Among the highlights of the holidays are the lavish meals in which most families indulge. The centerpiece of such feasts could be a classic holiday ham, a luscious beef tenderloin, or a roast turkey with all the accompaniments. And by the way, you can pretty much place people’s geographic origins by how they describe the bread-based turkey filling: south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it’s “dressing;” for everyone else it’s “stuffing.”

Either way, it’s a treat most folks wish they could enjoy more often.

Of course, in many countries, there are festive foods tied to ethnic traditions that have survived for generations. For example, on Christmas Eve, many French-speaking households in Quebec prepare tourtières, a special oven-baked meat pie. It’s described in a New York Times profile as “a savory confection that can variously be packed with ground pork or a mixture of ground pork and [wild] game, encased in lardish dough and accompanied by a green-tomato relish.”

Some high-end eateries even pack slices of truffle or foie gras inside that lardish dough.

After all, nothing says Joyeaux Noël like ground pork and foie gras baked in a savory pie.

Other traditions are, shall we say, a bit out of the mainstream.

From a story in the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald comes Exhibit A, a holiday dish chosen from an unlikely source: “The Mafia Cookbook,” written by Joseph “Joe Dogs” Iannuzzi. As the jacket blurb phrases it, “Here, at last, is what you always wanted to know about the Mafia, but were afraid to ask: What do they eat and how to cook it.”

Uh, no. That was never what I always wanted to know.

I mean, there are innumerable scenes in any of a dozen different gangster movies that detail mobsters’ obsession with eating (and drinking and racketeering and killing rivals who tried to muscle in on any of those rackets). There’s no shortage of source material.

But there is an element of curiosity about the author.

A Killer Cook
Joe Dogs was, to quote from the publisher’s sanitized description of his criminal career, an “associate” of New York City’s Gambino family. He embarked on a life of petty crime as a teen-ager, and worked his way up to become one of the top enforcers for the family consigliere Joey Gallo (which, for those paying attention, was the stage name used by Joe Pesci’s character, Vincent Gambini, in the movie “My Cousin Vinnie”). According to his bio, Joe Dogs eventually became one of the family kingpins, specializing in “loansharking, rigging horse races, labor racketeering, drug dealing, extortion and robbery.”

And in between, he found time to prefect his culinary skills.

Unfortunately, Iannuzzi was nearly beaten to death with a baseball bat on orders from Gallo, and (understandably) turned FBI informant, a “rat,” as his “associates” termed it, whose testimony helped secure the convictions of some 18 mobsters on various charges.

Following the trials, Iannuzzi entered the federal Witness Protection Program, which gave him the leisure to compose his cookbook, in which he described the various Italian specialties he prepared, along with portraits of the gangsters who consumed his culinary creations.

One of those recipes became the Grand Forks Herald reporter’s new holiday tradition. It’s called “Braciole” (pronounced “bra-JOLE”) and it consists of thinly sliced beef spiked with garlic, Parmesan cheese, breadcrumbs and parsley, rolled into pinwheel logs and simmered in a hearty marinara sauce.

It’s the perfect entrée to celebrate the season — or the successful whacking of a rival hitman, as the case may be.

According to Joe Dogs, Braciole is best made with top round slices that are pounded thin using a cast-iron skillet — which, coincidentally, doubles as excellent practice for bashing some storekeeper who missed his monthly protection payments.

Next, heat some olive oil in the aforementioned skillet and sauté onions, mushrooms and spinach until tender. Lay out the beef slices and cut into 4- by 7-inch slices. Combine the sautéed vegetables with grated Romano and Provolone cheese, breadcrumbs and minced garlic. Sprinkle the beef with salt and pepper, spread with the filling, roll tightly into little cylinders and secure with toothpicks. Heat more olive oil in a Dutch oven and brown the beef rolls on each side.

Add the beef rolls to the marinara sauce, which you made your kid brother sit and stir all afternoon without a break, and bake for three hours until tender. Remove from the oven and serve over pasta (naturally) topped with chopped parsley and grated Romano cheese.

Andiamo a mangiare, Happy Holidays.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist and do not necessarily reflect the views of Farm Journal Media.