|Macaroni and Gravy is Italian-American for "pasta with tomato sauce (and meat)"|
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|
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|
|The sausage browned, but not cooked through|
|The brown goodies left in the pot are the concentrated flavor your gravy needs|
|Saute your onions in the meat-infused oil|
|Chop your garlic as fine as you feel comfortable with|
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|
|You can develop flavor by "searing" your tomato paste|
|Onion, garlic, tomato paste, olive oil|
|One can of paste to two cans tomato to one and a half cans water is the magic ratio|
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 an essential herb when making the Sunday Gravy|
|You may add a little wine or a small splash of balsamic vinegar for an extra touch of flavor|
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|
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.|
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.|