To Simmer and Civilize



To Simmer and Civilize
To Simmer and Civilize
The transforming power of bollito misto
Viola Toniolo
P H OTO S B Y Kelly Ishikawa S TO R Y B Y S T Y L ING B Y Rod Hipskind
I N M I L A N, W H E N I WA S YO U N G , my family often
made bollito misto during the winter holidays. The scent
of simmering meat still evokes languid, day-long family
meals, steamy windowpanes, and the foggy expanses of
the Pianura Padana — with its snow-covered rice fields
and mulberry plantations. It always seemed like an elusive
dish — endlessly complicated, with its layered aromas and
the insistent bubbling of pots. It never occurred to me that
I could make it myself, let alone figure out what to do with
all that meat. But I always adored salsa verde, which pairs
beautifully with boiled meat (and just about everything
else), so I simply accepted it as a necessarily complex means
to a worthy end.
Bollito misto literally translates as “boiled medley,” a
decidedly unappealing name for a surprisingly succulent
dish. It is prepared by gently simmering, not boiling, slightly
fatty cuts of meat — beef and veal, a hen, headcheese, tongue,
and cotechino — in an aromatic broth for several hours. The
tender meat is then sliced and served warm with a variety
of sauces. The resulting broth, nutrient-rich and layered
with flavors, is consumed as is or used as a base for soups
and risottos. Often served as a holiday dish in postwar Italy,
bollito misto has deep roots in Italy’s cucina povera (“cuisine
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of the poor”) — a culinary principle, common to all cultures,
where one makes do with humble ingredients.
Regional variations of bollito (classico, misto, gran
bollito), served either at home or in local restaurants, appear
throughout the culinary traditions of northern Italy, though
the concept of long-simmered meats is hardly unique:
cocido (Spain), corned beef (United Kingdom and United
States), hot pot (China), jjigae (Korea), kig ha farz (France),
New England (or Irish) boiled dinner (US, Ireland), pho
(Vietnam), pot-au-feu (France), oden (Japan) — almost every
culture claims an equivalent, which essentially consists of
tougher cuts of meat simmered in broth and accompanied
by vegetables and topped with something spicy or sour:
horseradish, mustard, chutney, vinegar, and herbs.
In Italian cuisine, bollito was prominent throughout
the second millennium. Lore has it that in the late 1800s,
when Vittorio Emanuele II was crown prince, he would
often sneak off to the small town of Moncalvo to hunt wild
game, cavort with his favorite mistress, and enjoy a convivial
meal of bollito with friends; Antonio Latini (1642—1692),
who was the steward of Cardinal Antonio Barberini, has
38 cooking suggestions for bollito in his cookbook, Lo
Scalco alla Moderna (“The Modern Steward”) (1694); and
Maestro Martino, who was the most important cook of the
15th century, has several recipes in his book Libro de Arte
Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”), which is considered a
landmark of Italian gastronomic literature.
Yet the art of boiling meat is probably as old as the first
cooking pot — about 7,000 years BC, according to my uncle
Allan Bay, an Italian gastronome and bollito enthusiast (he
considers bollito misto “il piu’ buono di tutti i piatti” — the
tastiest of all dishes — and he has tasted many). Boiling,
or, more accurately, simmering, enabled humans to turn
leathery meats into victuals and thus make good use of less
palatable cuts with a nutritious stock to boot. Poaching,
braising, and simmering result in meat that is easier
to digest — as early as 1626, Pierre Duchatel noted that
“well-boiled meat is suitable to the digestion. Well-roasted
meats are more sluggish.” According to anthropologist
Marcel Detienne, the Greeks considered the sharing of
cooked meats a fundamental communal act, so that to
become vegetarian was a way of refusing society. The idea
of partaking of a large pot of simmered meat, given its
aforementioned digestive and social benefits, is probably
what inspired Detienne to declare, in his book Dionisio e la
Pantera Profumata:
“Tra l’arrosto e il bollito, entrambi modalita’ del cotto,
corre la stessa distanza che tra il crudo e il cotto. Allo
stesso modo in cui il cotto distingue l’uomo dall’animale
… il bollito separa il vero civilizzato dal villano” — “the
difference between a roast and a boiled dish is the same
as that between raw and cooked. Just as the act of cooking
distinguishes man from animal, boiling distinguishes the
civilized from the villein.* ”
Bollito misto is actually a very simple dish, though it
requires that various cuts be cooked separately and
simultaneously, each with its own cooking times. There are
some basic rules to follow: (1) any cuts can be used as long as
they are partially fatty, not too much and not too little — just
enough to impart succulence to the meat; (2) use whole cuts
to minimize surface area and maximize juiciness; (3) lightly
salt all the meats the night before cooking — purists might
disagree, but a judicious sprinkling of sea salt yields greater
depth of flavor; (4) cook the tongue and cotechino separately
from the rest of the cuts (and from each other) — they
are pungent and fatty, respectively, and thus not suitable
for broth; (5) after the initial boil, the pot must be kept at
a gentle simmer — this enables the collagen, gelatin, and
muscle fibers to yield; (6) skim frequently — the albumin in
the meat coagulates and rises to the surface as grayish scum
— clarifying the broth in the process; (7) serve warm by
bringing the pot to the table and slicing as needed, and then
replacing the meat into its broth to keep it moist.
The exact cooking method is still subject to debate.
Some cooks place all bony cuts and vegetables in cold water
and bring the whole pot to a boil before adding the boneless
meats. Others make a vegetable broth first and add all
the meats and bones after the boil. My friend Christophe
Hille, who used to make bollito when he was chef at A16 in
San Francisco, suggested cooking the meats in sequence,
skimming and straining the broth between each addition
— the resulting broth comes out “limpid, rich, and clean
tasting … a meal unto itself.”
* “Villein” is a feudal term for a “tenant farmer” — something
between a free peasant and a slave.
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I have long been fascinated by Italy’s cucina povera, with its
ingenious and judicious use of whole animals and propensity
for making the most out of the least. Sheer curiosity led me
to want to re-create this Italian delicacy in my new home
city, San Francisco, trusting that the city’s profusion of
knowledgeable butchers would enable me to remain faithful
to the original recipe. My starting point was my uncle’s
“canonical” (in his words) recipe from his bestselling Cuochi
si Diventa (translated, roughly, as “We become cooks” —
meaning that no one is born a cook, and anyone can become
one given time and training), and I expected inevitable
diversions, depending on what was available locally. I set a
date, invited 14 guests, and set to work.
The first challenge was to translate the cuts of meat into
English. Cultures differ in how they cut up their beasts,
and the resulting bits can sometimes have colorful names
(Cappello del prete — shoulder chuck — literally means
“priest’s hat”). Testina (veal headcheese or, literally, “little
head”) was impossible to find. Veal in general was difficult
to find, though it’s worth looking for — its delicate flavor
and texture are great for bollito. Finding a hen (an older
female chicken, also known as a stewing bird) proved to
be the biggest challenge — though tougher than chickens,
hens and capons (castrated roosters) are prized in Italy for
their superior flavor and are the gold standard for making
stocks and stews. Given San Francisco’s obsession with
small culinary details, I was surprised that virtually no one I
spoke to was sufficiently sophisticated in poultry matters to
understand my quest for a hen. I finally spoke to several egg
farms in the Bay Area, but only one would be able to supply
me with a hen, and it would need to be purchased, live, on
site. I was short on time and slaughtering skills, so I used a
small (dead) turkey instead. Everything else was relatively
easy despite a couple of mishaps (the shoulder was cut into
2-inch chunks — not suitable for simmering and slicing — so
I had to find an uncut replacement at the 11th hour).
I followed Christophe’s tip and cooked the meats in
sequence. The savory broth — skimmed, strained, and served
with a sprinkling of coarse, unrefined sea salt — provided
a tantalizing overture to the meal, and the meats were
delicious. Tender, luscious, and subtle — this gentle cooking
method reveals the unique character of tongue, cheek,
shoulder, and rump alike, the humblest (and often sidelined
or discarded) cuts exalted and savored to their full potential.
It should be noted that bollito is the most excellent
medium for serving Italian salsa verde — a vinegary, parsleybased sauce with a bit of garlic, anchovy, and capers. One
can never make too much of it: heeding my father’s advice, I
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made four times the amount I thought I needed, my guests
were able to help themselves by the ladleful, and there was
plenty available for leftovers. m
Author’s notes
I’d like to thank Allan Bay, Daniela Toniolo, Paolo Toniolo,
Christophe Hille, and Jerome Waag for their excellent
cooking tips; Ryan Farr and everyone at 4505 Meats for
the meat help; Angelo Garro for two delicious homemade
cotechini; Rod Hipskind and Kelly Ishikawa for hosting and
photographing the dinner; and, most important, my husband,
Grant Ballard, for wrangling kids for two days straight and
putting up with my culinary experiments and pots filled with
simmering animal parts.
(Serves 8)
6.5 lbs. (3 kg) of beef or veal, any of the following:
brisket, uncured; beef short ribs cut from the short
plate; back ribs from the chuck/rib area; shoulder
chuck, chuck pot roast or chuck eye roast; bottom
rump or bottom round roast; cheek; oxtails
1 lb. (500 g) veal breast
1 veal or beef tongue
1 piece of testina (veal headcheese) or coppa di testa
2 carrots
4 celery stalks
3 onions
4 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
8–10 black peppercorns
1 hen or capon, whole (or substitute with a small
turkey or chicken with legs attached)
2 handfuls of parsley stems
1 cotechino (available at most specialty butchers
and Italian markets)
Pat all the meat cuts dry with paper towels and lightly rub them with salt.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
In a large stock pot filled with water, combine the carrots, two
celery stalks, one onion (stuck with two cloves), and the bay leaves. Add
peppercorns and bring to a boil. Add the beef and/or veal meats (except
the veal breast) and bring to a boil again; then immediately lower the heat
to a simmer. Use a ladle to skim off any foam and fat that rise to the top.
Simmer for 30 minutes, and then add the hen (or equivalent) and the veal
breast, if using. Simmer for 2.5 hours, skimming as needed.
Meanwhile, cook the testina in a pot of water (enough to cover) with
one onion (stuck with one clove), one celery stalk, and a handful of parsley
stems. Separately, cook the tongue using the same method and ingredients
as for the testina. Place the cotechino in a steamer, pierce it with a fork
several times, and steam it gently for 3 hours.
Thinly slice the meats and serve with coarse sea salt, salsa verde (see
below), grape mostarda (candied fruit in mustard syrup), chutney, and/or
cren (horseradish sauce).
Notes: The broth, cooled, strained, and skimmed of excess fat, can be
used as is or as a base for soups, stews, and risotto. Bollito is best paired
with a light red wine (Bonarda, Lambrusco) or a sparkling white or rosé. It
keeps for up to 3 days in its own broth. Use leftovers for meatballs. m
Sea salt
(Serves 8)
10 oz (300 g) white bread, sliced (any bread will do)
4 tbsp salt-cured capers
Red wine vinegar
4 large or 6 small cloves of garlic
2 salt-cured anchovies
7 oz (200 g) flat-leaf parsley leaves (4 small or 2 large
2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Soak the bread and capers: cut the crusts off the bread slices, place them in
a bowl, and add enough vinegar to submerge them. Let them soak for 10–15
minutes. Separately, rinse capers several times in lukewarm water until
the salt is dissolved, and let them soak in water for 15 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the other ingredients. Peel the garlic, cut
each clove in half, and remove the green inner shoot. Rinse the anchovies
under running water, slide your thumb into their middle to pry them open,
and remove the spine, tail, and fins, if any. Pick off the parsley leaves, and
rinse and dry them carefully. When the bread is done soaking, squeeze it
tightly with your fingers to get as much of the vinegar out as possible.
Combine the parsley leaves, capers, anchovies, garlic, bread, and olive
oil in a food processor, and pulse several times. Scrape the sides and pulse
again until you have a smooth paste.
Note: Salt-cured capers and anchovies have a much subtler flavor, but
their pickled and oil-cured equivalents can be used instead if salt-cured
versions are unavailable. m
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