March 24, 2012

Blog the Tenth: Sunday Gravy

Tomato Sauce Gravied by A Medley of Meats

A Sunday morning in Brooklyn had a smell all its own.  The hefty aroma of fatty meats sizzling in oil hung sweet in the air, and floating above it, the yet raw vapors of simmering tomato puree.  Your mother had to get it started early, maybe even before you made it out of bed, in order to have dinner more or less cooked before going off to Mass, so that we could sit down to eat soon after coming back, in the early afternoon.  A Sunday afternoon was blessedly long, lazy, and boring, and Sunday dinner lingered on leisurely into late afternoon, when your aunt and cousins might show up with pastries, or maybe just an Entenmanns coffee cake, and the evening would fill with chatter and laughter, perhaps a squabble among the kids, no doubt avuncular disputes, and then, when you least expected it, a private joy would come to light, or a suppressed sorrow unchoked, because there was time and room and hearts for it to do so.

Marx said that in a capitalist society man knows no leisure, only recreation.  We share our pastimes, but do we have time to share ourselves?  Indentured to our possessions, our professions, our projects, even our recreations, we are distracted by distraction to distraction, in an endless exchange of desire for desire.  God commands us to observe a sabbath.  Strange that he should need to, that we don’t heed our own need of it, that we resist rest.  What he commands, he commands for our good, himself in no need of any good beyond himself, ourselves having no good beyond what we have from him.  So he commands a sabbath, for our good, a rest from toil, from striving and strife, from distraction.  And the judgment of condemnation is this, that we prefer restlessness to rest, and our hearts remain restless, restless. 

The food of a Sunday dinner is delicious, and my family revels in it, to be sure, but familial love is the reason of its being.  Love of family is unlike love of friendship in that it is not chosen.  You do not choose your parents, your siblings, your aunts, uncles, and cousins.  You’re born under a debt of love to those who chose you, and you grow into fellow feeling with those chosen together with you, by virtue of bonds born of two human beings’ vows to a love enduring for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, even unto death.  The feel of a Sunday afternoon is the feel of such devotion.

The food is like the day, in its abundance and tedium of nurture.  Classic family fare for Sunday dinner is what Italian-Americans call gravy.  The Italian original is called sugo, which simply means juice—in this case, the juices of meat used to flavor tomato sauce.  Meat is cooked in the tomato sauce to flavor it, and this ‘gravied’ sauce is used to sauce pasta for a first dish.  The meats cooked in the sauce are then served as the main dish, with vegetable sides.   Of course, salad and fruit follow, and no doubt desserts, it being a feast day.

This gravy sauce is a beautiful example of the way the cooking of South Italy’s poor burgeoned when transplanted into the soil of American prosperity.  The poor of South Italy preserved tomatoes for year long use by drying them in the searing rays of the summer sun.  Some of these sun dried tomatoes were further concentrated into a paste, for intensifying sauces all year long.  The original sugo was made with a single slab of tough meat, the cartilaginous kind that if cooked long and slow will fall apart into tender chunks or strands, its cartilage and fat melting into a viscous sauce.  For the sugo of old, the slab of meat was first browned in oil, and then tomato paste and water were added to provide a tomato broth for it to simmer in for hours.  The meat eventually relaxed and glazed over, and the gravy concentrated into an intensely flavored sauce, used to sauce a first filling dish of pasta, followed by spare slices of the meat.

In America, Italian immigrants began to use better cuts of meat, and a variety of them.  Likewise, canned tomatoes provided an abundant pot of tomato puree to cook the meats in, yielding an abundant amount of flavorful sauce, which is the sauce used for such baked pasta dishes as lasagna or baked ziti, or any pasta with ricotta, such as ravioli. 

This past Sunday I made a gravy for a Sunday dinner because it was Laetare Sunday, the middle Sunday of Lent when the Church permits herself a reviving respite from her penitential exertions.  Every Sunday is a feast of the Lord’s resurrection, and so never a day of fasting, but this middle Sunday of Lent makes a special theme of the Sabbath’s reinvigorating joy:  “This day is holy to the Lord our God!  Do not grieve and do not weep.  For holy is the day of the Lord; and be not sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”  What better warrant to cook meats galore in Lent? 

Gravy sauces differ widely from family to family, depending on the meats favored—although the meats are almost always fatty ones.  On the heftier side, there are ribs, such as country style pork ribs or beef short ribs, and also chunks of chuck or top round.  On the lighter side, there are meatballs and sausages, and perhaps even chicken thighs or drumsticks.  Also added sometimes are such specialty items as bracciola, a pounded cutlet rolled with garlic, herbs, and spice, and tied into a bundle. All these various meats are browned in the same oil, which serves as a medium for interchange of flavors and aromas, and each meat is introduced at different times into the gently simmering tomato sauce for different amounts of cooking; the delicious blend of meat flavors distills itself into the sauce together with savory meat fats.  The famous dish of “spaghetti and meatballs” marketed to Gentiles is an atrophied specimen of Sunday gravy, reduced as it is to one meat, in the form of balls shrunken for the sake of confounding it in one bowl with pasta.  Ugh.

Gravy sauces in Brooklyn vary from family to family, season to season, and even dinner to dinner, according as opportunity offers or occasion demands.  As you walked to church, you would smell the aroma of each family’s gravy wafting out their window and into the street, to mingle with the effluences of other windows up and down the block, perfuming Sunday morning with an incense of joy, for the delight of both the receivers and the Giver of such abundance.

As gravy sauces go, my family’s is on the far light side.  My father preferred simple, smooth tomato sauce, so my mother made gravy mostly for holidays, celebrations, and guests, and she often limited her medley of meats to lighter ones.  At the opposite extreme, my aunt would brown her hefty meats in oil and add tomato puree to the same pot, to produce a gravy as rich in fat as in flavor.  I’ve heard that others add tomato paste as well, even sauteeing it a bit in the oil, to achieve the intense flavor of that old time Old World gravy. 

I don’t like tomato paste and never use it.  I find it too pungent, even astringent.  To my mind, tomatoes are at their best concentrated but still pulpy and sweet.  I eschew both the extreme wateriness of tomato soup—which I think a very, very bad idea—and the extreme intensity of tomato paste.  However, appreciating the rightness of a desire for intensity of flavor in a gravy, I use marrowy soup bones to gain mellow meatiness and viscous texture for my gravy.  My local Graul’s supplies me with a steady supply of such bones at appropriately modest prices (unlike the criminally inflated prices at the local gourmet supermarket).  I prize soup bones with tender-looking white marrow centers, and I grab them whenever I see them, and toss them into my freezer, for buttressing Sunday gravy or broth for risotto, as needed.

My recipe for Sunday gravy is syncretistic, drawing on elements from sundry sources, and innovating, as in this matter of the marow bones.  My gentile friends love it, but I’ve never had occasion to make it for my family, so I can’t tell you it’s mother-approved.  But I think you’ll like it, and not just because you’re a Gentile, either.  Also, although gravy involves a great deal of tender loving tedium, it can all be done long in advance, and in the end, one pot gives you both a first dish and a main dish, for a big crowd to ouuu and ahhh at.  You typically end up with great leftovers too, and, strangely enough, gravy sauce freezes well.

So here’s what I did on Sunday.  At breakfast, I put my soup bones, pork ribs, beef ribs, and chicken thighs, to soak in a brine of 1 cup kosher salt to 1 gallon water (if using table salt, use half as much)—mostly to purge bones, but also to tenderize meat.  Back from an early Mass a couple of hours later, I fished out the soup bones, rinsed them clean, put them in a baking pan and into a very hot oven, to caramelize a bit. 

Meanwhile, I grabbed my food mill from the top of the pantry along with five cans of Pastosa pelati—whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy.  (Non-Negotiable: Never use anything but whole tomatoes, and Italian imported ones, their intensity and density being all-important.)  I churned the pelati through the food mill which, while holding back the seeds and skin, turns the pulp into a smooth puree. There’s no skipping this step.  Do not put your tomatoes in a blender, because it will only heighten the bitterness of the seeds to pulverize them and distribute them throughout your sauce.  Do not use store-bought puree, which is always of dubious density, flavor, and texture.  Buy a food mill, and one imported from Italy, with holes small enough to hold back little tomato seeds, and throw it into the dishwasher when you’re done using it.

I poured my tomato puree into the biggest pot I have, big enough to accommodate all the meats to come, and with a very thick bottom to keep the sauce from sticking and burning.  I turn the heat up to medium.  I smash three garlic cloves hard, pull away their skins, and throw them into the pot.  Using raw garlic in a sauce like this is very much the exception to the rule, garlic usually being sauteed first to tame and sweeten it.  But my mother once told me that her grandfather used to use a mortar and pestle to make a paste of raw garlic, fresh parsley, and black pepper, to add into the gravy at the end.  I tried this once, and found the raw garlic flavor overwhelming.  But it gave me the idea of smashing raw garlic hard at the start so that it will disintegrate into the sauce by the end and become part of its substance.  Similarly, some Sicilians put whole potatoes into their gravy, to be another item along with the meats for the gravy platter, and when once I accidentally overcooked the potato and it melted into the sauce, I liked the pulpy body it gave the gravy, so nowadays I halve a potato and throw it in at the very beginning, so that it will break down over the course of 2 ½ hours and give over its pulp to the gravy.  I also toss in several black pepper corns and kosher salt, a teaspoon per can of tomatoes. 

So the puree is heating up with these accoutrements.  Once the roasting marrow bones smell sweet and blush golden, I grab them with tongs to drop them into the by now simmering tomato puree, leaving behind the fat and gook they’ve shed in the roasting pan (conveniently lined with aluminum foil for easy clean-up).  I want the sauce to simmer very gently with the bones for half an hour before adding the ribs.

The bones and fat of the ribs are of the very essence of a gravy sauce’s flavor, especially pork.  The aroma of frying pork ribs is so stirringly comforting and sweet, I’d dare say a gravy is not a gravy without their scent and gilded fat, which takes the place of the usual olive oil.  Once, in fear of a fat-fearing Gentile, I skimmed most of the fat from my gravy at the end, and along with it most of its flavor.  I was amazed at how flat the sauce was without the meat fat, despite the number and variety of meats I had cooked in it.  Gravy sauce is an homage to the fatted beast:  let not swine cast their pearls before you in vain.

I fished the ribs out of the brine, both pork and beef, rinsed them clean, dried them off with paper towels, and salted and peppered them evenly all over, on both sides.  Then I pour out a deep pool of olive oil into a non-stick frying pan (my mother uses peanut oil) and turn the heat up to medium.  When the oil heats up enough to shimmer and give off its hot smell, I add the pork ribs to sizzle easy, but with a lively sound, like that of cousins chattering over antipasto.  When the ribs turn golden, with patches of gilding here and there, I turn them over, to caramelize the other side, and when done, I remove them to a plate to rest, and continue with the beef ribs.  At last, when all the ribs are fried, I add them to the pot of gently simmering broth.  (It’s tempting also to add the fats the ribs have shed into the plate while resting, but I resist the temptation, because I share my family’s preference for a clean sauce that isn't so oily as to leave a pool of oil behind in the pasta dish once the pasta is eaten.) 

I cover the pot to let it regain its simmer, and put the cover ajar when it does.  I want the ribs to simmer gently for a couple of hours or so, until their meat is so tender that some begins to fall off the bone.  About an hour in, I’ll begin to introduce other meats.  From time to time you need to turn the meats over and scrape the bottom of the pot, to keep sauce from sticking and burning.  This is important.  If you feel a resistant roughness when scraping, and think you’ve accidentally burned some sauce, it’s well worth all the trouble of transferring it all to a new pot, because that burnt flavor will infect the whole gravy and spoil your whole morning's work.

Once the ribs are under way in the puree, it’s time to brown any chunks of beef I have, such as chuck or top round, since these also need long cooking to fall tender apart.  I salt and pepper them well all over.  Here again, I want them to sizzle lively in the oil, but not angry.  Again, I want lovely gilding, not a seared-brown crust.   Again, I want them to rest and shed excess fat before adding them into the gravy.

You want a little break, now that the ribs are in?  Forget it.  Time to get started making the meatballs, the high-maintenance member of the medley.  I trust that by now you both grasp and espouse the fatty-meat theme, so you’ll know to want fatty ground beef for meatballs (80%-20%), without which your meatballs will neither stay moist nor become tasty; also, the coarser the grind, the better.  I also like to add 1 part ground pork to 2 of beef, but I never use those meatloaf blends of beef, pork, and veal, because veal makes no sense, both for what it is and what it is not, namely, delicate in flavor and lean of fat, and the grind of such trios is often too fine as well, ever under suspicion of being dregs of other butchering. 

I like my meatballs big, to fortify them against the acidity of their boiling bath.  I get 4 to 6 meatballs out of a pound of meat.  I begin by flaking the chopped meat a bit with a fork, spreading it out to abet proportioning by eye.  I think in terms of ¼-pounds.  First I shower the whole expanse of meat with salt and fresh-ground pepper, evenly all over, and then for each quarter pound of chopped meat, I add a heaping tablespoon of Pecorino Romano (grated into curly locks—as is just and right—with my handy Oxo rotary grater),  and a tablespoon of 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs.  (More orthodox than bread crumbs is the milk-soaked insides of stale bread squeezed dry and torn into shreds; some people swear by the springiness it gives to the meatballs, but I don’t like it; I like my meatballs meaty.)  I very finely chop a quarter of a small onion per quarter-pound meat, put it in a little frying pan with some olive oil, butter, and salt, turn on the heat to medium, and bring it to a sizzle. While the sizzling onion is softening and sweetening and perfuming, I very finely chop some garlic.  When the onion has become gold to see and sweet to smell, I take it off heat and add the finely chopped garlic, mixing it in well to allow the residual heat to tame the garlic.  Then I dump it all, onion, garlic, and fats too, onto the chopped meat.  Lastly, I add lots of finely chopped parsley and an egg per pound of meat.

Now I begin to mix the mixture well, but lightly, with splayed fingers.  Light meatballs require a light touch.  When the meat and seasonings seem homogenized and cohesive, I begin to pour out dollops of milk and work them in, until the mass of meat feels attractively malleable.  At that point, lightly grasping a full handful of meat, I roll it back and forth between my two palms, lightly, letting the friction of the rotary motion (rather than pressing) form the meat into a smooth integrated ball.  I lay out these meatballs on a plate to go into the frig when they’re all done, because a bit of chilling will make them more manageable to fry, by helping them hold their shape.

Once my meatballs are rolled and chilling, it’s time for the other light meats.  Italian sausages are delicious cooked in gravy.  In fact, they get more from the gravy than they give it, which is generally true of all these lighter meats of the medley.  My family dislikes sausage with fennel seed in it, but a gravy is the one place I find it tolerable, even if not desirable.  My family also likes chicken in their gravy, which is unusual, but not unprecedented.

So I begin with the chicken thighs, rinsing the brine off, drying them well with paper towels, and seasoning them lightly with salt and generously with pepper.  Time to fry them, but by now the oil is littered with meat scraps.  Wanting the flavor of the hefty meats without their detritus, I strain the oil through a fine sieve, rinse the frying pan with hot water, and wipe it out with a paper towel.  Then I restore the strained oil to the pan and turn up the heat to medium.  As usual, I want the chicken thighs to sizzle lively in the oil until golden and gilded, and then I lay them aside to rest.  Then on to the sausages, for the same treatment. 

I want the chicken to cook in the gravy for 30 minutes, the sausages for 20 minutes, and the meatballs for 15 minutes, so I time their introduction into the sauce accordingly, coordinating with the time line for the ribs.  Generally, when the chicken goes in, I start frying the meatballs.  Meatballs are a pain in the neck to fry.  They’re vulnerable to burning and cracking, so I do them on low heat, watch them like a hawk, and handle them like doves.  I’ll use large tongs or a spoon and fork to grasp them very gently when turning them over, and I don’t try to get them evenly colored all over.  These days, some people will instead of frying them bake their meatballs in the oven, or even throw them in raw, but the very idea offends.  The alluring aroma of a frying meatball speaks for itself.  If you can’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.  Maybe you’re not meant for gravy.

So I pull the meatballs out of the frig, and re-roll them a bit in my palms to restore their rounded shape, before laying them gently down to simmer lazily in the oil.  They will quickly take on color, at which point I gently turn them over.  Once the opposite side has taken on color, I’ll briefly do the adjacent set of sides.  If perchance a meatball cracks open, I’ll turn it onto the crack, to let the sizzling oil seal it.  As soon as the meatballs seem cohesive and pretty, I gently transfer them into the simmering sauce, but first I turn over the contents and scrape the bottom of the pot, so that I can ease the meatballs in on top and get them to sink in with minimal agitation.  

At this point, I taste and correct for salt, which sweet fatty flavors like those of a gravy sauce need in order to bloom.  I might also add a couple of sprigs of parsley for these last 15 minutes of cooking, for fresh scent.  When the cooking is done, I turn off the heat and leave the meats to cool in their sauce, during which the residual heat finishes the cooking.  If you take the meats out of their sauce before they’ve cooled, they’re liable to dry out.  (If you must do so, cover them with a thick layer of protective sauce, and cover the container you put them in.)

My gravy sauce this Sunday was for the sake of Pastosa ravioli I had in the freezer from my last trip to Brooklyn.  But I often just put it on fat pasta, like rigatoni, or else curly pasta, like fusilli.   My Sunday guests told me that Giolitti’s in Annapolis carries buccatini, which are long fat strands of pasta rolled around a metal wire that leaves a hole down the middle.  They’re a mess to eat, but fun and delicious.  I reheat the sauce and meat together while boiling the pasta (in well salted water!), and when the time comes, I ladle gravy from the pot to sauce the drained pasta.  Then I turn off the heat and let the meat rest in the hot sauce while we eat the first dish.

At table, I provide a boat of gravy sauce together with freshly grated Pecorino Romano, although in recent years I find myself liking gravy on its own.   As for the gravy meat, it makes a great impression when the platter arrives at table piled high with sundry meats topped with dollops of sauce.  A classic vegetable accompaniment in my family is bitter broccoli di rape sauteed in garlic and oil.  On Sunday I chose earthy red beets to complement the earthy greenness of the rape.  I dressed the boiled beets with extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar, oregano, salt and pepper (without prejudice to the salad of arugula to follow, dressed with dark balsamic vinegar).  Do I need to say there was crusty bread? 

My guests brought a delicious Tuscan blend of French grapes to share with me, a wine named “Indaco” from Tenuta Dei Sette Cieli [toscana] (which they got from and I shared with them my perfumey Aglianico from Antica Enotria [puglia].  The gravy loved the wines, and so did we.

After salad, I had a fancy fruit:  sliced pears sprinkled with chunked Parmigiano Reggiano and toasted walnuts, then drizzled with honey.  With coffee, there were amoretti from Villabate in Brooklyn (lovely almond paste cookies), along with chocolates, cognac, grappa, bourbon, and port.

It’s Sunday and “the Lord has brought forth bread from the earth, and wine to rejoice man’s heart; oil to gladden his face, and bread to strengthen his heart.”  So feast on fat meat, drink fat wine, take time to love your family and your friends—take all day, as the Lord commands you to, for your good.


Sunday Gravy (Sugo) 
(from Blog the Tenth)

* Gather sundry fatty meats: pork ribs; beef ribs; chunks of chuck or bottom round; chicken quarters; Italian sausage; coarsely ground beef (and pork) for meatballs; or whatever the moment graces. Also, soup bones with tender-looking marrow will be transfigurative. If you have the time for it, soak such marrow bones along with the ribs in a brine salty as the sea (1/4-cup salt to 1-quart water) for a few hours.
* Put the soup bones in the oven at 400 degrees to roast aromatic, while with a food mill you puree into a big sauce pot 4 or 5 large quart-sized can of pelati (whole peeled tomatoes imported from Italy--never not whole! never not imported!). Crush 2 or 3 garlic cloves hard, and toss them into the tomato puree, along with half a peeled potato and a half dozen whole black peppercorns. For aromatics, add in a bay leaf or two, if you have them, and a stem or two or three of fresh parsley. Add in a rounded tablespoon of coarse salt or a scanted tablespoon of table salt, and bring the puree to a simmer. Add the roasted soup bones whenever they smell stirring, and simmer them in the sauce, covered, for 20 or 30 minutes, before adding the ribs.
* Meanwhile, dry off and salt and pepper the ribs on both sides for sautéing. Heat a quarter-inch of regular olive oil, to sauté the ribs in at a steady simmer, until golden and spotted brown. Sauté the ribs in batches, vouchsafing them space to breathe and brown, and pile them up in a dish, to drip fat. When they're all ready for it, add them into the simmering puree and simmer them uncovered for 90 minutes, before adding the chicken and sausage for an additional 30-40 minutes of cooking.
* If you're using chunks of chuck or top round, or shank, then salt and pepper them on both sides, and brown them in the same oil as the ribs, and add them after the ribs, and at least 60 minutes before the chicken and sausage. * Before browning the chicken and sausage, strain your oil clean and wipe out your frying pan with paper towels, before returning the oil into it and to a simmer. Sauté the chicken, like the other meats, until speckled brown; after a rest, add it to the simmering sauce for 40 minutes of simmering. Then lightly brown the sausage, and add them for 30 minutes of simmering.
* For meatballs, lightly mix together: a pound of coarsely ground fatty beef (and maybe pork too); 4 heaping tablespoons of grated Pecorino Romano; 4 temperate tablespoons of seasoned bread crumbs; a small onion, sliced very thin and sautéd golden in butter and olive oil; a good sized clove of garlic chopped very fine; a plamful of chopped fresh parsley; a shower of of slat and grindings of black pepper; and enough milk to soften the mix to malleable. Roll handfuls of meats lightly between your palms to form large airy meatballs. Chill them until you're ready to brown them very lightly at a very gentle simmer over very mild heat on four sides, handling them ever so gently with a spoon and fork. Add them into the simmer gravy for the last 15 or 20 minutes of cooking.
* When rib meat begins to fall off a rib or two, and chuck to strand, then the gravy is gravy. Turn off the heat and let the meats cool down in the gravy, to keep them moist. When tepid, the meats can be removed to another pan and topped with gravy, for reheating later in the oven; or else they can be reheated in the gravy pot together with the gravy, when time comes to sauce the pasta.