We usually think of boiled meat as a by-product of making broth, a humble if comforting dish for parsimonious souls. But in northern Italy, particularly in the Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna, they’ve transformed the dish into a regal spread. Traditionally, a true Gran Bollito Misto includes seven different cuts (tagli) of beef or veal, seven ‘supporting’ cuts (ammennicoli or frattaglie) and seven sauces to go with, plus an array of vegetable side dishes. As you can tell, a true Gran Bollito Misto feeds a large crowd and, for this reason, is often considered restaurant food; the various tagli and frattaglie are brought tableside in carts, where the meats are still immersed in their steaming cooking broth. But a more modest version of the Gran Bollito Misto can be made at home, for Sunday dinner or special occasions, but cutting down the number of tagli and frattaglie and sauces according to the number of diners.
Adopting this dish for kitchens outside Italy can be a challenge. Butchering cuts vary across countries; Italians do not butcher their animals into the same cuts as the British or North Americans or Australians, although there are enough parallels that you can reproduce a perfectly respectable Gran Bollito Misto at home, using cuts you would use for a pot roast or for soup. (NB: The cuts given in this recipe are North American.) The other challenge lies in the ‘supporting’ cuts, without which a true Gran Bollito Misto is incomplete; these cuts include many parts of the cow and veal and older birds that have largely disappeared from supermarket meat counters, at least here in the US. Happily, the recent movement of artisanal ‘snout to tail’ butchers, as well as Asian and other ethnic markets, are taking up some of the slack.
Once you’re procured your meats, however, the method is really very simple. You’ll need several hours, say an afternoon, but the simmering takes minimal attention. It’s just like making broth, with a few adjustments: you use fewer aromatic vegetables; they should subtly complement but not compete with the pure flavor of the meat. Since for this dish you want the flavor to stay in the meat, not to draw it out into the liquid, you use less salt and add the meats to the pot only when the water is already boiling. And, finally, you cook the meats only until tender and ready to eat.
Serves a large crowd
An assortment of main cuts (tagli):
- Beef or veal brisket
- Chuck roast, tied
- Bottom round or rump roast
- Short ribs
- Beef ribs
- Beef shank
An assortment of ‘supporting’ cuts (ammenicoli or frattaglie):
- Stewing hen (or an older chicken)
- Beef hoof or veal trotter, cut into large pieces
- Oxtail, cut into lengths
- A veal or ox tongue
- Veal’s head, boned and tied (see Notes)
- A cotechino or zampone (see Notes)
Each pot should include the following aromatics:
- 1 or 2 onion, studded with a clove
- 1 or 2 carrots
- 1 or 2 stalks of celery
- 1 or 2 cloves of garlic
- A sprig of two of fresh parsley
- A sprig of fresh rosemary (optional)
- A large pinch of salt and a few whole peppercorns
Fill a very large stockpot about halfway with water, and add the aromatics and bring to a boil. Let the aromatics cook for 15 minutes.
[NB: If you don't have a pot big enough to handle the various cuts of meat, you can use separate pots. In fact, some of the secondary meats, especially those that are quite fatty and/or strongly flavored like the tongue and the cotechino, are usually cooked separately anyway. Some recipes call for you to cook the hen or chicken separately as well, so as not to mix different flavors.]
Now begin adding your meats in the order that they usually take to cook, starting of course with those that take the longest. Here is a list summarizing approximate cooking times:
- 3-1/2 to 4 hours : Beef hoof, ox tongue
- 3 to 3-1/2 hours: Brisket, chuck, bottom round, rump, shank, ribs and short ribs, oxtail
- 2 to 2-1/2 hours: Veal tongue, hen, calf’s head, large cotechino/zampone, veal trotter
- 1 to 1-1/2 hours: Chicken, small cotechino
- 1/2 hour: Pre-cooked cotechino
Calculate things so that everything will be done at the same time. So, for example, if you were cooking brisket, tongue and a chicken, you would start with the brisket, start the tongue an hour later and then the chicken an hour later and cook for an hour or hour and a half more.
Start the water off at a brisk boil, but after that maintain a steady but gentle simmer, skimming off any scum that comes to the surface as you need to and topping the pot up with more water if too much cooks off. If one cut is tender before another is done, just remove it from the pot into a bowl, moisten it with some broth from the pot, and cover it loosely; add it back to the pot at the end to reheat. Once cooked, the meats can stay off heat (or on minimal heat) almost indefinitely, until you are ready to serve.
[NB: If cooking veal or ox tongue, you will need to remove it when it's done and skin it. Then return the tongue to broth to re-heat before serving. See our post on Gratinéed Ox Tongue in Mushroom Cream Sauce for details.)
While the meats are simmering, they need little attention, and you can get on with the business of preparing sauces and sides.
When you are ready to serve, lay out the meats on a large, pre-heated platter. Ladle over some of the broth to moisten the meats. Bring the platter to the table, along with the sauces and sides, and slice the meats at table for each of your guests.
Sauces and Condiments
Italian boiled meat is always served with a variety of sauces and condiments. The most common of them include:
- Salsa verde (Green sauce). This, to me, is the indispensable accompaniment to the Gran Bollito Misto or, for that matter, any boiled meat dish. Take a big bunch of fresh parsley, stems removed, together with a few anchovy fillets, a handful of capers, a few cornichons (if you like) and a clove or two of garlic. In a food processor, whiz everything together with a splash of vinegar and a good pour of olive oil until almost (but not quite) smooth. Some folks like to add some bread, crusts removed and soaked in vinegar, to thicken the sauce, but I don’t usually. There is also a ‘rich’ version of this sauce, which calls for the yolk of a hard-boiled egg, which thickens the sauce.
- Salsa rossa (Red sauce). A sweet and sour tomato sauce, which can be made like any basic tomato sauce, to which you add a splash of vinegar and a big pinch of sugar. In some recipes, the sauce is spiked with red pepper. Whisk in some extra olive oil, off heat, once the sauce is done.
- Mostarda. The name is a false friend—this is not mustard, but rather candied fruits laced with mustard seed oil. The most famous type is from the town of Cremona in Emilia-Romagna. You can make it at home (one day I hope to feature the recipe) but you can find imported mostarda in better Italian delis and even some fancy supermarkets.
- Salsa al cren (Horseradish sauce). Horseradish is not a common ingredient in Italian cooking, and you won’t find it in a Gran Bollito Misto in Piemonte. You will find it, however, in some other places in northern Italy, especially those with a Germanic influence. This raw sauce made by peeling and grating horseradish root into a bowl and mixing with olive oil and vinegar, and seasoning with salt to taste. You can make an easy version of the sauce using store-bought horseradish, pre-grated and bottled in vinegar, commonly found in the US but not in Italy; just whisk it with ample olive oil and a pinch of salt if it needs it.
- Pearà (Black Pepper Sauce). This delicious but unusual sauce from the Veneto is made with bone marrow, finely minced and sautéed in butter, to which you add a fistful of breadcrumbs. You sauté the breadcrumbs until are well-impregnated with the marrow and butter and nicely toasted, then you add some of the broth from the bollito pot, adding more ladlefuls as the crumbs absorb the liquid, until you obtain a smooth, sauce-like consistency. Season with lots of freshly ground black pepper (from which this sauce gets its name) and a pinch of salt if it needs it.
Although meat—and lots of it—is very much the focus of the Gran Bollito Misto, the dish would not be complete without an array of vegetable side dishes. Among the most common are boiled or mashed potatoes, boiled carrots, beets and turnips, onions braised in agrodolce or pickled, spinach sautéed in butter, boiled Savoy cabbage, fennel braised in butter and funghi trifoliate (sautéed mushrooms). The boiled side dishes should be made more or less at the last minute, say about 30 minutes before you’re done, preferably using the broth from the pot, which should be quite tasty and lend a wonderful flavor to the veggies.
It is critical to keep your meats warm and moist. If your guests have healthy appetites, and are likely to want seconds or thirds, it’s probably best to return the meats to the pot to keep warm while your guests are eating their first ’round’ of meats. Or, even better, if you have a chafing dish, you can keep everything toasty on a side board. One ingenious, if unconventional idea from the great Allan Bay, in his Cuochi si diventa: bring the meats to the table still in their pots, immersed in hot broth. Fish out the meats and carve them, on a board, at table. As a slightly more elegant option, I’m thinking you could transfer all the meats to an attractive soup tureen and fill it with hot broth.
The cotechino is a special sausage from Emilia-Romagna, most iconically associated with New Year’s but eaten throughout the winter months. Zampone is essentially the same sausage using a de-boned pigs trotter as a casing. Cotechino can be hard to find outside Italy, and zampone even more so. Here in the US, you can sometimes find cotechino in Italian delis around the holiday season, but it often disappears quickly. It does make a wonderful addition to a bollito misto, however, and is well worth trying to find. Imported cotechini come vacuum-packed. you simply boil the packet for 20-30 minutes. Fresh cotechini take longer; for details on making both kinds, see our post on making cotechino e lenticchie (Cotechino and Lentils). Calf’s head is something I’ve never come across in the US (outside a French bistro in New York I ate at many years ago) but you might try asking a good butcher if s/he carries tête de veau or could order it.
As mentioned above, you are unlikely to find some of the more unusual cuts of meat, too, in your local supermarket. You can always stick to the more commonly found cuts, say a brisket, a chuck roast and a chicken, and you’ll have a fine dish just with those cuts. Occasionally, I’ve seen things like oxtail or tongue in the frozen meat section of supermarkets. And, if you want to go the extra mile, seek out a local Asian, Latino or other ethnic supermarket. These communities still enjoy these kinds of cuts. And if you’re lucky enough to still have an independent butcher in your area, he or she can probably help you; if they don’t have it on hand, they can often special order unusual cuts of meat.
Experts suggest that each diner season the meat slices on their plate by sprinkling them with coarse sea salt, remembering that the cook should go easy on the salt. When you’re ready to take a bite, then just scrape off the excess salt. And they also counsel ending your meal with a cup of the broth from the pot, laced with a few drops of red wine (in Piemonte, it’s typically Barbera) or perhaps with some grated Parmesan cheese. In Emilia-Romagna, the Gran Bollito Misto is preceded by a first course of tortellini in brodo, using of course, the broth you’ve just made with all those boiled meat.
For more information about the Gran Bollito Misto, there are two authoritative websites: one of the Confraternita del Bollito Misto and one dedicated specifically to the Gran Bollito alla Piemontese. Both websites are in Italian.