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Saturday’s Feast: Food

April 28, 2012

Last week I asked for input on what my topic for Saturday should be.  Overwhelmingly, food won out.  I had suggested cooking, but I sensed it is more a “don’t tell me about the pain, show me the baby,” sort of thing being asked for.  Rather than present a recipe in step-by-step detail and leave it at that, I will explain why it is special to me.  As always, I cannot just throw something out there, so I will also explain why I make some of the food choices I make.

I guess all cooks have their “go to” recipes, things they make particularly well.  In my case, its soups, whenever I have a bad day or need to feed an army, soups come to mind.  Making them is cathartic for me; eating them is just pure joy.  For me, a good soup is nearly the perfect dish.  I will get to soups in due time, but before I jump into the deep end of the pool, I think it better to start off with something that serves as more a starting point for many other dishes, in the case Old-Style Italian Gravy.

Ok, first things first, Italian Gravy is not a meat-stock gravy that normally comes to mind when we hear the word.  No, when you boil terms down to their simplest form, it is a tomato sauce, but that nom de guerre hardly does it justice.  This is one of those dishes that have appeal on all fronts.  It smells wonderful, has a nice texture, and tastes out of this world.

A note to my vegetarian/vegan friends – this dish is not for you.  Of course, it can be modified for your needs and I might see about doing just that, but for now, it is a hearty meat dish.  Now, I do not give you smack for eating like a rabbit, so there is no need to give me smack for my omnivorous ways.

Back to the gravy, before we delve into the particulars of it, we need to come to an understanding of terms.  Tomatoes come in a wide variety of choices in the grocery store.  Understanding what each offers will help your make the right choice for you cooking endeavors.  The wrong choice can take a dish from being stellar to something you can buy in a jar; it will have some flavor but will miss the richness that the right choice adds.

You can buy canned tomatoes stewed, diced, whole, crushed, and pureed.  To further confuse you, each type comes processed with a variety of seasoning.  My advice is to stay away from all seasonings in canned tomatoes.  Unless you simply wish to throw something together and not season it yourself, there is no point in selecting them, if you need that level of convenience, you might as well buy a can of SpaghettiOs.  Moreover, if you worry about your sodium intake, canned tomatoes are a primary source.  Salt is added during the canning process.  Low-sodium and no-sodium canned tomatoes are available.  If they are not on the shelf, just pester your local grocer until they give you what you want.  If you ever wonder why a dish tastes different from time to time, it just might be the salt level from the canned foods you select.

In addition to tomatoes, there are the tomato sauces and pastes to consider.  Here is my way of thinking about it, the closer the product is to a whole tomato, the longer the dish takes to mature in cooking.  One trick to remember, tomato sauce adds the flavor that normally takes time to develop.  If you need to shorten your cooking time, replace a can of puree with a can of sauce.  In other words, if you need a quick sauce for dinner after a long day at work, use a tomato sauce, if is it a lazy Sunday, use crushed tomatoes and purees.  Of course, that is a general rule and most dishes take a combination to get the favor you want.  In the case of my Italian Gravy, it takes a combination of several types.  So here it is, Old-Style Italian Gravy:

 

Old-Style Italian Gravy

 

Ingredients

  • 2 – 28 Oz cans of crushed tomatoes (I prefer Contadina for all sauces)
  • 1 – 28 Oz can of whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 – 15 Oz can of tomato puree
  • 1 – 6 Oz can of tomato paste
  • 4 medium to large pieces of beef short ribs
  • 4 medium pieces of pork ribs
  • 6 hot or mild Italian Sausage
  • 6 large garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp of fresh parsley
  • 1/8 cup of fresh basil
  • 1 tbsp of fresh oregano
  • 1 tsp of black pepper
  • olive oil to lightly brown the garlic

Directions

  1. In a 6-quart slow cooker, combine crushed tomatoes, tomato puree, parsley, basil, oregano, and black pepper over medium-high heat.
  2. In a blender, blend the whole peeled tomatoes and add to slow cooker.
  3. Stir gravy every 10 minutes until mixture starts to bubble, lower temperature to simmer.
  4. In a frying pan, brown the beef short ribs and pork ribs on all sides and add each to mixture.
  5. Cut half the sausage into 1-inch lengths, brown and add to mixture.
  6. Remove the casing from the remaining sausage and brown like ground beef, drain, and add to mixture.  Steps 1 through 6 can be completed the night before and refrigerated for cooking the next morning.
  7. In the same frying pan, add olive oil.  Use spatula to scrape any cooked meat bits loose and add minced garlic.  Cook the garlic until it’s slightly brown, about a minute.  Add garlic to mixture.  Do not over-cook the garlic; it will lose its flavor.
  8. Still in the same frying pan, add the Tomato paste and fry it for about 5 to 7 minutes, add to gravy.  Cover and cook on low for at least 4 hours but 6 hours is recommended.
  9. About an hour before serving, remove ribs from gravy and debone.  The rib bones should come right off.  If needed, chop the meat, more than likely, it will be very tender and stringy.  Return all rib meat to gravy.  Discard rib bones.  They will not add to a stock at this point but make a great snack for Fido!

Note: If using cooked meatballs, add 30 minutes before serving the gravy.  Do not add raw or partially cooked meatballs to this recipe, they will not have time to cook thoroughly.

This is more than mere spaghetti sauce.  It is a rich taste experience that provides a complexity of flavors simply opening a jar will never.  You owe it to yourself to try this one at least once.

Old Map of Italy

This recipe serves as a nice pasta sauce for sure.  It is perfect to can at home or freeze; it keeps very well.  Later on, if you want to make lasagna, simply cook up some ground beef, add the sauce, simmer for about 20 minutes, then put your lasagna together and bake.  The same goes for a traditional spaghetti sauce, just cook up some onions and green peppers, add a touch of red wine or sherry with the sauce, simmer and in 30 minutes you have a spaghetti sauce to kill for.  About the only tomato based sauce it will not serve, as a base, is Americanized-marinara sauce, which is devoid of flavor and closer to water than the richness of true Italian cuisine.

This recipe is my take on all the Italian Gravy recipes I’ve found, and there are many variations.  In that sense, it is always evolving as I incorporate ideas I find.  While it is great as is, change it to suit your own tastes, make it your own.   I know it seems like a lot of effort, but it really takes less than an hour as the slow cooker does most of the work, with the benefit of driving your family members crazy with its wonderful aroma.  By dinnertime, they will be like starving sailors wanting that first meal after a month lost at sea.

There is no need for a side salad or anything else, except for some freshly grated Parnassian cheese and some sort of garlic bread.  This dish truly stands alone.  Once you master it, you will never look at a jar of store-bought spaghetti sauce in the same way.  Simply put, this is one of the best recipes I’ve ever made.

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