The early months of the pandemic were tough on everyone. We suddenly had a ton of time on our hands and needed to find productive ways to use it without leaving home.
Most of my home projects involve food in one way or another. Spending an entire day and sometimes night smoking meat in my backyard would have been one good option. But I wasn’t feeling the barbecue bug during 2020. Instead, I devoted many hours over the course of a number of weekends to making what is often called Sunday Gravy. I’m referring to tomato sauce cooked with a variety of meats. I know some of you probably object to calling it “gravy” instead of “sauce.” It’s a hotly-debated topic among foodies and non-foodies alike. I respect everyone’s opinion on this matter. But South Philly Italians are known for calling it gravy, which is good enough for me. I also just like the sound of “Sunday Gravy.” It’s got a traditional vibe, and readers of this blog know I’m all about tradition.
Making gravy is an all-day affair. It’s comfort food and I found it comforting to make. Doing so became a form of therapy for me during that first spring of the pandemic, when I and many others weren’t sure what was happening or what would happen next.
I wasn’t exactly a novice at it. Making meat sauce for spaghetti was one of the first dishes I learned to cook as a child. But I have upped my gravy game a couple notches in recent years and especially since Covid hit.
The process begins with picking high quality ingredients, and nothing matters more than which tomatoes you use. While I’ve made gravy with fresh tomatoes a couple times over the years, like most people, I settle for canned tomatoes most of the time. And with a nudge from my friend Nancy, I’ve become very particular about which canned tomatoes I use. If you want to make the best possible gravy – and why settle for less? – it’s important to use genuine San Marzano tomatoes that were grown in the Agro Nocerino Sarnese region of Salerno, Italy. The best way to ensure that you are getting the real thing is to look for the initials, D.O.P. on the can. There are lesser tomatoes in supermarkets with “San Marzano” on the label, but if they don’t have those initials, they are not the genuine item. There are a number of brands of D.O.P. tomatoes available online, but I’ve settled on using one called Gustarosso.* They are less acidic than most canned tomatoes and have a wonderful flavor.
Fresh, Italian-style parsley is another key ingredient for making Sunday Gravy. I am not fond of spending a lot of time chopping herbs, so I shove the parsley and any other herbs I decide to use – oregano, basil, bay leaves – inside a cheese-cloth pouch. These enable you to get the full flavor from your herbs without having to chop them. When your gravy is finished, just fish out the pouch and throw it away. Of course, if you prefer to see the herbs in there, skip the pouch and start chopping.
I also use extra virgin olive oil, garlic, onion, a tablespoon or so of sugar, salt, pepper, red or white wine (I added both to one gravy and it worked well), and grated cheese. Again, for the cheese, make sure you are using the real thing; that means Parmigiano-Reggiano instead of Parmesan and Pecorino Romano instead of plain Romano. You’ll taste the difference. If you want to add a little heat to your gravy, sprinkle in some crushed red pepper.
Finally, if you’re making a real Sunday Gravy, as opposed to plain tomato sauce, you’ll want meat in it, both for flavoring and to add texture. There are a wide array of meats to choose from. Meatballs and hot or sweet Italian sausage are the most popular and both are excellent additions to any gravy. But I’ve also used beef short ribs and country-style pork ribs. I’ve also read that many an Italian grandma will throw pork neck bones into the gravy just for flavor and pull them out before serving. I tried to find those, but was unsuccessful in that endeavor. So I went with beef marrow bones as a substitute on one or two occasions.
If you plan on eating your Sunday Gravy for dinner, you had better start the process of making it by around noon that day. There were several times when I decided to let the finished gravy sit in the refrigerator overnight before eating it the following day. As with a number of other foods for which this can be done, it gives the flavor time to intensify.
Make sure to have all of your ingredients ready before you start the process. You won’t want to have to scramble once you get underway.
Begin by sauteing a chopped onion in extra virgin olive oil. After the onion begins to soften, add the garlic for just a minute before adding liquid ingredients so that it doesn’t overcook. I like to pour in the wine at this point and let it simmer for a bit.
Then add your canned tomatoes. The number of cans you use will obviously depend on how much gravy you want to make. I prefer to cook gravy on the weekend and make enough for the entire week. This will generally require two 28-ounce cans of tomatoes and sometimes I’ll add a third, smaller can. That depends largely on how much and what kind of meat I’ll be using. You want your meat covered by the sauce so it braises well throughout the process.
I recommend cutting up the tomatoes a little just after adding them to the pot so that they break down more easily during the course of cooking.
At this point, throw in your herb pouch, cheese, salt, pepper and sugar, and let the gravy boil before lowering the heat to begin the long simmer.
Once your gravy is simmering. It’s time to start preparing the meat. Whether you use meatballs, sausage or something a little more adventurous, including flavoring bones, you’ll need to brown the meat before adding it to the gravy. For meatballs, I’ll sometimes bake them for 20-25 minutes in a 350-375 degree oven rather than pan-browning them. Either way is fine. Do whatever you’re most comfortable with.
Once your meat is sufficiently browned, add it to the gravy and give it a good stir. You’re now finished with the hard part. The rest is just waiting. I stir the gravy about every 20-30 minutes and let it simmer for four to six hours. When it’s finished, make sure to remove and discard the herb pouch. If you used pork neck or beef marrow bones, do the same with those. You may also want to take the meat off the bone for short ribs and country-style pork ribs, if using those, just to make the eating experience simpler.
Some of my favorite types of pasta with which to serve the gravy are Orecchiette, which are ear-shaped and commonly served with sausage in red sauce at Italian restaurants, penne, rigatoni, and, of course, spaghetti. I find pasta imported from Italy to generally be superior to the American made brands. The Italian-made pasta that is most easily found in supermarkets in my area is De Cecco, which is very good.
While I eventually had my fill of Sunday Gravy and went back to smoking meat in my backyard for a time-consuming, food-centered activity, during the early months of the pandemic, I must have made at least a half-dozen gravies. It was a soothing and tasty way to spend a Sunday.
- Gustarosso tomatoes can be ordered online from www.gustiamo.com. Amazon sells several other brands of D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes.