Place the chard in a large bowl and add the grated parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs, beaten egg, freshly ground black pepper and nutmeg.  Mix everything together well. The stuffing should be quite firm. If it is sticky and wet add a few more tablespoons of cheese or breadcrumbs.

Next, take the piece of beef and with a very sharp knife make an incision in the middle of the beef about 4-5cm wide and make a cut that is 2-3cm from the bottom and sides of the piece of beef to make a ‘pocket’. (If you prefer, ask your butcher to do this for you.)  Season the inside of the pocket with salt and pepper and then fill with the stuffing.  Press the stuffing down into the pocket and then carefully stitch up the opening with kitchen string to prevent the filling falling out during cooking.

Place a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan and add the garlic cloves.  When hot, add the beef and brown on all sides for 2-3 minutes.  Transfer the meat to an oven dish and place in a preheated oven at 150ºC.  Cover and cook for about 2 - 2.5 hours.  The meat requires a slow gentle cooking to ensure that the meat is tender and the filling does not spilt out.  Once cooked, allow the meat to rest for at least 20 minutes. It can also be eaten cold. Serve thinly sliced with a parsley sauce and boiled potatoes.


  1. Yummy, the perfect comfort dish for unpleasant weather outside, but cosy, and warm inside.

  2. That's it. Cook your way out of that seasonal mood disorder!

  3. Well I am currently debating whether to try Roden's chestnut soup recipe, or just bake my chestnuts and enjoy them in a simple, comforting way. They are so moreish!

  4. Moreish indeed! Roasted chestnuts, that's an evening's entertainment in my family!!!