I’ve been meaning to write this down for a while, and I figured here is as good a place as any (especially since it gets into my github repo.) This recipe was given to my mother by my grandmother years ago, and I’ve varied it over the years myself; as such, it’s less of a recipe than a rough guide on how to make a nice, simple gravy to go with your pasta.
There’s so much variation in ingredients that I don’t think a one-size-fits-all approach is suitable, anyway; your final product is going to be widely dependent on what happens to be in your kitchen at the time. I’ve made this gravy with about as many different brands and types of ingredients as you could imagine, and it still comes out well as long as you take a little care to make sure your proportions of tomato to water and spices are OK.
The first thing I have to mention is that, while you won’t be doing much except for at the the beginning and end of the whole process, be prepared to let this gravy cook for four to five hours. Sorry, but you’re going to have to stir it.
On the other hand, the nice thing about making gravy is that it’s like cooking in slow motion–much harder to screw up.
I’m sure there are better or different ways to do a lot of this, and if you’d like to let me know, I can always be found on Twitter.
- 3 cans tomato puree
- ½ can or ½ tube tomato paste
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 onion
- tablespoon of sugar
- salt, pepper, basil, parsley to taste
- a bit of olive oil
- possibly a pound or two of meat (especially meatballs, neckbones, or Italian sausage), if you’re into that sort of thing
- maybe some red wine, too
I like to use 6 in 1 brand tomatoes to start with. They’re sort of a cross between a crushed tomato and a thick puree. If your local grocer doesn’t carry it, no problem; use the best quality canned tomatoes you can find. You want a rough puree consistency, so if you have canned whole tomatoes, just deseed them, then pulse them in a food processor a few times. If you have canned pureed tomatoes, they’ll work too.
As for the paste, I like to use the kind in a tube because I always tend to waste the other half of a can I don’t use at the time. I’ve used the canned paste before, though, and it’s just fine.
Anyway, get a nice, big stock pot (mine’s an inexpensive 8 quart Mexican-style enameled metal one from Target, and it’s worked well, but if you have a thicker metal one, use it) and toss all the tomato in. Then, take your empty cans of puree and fill them about halfway, swish ‘em around a bit to get all the stuck puree out, then toss the water/puree mix into the pot as well. You want around a 3:2 ratio of puree/water. It really doesn’t matter too much, as you can always add more later in the process if you think it’s getting too thick.
Turn your burner onto medium and stir the tomato mixture up. You never want the gravy to come to a boil; it should only reach a simmer. You’re going to have to stir it every 15-20 minutes or so. Make sure you have a long enough wooden spoon to reach the bottom, because if you don’t scrape it while stirring, it will burn.
While that’s coming to a simmer, peel and quarter your onion and peel and chop your head of garlic.
Toss those into the pot and stir. At this point, start adding spices–but not too much, yet, since this gravy is going to reduce by quite a bit. I usually first add the sugar (this will cut down on the tomato acidity) followed by a tablespoon of the salt and pepper. Then, either a tablespoon of dried basil or a couple fresh chopped basil leaves, and a handful of parsley. You’ll end up adding more later.
Some people add oregano here; I don’t. It makes the finished product too pizza-y for my tastes.
If you’re not going to add meat, you may want to add some red wine also at this point. About a half cup or so should do. A tablespoon or two of olive oil will help as well if you’re going meatless.
At this point the gravy is going to seem really watery, almost like tomato soup. Don’t worry, the simmering will reduce it enough.
If you’re going to add meat, now is the time to start browning it. Pork neckbones are a traditional meat served with gravy, but Italian sausage or meatballs are great too. The meat really gets a chance to simmer and becomes wonderfully soft and flavorful.
(Incidentally, if you’re ever in Melrose Park, Danny’s serves neckbones on Wednesdays and Saturdays.)
Whatever meat you use, you’re going to want to brown it first. I had Italian sausage in the freezer, so that’s what’s going in. This is Strack & Van Til house brand Italian, which is surprisingly good in a pinch.
Brown the meat nicely. It doesn’t need to be completely cooked all the way through; it’s going to simmer for 3 or more hours in the gravy.
Add the browned meat into the gravy and remove the excess fat from the pan. Then, deglaze the pan with either water or red wine, scrape up all the browned bits, and toss the mixture into the gravy. I had some marsala left over from another recipe, so I used that this time around.
The Middle Part
The tough part’s over. Now, just stir the gravy every 15 minutes or so, making sure that nothing’s sticking to the bottom. If it seems to be getting too thick, add water. If it doesn’t seem to be thickening, turn up the heat.
If oil starts to pool on the surface (more likely when adding fatty meats,) skim it off with a spoon and discard.
At around the 2:45 mark, taste the gravy. If it seems bland, add a bit more salt, pepper, and/or basil. Be careful, though, you don’t want to over-season as the gravy is still thickening.
By 4 to 4 and a half hours, the gravy should be about at its final thickness. Remove the meat (if any). Now we’re going to get rid of the large pieces of onion still in the gravy. For this, I use an immersion blender very sparingly, just enough to make sure the remaining pieces of onion that haven’t cooked down aren’t sticking around. If you don’t have one, just fish the larger pieces out with a spoon. You should have a nice, not too lumpy consistency. Whatever you do, after you’re done, put the meat back in.
This is the part that’s going to make or break the whole thing (no pressure.) Depending on what meat (if any) you used, how much salt was in the canned tomatoes, and about a billion other factors, you’ll need to salt/pepper to taste. Add sparingly, mix thoroughly, and keep sampling until it tastes right. If I didn’t use hot sausage, I like to sometimes add some ground white or red pepper here as well.
Now, you’re probably going to want to use this with pasta, so if you haven’t already I recommend going over to John Siracusa’s website and read his tips on cooking and serving pasta.