Dick De Mane (center) and his buddies, out on the town.
Recipe: Braised Veal with Sweet Peppers and Capers
One of my father’s favorite dishes was veal and peppers, a Neapolitan-American plate of slow simmered veal with bell peppers, tomatoes, a little wine, a sprinkling of hot pepper flakes, a handful of parsley. That’s about it, but those few ingredients produced a rich, tender stew with big flavor. Most Italian-run pizza shops made it to serve in heroes, and just about every Italian-American household, including ours, cooked up a version. Homemade was far superior, at least when prepared by my mother. And you got to enjoy the aromas while it cooked.
The dish brings back a specific patch of time, the mid-sixties, when I was right in the middle of pure childhood, with no adolescent yearnings. I remember the clothes my parents wore, my mother’s clean Jackie looks, my father’s deep ocher V-neck pullovers and sleek sport coats. Those are the clothes I prefer today for myself (a V-neck and pointy high heels will never let you down). We ate a lot of veal and peppers in those days. But then into the seventies, when my mother’s little Jackie suits turned to jeans and tees and my father started wearing turquoise, veal and peppers went away. We started eating grilled steaks. Maybe my mother still made veal and peppers every once in awhile, but I recall it from an earlier time, one I have preserved in the sweet spot in my brain.
The photo above of my father flanked by his two buddies Al Feminelli and Patty Iannicelli brings back the veal and peppers era vividly. It was a time when everyone was strong, and cigarettes, booze, and sun weren’t against the law. I don’t know where this restaurant was. It could have been in Hollywood, Florida, near the dog track, or possibly Port Chester, New York, or maybe in midtown Manhattan. Hard to say.
I know my mother thinks I have a nostalgia problem. I guess she’s right. So be it. It’s fueled my love for Italian cooking, so I can only view it as a bonus.
Here’s my new recipe for veal and peppers. It’s not my mother’s recipe; it’s just me fiddling around. I added a little sweet mix of spices I happen to like with veal, and a bit of rosemary, some Marsala, lemon zest, and capers. Despite my updated flourishes, it tastes quite the same as I remember it. Maybe the dish is so strong, so powerful, that it can’t be altered even if you try. Or if I can remember my catechism correctly, it’s incorruptible, as they say.
Braised Veal with Sweet Peppers and Capers
(Serves 4 or 5)
3 pounds boneless veal shoulder, cut into approximately 1½-inch chunks
1 tablespoon sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Wondra flour
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup chopped pancetta
3 leeks, cut into thin rounds, using the white and only tenderest green parts
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
A pinch of clove
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or another medium spicy dried chili)
1 cup dry Marsala
3 sprigs rosemary, the leaves well chopped
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, chopped, with the juice
½ cup chicken broth, possibly a little more
3 sweet red bell peppers, roasted until charred, peeled, seeded, and cut into thick slices
The grated zest from 1 small lemon
A handful of salt-packed Sicilian capers, soaked in cool water for 20 minutes, rinsed, and drained
Dry the veal chunks well. Sprinkle them with the sugar, salt, and black pepper.
Set a large casserole fitted with a lid over a medium-high flame. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil and the butter. Sprinkle the flour over the veal chunks, and toss to coat them lightly. When the olive oil and butter are hot, add the veal, and brown lightly all over (do this in batches if you need to). Take the veal from the casserole, and put it in a bowl or on a plate (something that will catch juices).
Add the pancetta to the casserole, and sauté until crisp. Add the leeks, and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, the nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and Aleppo or other medium-hot chili, and sauté a minute to release all their flavors. Return the veal to the casserole, along with any juices it may have given off. Add the rosemary and the Marsala, and let it bubble for a minute or so. Add the tomatoes, with their juice, and the chicken broth, and bring to a boil (the liquid should just cover the meat; if not, add more broth or a little water). Add a bit more salt and black pepper. Turn the heat to low, cover the casserole, and simmer for an hour and a half. Then add the roasted peppers, and simmer, covered, for about another half hour, or until the veal is very tender.
Skim the surface of the stew well, and then add the lemon zest and the capers. Let it all sit for about a half hour (this will help all the flavors meld). Reheat gently. Serve hot. I think this goes especially well with rice, which is how my mother usually served it, but a small pasta such as ditalini will also be a good choice.