There are few things that bring me more comfort than a big pot of gravy, simmering on the stove, filling the room with the sweet scent of caramelized tomato (and yes, I said gravy). For many, gravy invokes something brown poured over turkey, but if you grew up in an Italian home in the northeast, gravy is what other people refer to as tomato sauce. For me, the smell of gravy cooking has the same visceral experience that Proust had when biting into a perfect madeleine; it transports me with its aromatic delight back in time to my mother’s kitchen.
Imagine a quiet Sunday, you walk to a warm, sun-filled kitchen, and a large pot is simmering on the stove. You are tempted by gravy stained spoon soaked with hints of the various meats that await, slow cooking in a pool of tomato, and the weighted scent of roasted meats and reduced tomato intoxicates you. You look around; you are alone, so you lift the lid, revealing the treasure. It bubbles and sends a small splatter onto the stove top. As you look for a towel to remove the sign of your trespass, you spy a loaf of lofty, thin crusted Italian bread and note that the heal is already torn off. One cannot be expected to resist such temptation, but you must act quickly. You swiftly tear off a hearty handful of bread—no sense risking the consequence for just one bite, and you scoop. The bread soaks up the gravy, and you feel the steam rise to your eyes as you taste the rich, thick, meaty gravy. You close your eyes and smile, wiping the thin drizzle of oil from your chin.
Of course, if my mom had caught me that Sunday would quickly cease to be so quiet. Truth be told, I believe she secretly loved that we all swooned when she cooked that pot of love. That was how she found purpose, feeding us. This past weekend, a friend kindly invited me for some “macaroni and meatballs,” and I had no idea what I was in store. It was as if she had made it herself, and it was sheer delight. The pot was brimming with fist size meatballs, sausages, the most tender bites of steak and pork, all stewing together to form the most remarkable flavor...and it is all so simple. The meal was a reminder of shared family moments.
This time of year calls for a big pot of gravy, and my friend’s generosity reminds that we must share the love in that big simmering pot, so here is my mom’s recipe for anyone who wants to give it a shot. Keep in mind, she never cooked a little pot of gravy, so cut it down if you wish, but you will regret it. And, yes, we have great cans of tomato at the store, crusty bread, and macaroni in all shapes and sizes.
6 28 oz cans of San Marzano Tomato
1 8 oz tomato paste
4 cloves garlic
A small onion
A bunch of flat leaf parsley
Over low-medium heat, coat the bottom of a large heavy bottom pan with good olive oil (I throw in butter, but my mother would have killed me! I leave it up to you.), and add your finely diced onion and garlic. You want them to sweat not brown, takes about 12-15 minutes.
Add your tomato paste, and crank up the heat to medium high, and brown it. You want it to stick to the pan, so don’t worry when it looks brownish. You will smell, it is a fantastic moment when this caramelizes.
Add the tomato, rinse your cans a little and throw the water in, too.
Stir to combine, cook over medium heat for 30 minutes. You can use a spoon to break down the tomato.
Preheat your oven to 300.
Add the meat—all of which should be cooked (email me if you need these instructions). She would have added brascioles, meatballs, sausage, and roasted pork and beef (or some combination depending on the day). Use a cheap and fatty cut of meat, it will slow cook in the tomato and fall apart. Don’t shy on adding the fat from the pan. Arguably, my mom actually made tomato confit!
Place covered pot into the preheated oven and let it cook for a few hours, checking and stirring occasionally. It may need a little liquid, pasta water serves great for this purpose, but you can also add a little more tomato.
Remove from oven and allow it to rest before serving. When you are ready to serve, add a bunch of fresh flat leaf parsley finely chopped.
Serve with a macaroni of your choice. For my mom, it would be rigatoni, unless she assembled all into lasagna.
Or, just tear off some bread, rip it open and fill it with slices of meat and load it up with gravy, sprinkle with parmesan, and pour me a glass of Chianti. I will be right over!