Monday, April 11, 2011

The Sunday Gravy (or tomato sauce...)

For the first 20 or so years of my life, Sundays (most of them at least) meant that the house would smell like a pot of "gravy" all day- then in mid afternoon we would all sit down for a big dinner consisting of "macaroni" covered in "gravy," a big pile of meatballs, sausages- whatever meats were available that week- all braised for hours in the "gravy," and finally, loaves of crusty Italian bread to mop it all up.  That scent of tomato, basil, garlic, and meat always evokes strong memories of home for anyone who grew up in an Italian-American household. If there is an ultimate comfort food- most Italian-Americans of my generation would not hesitate to identify "macaroni and gravy" and that big plate of various meats, as that Ultimate comfort food.

Macaroni and Gravy is Italian-American for "pasta with tomato sauce (and meat)"
Most people make the mistake of calling the sauce I'm speaking about "tomato sauce" - however, anyone brought up in a household run by an Italian-American - especially one of southern Italian descent, and especially one in the northeastern United States, is more likely to refer to this as gravy. Part of that is tradition, and part of that is based on the actual recipe. Gravy, to most people, is a thick sauce based on meat. What I call the Sunday Gravy is essentially different from a tomato sauce because it is cooked with meat. In that respect, it is similar to what most people think of as gravy. The other distinction is that "gravy" is slow cooked for a long period of time- usually in large quantities - this aspect of the naming convention is more a matter of tradition. Generally, the same group of people also refer to pasta, any pasta, as "macaroni" even though macaroni is typically a specific shape of pasta (elbow pasta). Another fellow blogger, pegasuslegend, author of  "What's Cookin' Italian Style" posted an interesting analysis of this distinction, that traces the origin of the term "gravy" in this context back to Italian immigrants in the Long Island suburbs outside of New York City - specifically to an area near where I grew up (the town cited in this article is one where I actually lived for a few years after striking out on my own).

For many years, I took to calling the Sunday Gravy "tomato sauce" simply because the term would leave a lot of people confused. I, however, feel regret at leaving this (seemingly) little piece of my family's traditions behind- especially since it's about the most common meal of my youth. I will not make that mistake again- it's gravy. Call it what you will, to me, it's the gravy.

In any case, this is not a meal you can slap together in 30 minutes or less. It's typically the Sunday meal simply because it takes all day to get it right. You'll need some prep time up front- maybe 30-45 minutes (more if you're making meatballs!) and a long simmer time- at least two hours, but longer is better (usually four hours ands up being about right for me). That means that if you intend to have Sunday dinner at the traditional mid-afternoon time (between 2-4pm) you'll want to start in the morning. For a later dinner, starting right after lunch works. I will not describe this as a recipe- it's an experience, and a process. Each pot of gravy is a little different, and each has a story. Any recipe would only be a starting point. To do it right you have to taste as you go, and constantly adjust the seasoning, periodically stir, and generally fuss over it a bit. In that respect, it isn't just a recipe, or any old dinner, it's an expression of who you are as a home cook.

The first thing you'll need is a big pot, preferably with a nice heavy bottom. I like to use my best and biggest pot- it is actually big enough to make double (or more) the amount  of gravy I'm describing here- which is great if you're cooking for a large number of hungry guests. Even for an average (or above average) family, this will make more gravy then you will need, so be prepared to put the leftovers on ice, and start thinking of creative ways to put it to use later. The thing I like about my oversize pot is that it has a thick, heavy bottom, which makes it perfect for browning meats- an essential step for building the base layer of flavor we'll need.

A really big pot with a heavy bottom is essential for making the Sunday Gravy

The first thing you'll need to do is brown your meat. You should do this in your pot if at all possible- the brown bits it will leave behind on the bottom are the first layer of flavor we'll develop. The real question is- what meats to use. At the very least, you'll want to have some Italian Sausage- either sweet, hot, or both (if you're Sicilian, you'll probably mix a little of both since Sicilians like a little spicy surprise now and then). Other meats include meatballs - which can be a lot of work, braciole (rolled up slices of beef with a stuffing of seasoned breadcrumb), or even things such as pork hocks, beef oxtail, pig's feet, or meaty beef neckbones. The exact mix of meats is up to you- each will lend a bit of it's distinctive character to the gravy. I personally find that sausage is key - the seasonings in the sausage go a long way towards perfuming and seasoning the whole pot. This Sunday, I'm keeping it simple and sticking with sweet sausages since I don't have the time to set up meatballs (it's best to make them up the night before), and my family, especially the kids, aren't really ready for things like pig's feet yet. Whatever meats you choose, you'll want to cook them in olive oil until they have a nice dark-brown sear on them.

Start with enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pot. When the oil is hot, put your meat in, and brown it on at least two sides- when done, set the meat aside. Try not to crowd the pot- work in smaller batches if you have to.

Brown your meats in hot olive oil first

You do not need to cook the meat all the way through. It will have more than enough time braising in the gravy for that- we are concerned with getting that nice dark brown color right now, extracting some of the fats and oils in the meats, and getting some of that good stuff stuck to the bottom of the pot.

The sausage browned, but not cooked through
When you are done with your meat, you'll probably have more oil in the pot than when you started- this is a good thing, the rendered fats are one of the flavor components we want to extract- even more important are the brown bits that should be stuck to the bottom. This is our first layer of flavor, and is the base for everything else yet to come.

The brown goodies left in the pot are the concentrated flavor your gravy needs

Our next layer of flavor starts with the onions. You'll need one large, or two to three small onions, chopped into small pieces (there's nothing wrong with larger pieces, but they'll blend in better if you make a small chop). Drop your chopped onions in the leftover oil, and season with a little salt and black pepper.

Saute your onions in the meat-infused oil

The onions will start to pick up some of the brown color left by the meat. Stir them frequently as they cook- you'll want them to turn translucent, and start to caramelize slightly without burning. When the onions begin to turn brown, add in about 3-4 cloves of garlic chopped as small as you can. If you have the patience, you can break out a razor blade and carefully slice the garlic into paper thin pieces and relive that famous prison cooking scene from the movie "Goodfellas" - but you really don't have to be quite that obsessive- a small chop or mince will do.

Chop your garlic as fine as you feel comfortable with

Add in the garlic, and keep stirring- let the garlic and onion cook for a minute or two. You may want to lower the heat a little before adding the garlic to make sure it doesn't burn. If the garlic burns, you'll need to toss everything in the pot, wash it, and start over. Once the garlic has a little time to give up it's flavors, clear a spot in the middle of the pot, and get ready to add your tomato paste.

At this point, I'll stop, and say a few words about the tomatoes. It's best to use fresh tomatoes if they're in season- however, the rest of the year, you'll have to used the canned stuff. This is not a problem- tomatoes actually handle being canned extremely well, so don't feel guilty going to the can. If you use fresh tomatoes- it's a long and tedious process to get them ready for use- they'll need to be parboiled, then peeled. If they have a lot of seeds, you'll need to remove most of them, then crush them. If you want to go that way, you'll need to score the skin of your tomatoes, then drop them in boiling water for about a minute, and carefully remove the skins before using them. You will probably need a significantly longer cooking time.

Purists will also refuse to use tomato paste. Tomato paste is simply tomatoes, skinned, and stewed, and reduced down until they become a thick red paste. If you forgo tomato paste, you will need to cook your gravy for a VERY long time before it thickens- turning a half-day project into an all-day (or even overnight project) - so even if you use fresh tomatoes I recommend keeping the tomato paste. It is also an opportunity to develop a little more flavor. You'll need one 6oz can of tomato paste (make sure the only ingredient on the can is "fresh ripe tomatoes") for every two 28oz cans of tomatoes. Canned tomatoes usually come as either whole tomatoes, crushed, or puree- they all work (and crushing the tomatoes with your hands is fun), but I usually go for a balanced approach and get crushed- they'll have some body to them, but save you a little work. If you have some fresh tomatoes, there's nothing wrong with chopping a few up if you want your gravy a little chunky.

Don't be ashamed to use canned tomatoes, especially if the brand name ends in a vowel
So, back to our gravy... scoop out your tomato paste, and drop it in the middle of your onions and garlic. The paste is so reduced already that you can actually give the paste a little bit of a sear, which means yet another layer of flavor. Start cooking the paste on it's own in the middle of the pot, and give it a chance to develop a little flavor- a touch of nuttiness that adds a little more depth.

You can develop flavor by "searing" your tomato paste
When the paste breaks down a little, and looks like it's getting a touch darker, you can mix it in with the onions and garlic, and continue cooking for another minute or two, continuing to stir. This should deglaze just about all of the brown bits of meat still stuck to the bottom, and bring your first two layers of flavor together.

Onion, garlic, tomato paste, olive oil
The ratio of paste to tomato is somewhat important. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble if you get it right. You can easily take even the most watery sauce and make it thicken just by cooking it long enough- but you want to have some level of control over the cooking time. When you get the ratio right, or at least close, you'll have the right consistency within the 2-4 hour range every time- and you may even have to add back a small amount of water to keep the gravy from congealing. The ratio that seems to work is 6oz of tomato paste to 2 lbs (two 28oz cans) of tomatoes, plus 42oz (one and a half 28oz tomato cans) of water. You have some room for error here, especially with the water, but you want to be close to this. Go ahead and pour in your two cans of tomatoes and one and a half cans of water, and stir.

One can of paste to two cans tomato to one and a half cans water is the magic ratio

At this point, we can start seasoning our gravy. Quoting exact amounts is futile- as the gravy reduces, you'll need to adjust. Also keep in mind that every batch of meats brings in a slightly different mix of seasonings. What I describe here is a starting point. The exact seasonings,and amounts are largely a matter of preference as well.

You will need salt and black pepper. Use enough black pepper to give the top of the gravy a light dusting (somewhere around a teaspoon to start with- you'll probably add more later), for salt, use about half that (we've already salted the onions, and the eats will usually carry some salt in too). Add in a few herbs according to your preference- I start with parsley (again, enough to dust the top) and oregano (I go light on the oregano since it's a strong herb- maybe a third the amount of parsley). For oregano, I stop adding it as soon as I can smell it- I'd rather not have it dominate like it would in a pizza sauce.

This is also where I like to get a little creative. I have mint growing wild in the back yard, so I almost always have fresh, or home-dried mint on hand. We always had mint in the garden when I was a kid, so a touch of mint tends to find it's way into everything- so if I have some handy, I'll add in a pinch or two of mint. I also like to have a touch of bite in the background without obvious heat, so I usually put in a small pinch of crushed red pepper. It doesn't need enough to have any real heat, but the small amount mixed in seems to fill in the cracks and bring things to life a little.

Exact seasoning is a matter of opinion- follow your tastes and your nose!
Basil is a must-have herb. I prefer it to be most dominant herb in my gravy, and it just makes the whole house smell great. Start with about four leaves (or more)- I usually prefer more. Roll up the leaves in your hand, and crush them enough to bruise the surface to help release the oils, then drop the leaves in whole. You'll know you have the basil right when it smells right to you.

Basil is an essential herb when making the Sunday Gravy
Usually, this is a good enough starting point. At this point, you can add about 1/4 cup of whatever good red wine you prefer. In my house, we rarely used wine in the Sunday Gravy- mainly because we usually didn't have any. If you have a red wine you like, feel free to use it- I will for special occasions, but for "everyday" gravy I go with the principle of poverty and leave it out. I get a similar effect by adding about a teaspoon or two of balsamic vinegar- which is a common pantry item for most Italian-American households.

You may add a little wine or a small splash of balsamic vinegar for an extra touch of flavor
At this point, stir everything together and give it a taste. Tomatoes can vary greatly in sweetness- so you really want to focus on that when you taste. If you read to much of a bitter taste at this point, there are two easy solutions. The "cheating" way is to add a small pinch of sugar to balance it out- as recommended by the Peter Clemenza character from "The Godfather"- I, however, disagree with this. The traditional way, according to my family, is to drop in one or two bay leaves- the bay leaves will balance things out as they simmer in the gravy. They are basically inedible, so you "should" remove them before serving, but in some households, the person that gets the bay leaf gets to do the dishes... your call on that.

Add your meats back into the gravy, and let it heat up until it begins to bubble. Reduce the heat down to a low simmer, and get ready for the long haul. You'll need at least two hours- preferably four, and longer if you use only fresh tomatoes. You'll want to check on your gravy, and give it a good stir every half hour or so. You'll also want to taste it periodically. Chances are you'll want to add a little more black pepper, or one or more herbs at some point. Keep an eye on how much water reduces out. If the gravy gets too thick, stir in a little more water. Over the course of your simmer, the liquid level will probably drop by almost an inch- use your judgment to determine how thick you want it to be. This constant fussing, tasting, and adjusting seasoning is the thing that will make your gravy great, and personalized to your tastes.

When the gravy is nearly done, you'll notice that you'll have a little bit of "skin" forming at the top, and pockets of oils from the meat. This is the good stuff. When you see this happening, you know that things are working. I've gone so far as telling my wife "you see that stuff floating on top- that's happiness right there." This "stuff" may look a little intimidating, but it is concentrated flavor. Don't skim it off, just stir it back in.

Happiness is the stuff that floats on top of the Sunday Gravy

Once you're happy with the gravy, start cooking your pasta. The details of this are a subject for another article- but I will point out that you should NEVER put oil in the cooking water for your pasta. Yes, olive oil tastes great on pasta, but there is a more mechanical problem- most of the oil just drains away, but the oil that actually sticks to the pasta forms a sheen that makes it difficult for the gravy to adhere to it, and you end up with mostly naked pasta and a pool of gravy. Leave the oil out of the cooking water- you'll have it in the actual gravy. The starches from the pasta will then be free to help the gravy stick to it. Any shape of pasta is good, it's up to you what you prefer. This Sunday, one of my kids wanted spaghetti, so spaghetti it is!

When you're ready to serve, fish out the meat. Don't be concerned if some of it breaks up- this is a good thing, and will just make the gravy more interesting. In a traditional meal in Italy, the pasta course and the meat course are two separate things, but since we're talking about Italian-Americans, we can serve them at the same time.

The meat gives flavor tot he gravy, and the gravy gives flavor to the meat.

Don't dump the pasta into the pot of gravy! There will be far too much gravy! Pour a ladle-full of gravy in the bottom of a pot or serving bowl, add the pasta, then top with another ladle or two of gravy. Toss the pasta until coated- you can always add a little more if you need to. In general, most Americans use too much gravy- there should be enough to coat the pasta without having a pool of gravy in your plate. You may, however add as much as you like, or even serve some of the extra gravy on the side for people who like more.

Garnish your finished "macaroni and gravy" with a little grated parmesan cheese (I like to sprinkle a little crushed red pepper on mine also), and serve with your meat and a nice piece of Italian bread to mop up any excess gravy. This is the meal that I most closely associate with thoughts of home- so much so that it was a very long time before I could bring myself to order pasta with "tomato sauce" at a restaurant- because no one could ever duplicate the family recipe. I'm very pleased to see that my kids, who can be picky in their own way at times, cleaned their plates.  In a way, the best indicator of how successful the gravy was is to see how much is smeared on the kids when dinner is over.

Goofy Gravy Faces usually means you did it right, and are have helped to pass on the tradition.
This is a long writeup, but this is a topic that, I think, deserves it. Even this level of detail only barely communicates how I feel about the Sunday Gravy. It's a process and a journey that you have to experience, and refine over time to really appreciate. Don't let anyone tell you to cal it mere "tomato sauce" - it's gravy.


  1. Vinny what is your opinion on the San Marzano tomatoes - are they worth the extra money?

  2. I have always wanted to try those tomatoes can't find them in Florida anywhere... sauce came out delicious looking... funny how some regions add onions that was unheard of in our family... that was the sicilian way, roman made it all fresh no dried herbs until they couldn't grow their own in the winter... tomatoes were from the garden... what a difference as time goes on... I grow my own of everything now in Florida but still will never use onion... (allergic)

  3. Delicious recipe, and easy to make. Thanks for sharing.

  4. For fresh tomatoes, the best thing to use is whatever is growing in your garden. The next best thing is whatever the best tomatoes at the farm stand or store are- regardless of variety. I think San Marzanos are great, but they make more of a difference for short-cooking time sauces. If you happen to actually grow your own San Marzanos... then you're in an enviable position.

  5. THANK YOU!!! I know what I'm doing this Sunday.

  6. are you using dried or fresh herbs here and how much of a difference do you find it makes?

  7. I prefer to always use fresh basil. The others I use dried. The fresh stuff does make a difference, but since the basil is the dominant herb, I'm ok with compromising on the others, at least for everyday use.

  8. I've been meaning to write this since you first wrote this one but never got around to it. Anyway, when people would call pasta sauce gravy, I always said that gravy was brown. Now I know there is white milk based gravy too but anyway... But this post enlightened me. It's all about the meat. Even the white gravy is based on the pan dripping of bacon or sausage or something. Obviously brown gravy from your roast chicken, turkey, etc. And here you go with this one which starts with the meat. I'm not Italian and didn't grow up in a kitchen with sunday gravy cooking all day so maybe that's why this wasn't obvious to me I don't know. I know this will make you all sad and/or mad, but I often take a bag of store bought frozen meatballs and cover them with a jar or 3 of store bought sauce and let them simmer for an hour or 2 and they both taste way better than the individual parts. Whenever I have had the discussion with friends about why the heck do you call that gravy no one has ever given me any better answer than we just do. But thank you here is the answer, it's starts with MEAT so hell yeah it's gravy. Thank you.

  9. Oh and by the way, Condurso's Garden Center in Montville has San Marzano tomato seedlings for sale. At least they did on Friday.

  10. I've seen paste tomato seedlings locally - which are basically san marzano (or a closely related hybrid). Personally, I'd want to start them right after first frost, so it's a little late in the season to plant them in my opinion- if I can start early enough next year I want to try san marzanos and beefsteak/heirloom.