Beef Ragu over Cheesy Polenta A rustic, belly-filling recipe from simple ingredients. The cook time from pan to table is under an hour, so it's great for a quick family meal during the workweek...
1 cup quick-cooking polenta
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/4 cup mascarpone
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground chuck/beef
1 medium diced sweet onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Tuttarosso crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup torn fresh basil leaves or two teaspoons dry
Cook polenta in a medium saucepan according to package directions. At the end, stir in 1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano and mascarpone. Cover to keep warm.
Next, heat oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.
Saute onion until translucent, then add beef and garlic, stirring often to break up meat. Cook until meat is no longer pink, about 5 minutes.
Transfer beef mixture to a plate using a slotted spoon and discard excess fat. Return meat to the pan, then add the crushed tomatoes and all the spices. Simmer for 20-30 minutes with the pan covered on low heat.
Divide polenta evenly among 4 shallow bowls. Top each serving with the ragu, top with a few fresh basil leaves and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
Of course, I was first introduced to pot roast by my Mom, but being a working mother, she always looked for shortcuts--a big thing for Moms back in the 50s and sixties. Although it was delicious, her shortcut was to use cans of Campbell's Onion Soup and to cook it in her very scary, rattling pressure cooker (Mom managed to blow up a few of those beasts). Even as I moved on to my own life, he loved making this for me as a special treat, believing it was my "favorite" meal. (I really liked her lasagna much better).
Well into my thirties, as I developed my own culinary skills, I wanted something more authentic, so I opted for using sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla to add a sweet, deep flavor to my version. In recent years, I've developed my Italian Style Pot Roast, reminiscent of Sugo (Sunday Gravy), but with a much lighter stew type sauce. In Italy, this type of recipe is called Stracotto (literally, overcooked), because of its slow cook time. Another name for this recipe, or rather, style of preparation is simply Brasato di Manzo (braised beef).
Simple ingredients, make a robust meal
To ensure that the meat is tender, you should plan this as a weekend meal, allowing most of the afternoon to slow cook the roast on a gas range (OK, electric would be fine also). Yes, as my mother did, this pot roast isn't done in the oven but rather in a heavy pot on a cooktop. This method takes a minimum of 4 hours of slow-cooking. Technically, it's a braise and not a true roast. (One day soon I should show you how I do my Dad's Oven Roasted Beef).
I cook mine in our tri-bond, stainless steel, flat-bottomed All-Clad Stockpot, rather than our Dutch oven. I find the wider base spreads the heat out rather than concentrating it in the center, as the narrow-bottomed Dutch oven does. (Which would tighten the proteins in the beef rather than relax them). I also use a heavy cast iron Heat Diffuser over our medium diameter gas burner to diffuse the heat even further. I suppose I could also use one of our other options, like our Staub Coq au Vin Cocotte or ourEmile Henry Brasier (for a smaller roast) but I like working with steel.
What Cut of Beef? You will see cuts of beef labeled "chuck roast" in the supermarket, but you can use pretty much any type of beef--as long as it's a tough cut--not tender. A slow cooking time and very low temperature really define the process--not the cut of beef. Pot roast is a braise (slow cooked in liquid) that cooks at a low temperature for a long period of time.
The tougher cuts work best because the slow cooking gently breaks down the proteins and collagen, giving you a luscious, nearly-fall apart, fork-cutting texture. These cuts are from the parts of the animal that are very muscular with lots of connective tissue and very little fat. If you quickly grilled these cuts, the result would be very tough.
The following three cuts will all make a fine pot roast:
Chuck: From the front portion of the animal. Look for chuck roast, shoulder steak, boneless chuck roast, chuck shoulder pot roast. In the case of shoulder cuts with lobed sections, you might have to use butcher's twine to tie the roast into a cylindrical shape for better handling while browning.
Brisket: From the breast or lower chest with long strands of meat. Brisket is best sliced across the grain of the meat for maximum tenderness.
Round: From the rear leg of the animal. Look for rump roast or bottom round.
1 - beef chuck roast, 2-1/2 to 3 pounds
2 tablespoons olive oil (for browning)
1-1/2 cups red wine (Chianti, Primitivo, Sangiovese, etc.)
2 cups beef broth
1 large Vidalia or Walla Walla (sweet onion), diced or sliced--your choice (a texture difference)
4-5 plum tomatoes, diced (alternate: 14.5 ounce can diced or crushed tomatoes)
3 carrots, diced or larger cuts, your choice
3 celery stalks, diced or larger cuts
12-15 garlic cloves, paper removed.
2 sprigs fresh rosemary (or 1 tablespoon dry)
6 fresh sage leaves (or 1 teaspoon dry)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
5 bay leaves (remove before serving!)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (pepperoncino)
20 cracks of fresh black pepper (from pepper mill, or 1/2 teaspoon ground)
2 teaspoons sea salt
Dry the beef chuck roast with paper towels. If there is any tough silver skin or a very thick fat along one side, remove it with a filet knife, but leaving some fat.
With a sharp paring knife, cut 6-8 slits into the beef on all sides, about 2" deep. Shove a clove of garlic deep into each hole. These will impart amazing flavor into the roast as it cooks.
Salt well, then crack some pepper on all sides of the roast.
Drizzle 2 tablespoons olive oil into your stock pot and turn the heat on medium-high.
Wait until the pan is hot, then place your roast into it, with the fat side facing downward. You should hear a sizzle. If your pot isn't hot enough, the roast will stick.
After browning the first side, use tongs to turn and brown all sides equally. Don't forget the ends--standing the roast up on its ends and leaning on one side of the pot usually works well, otherwise hold in place with tongs. Remove the pan from the heat at this point, and place the roast on a dish while you prepare the vegetables. Do NOT wipe out or clean the pan.
Prep your vegetables: Shave the carrots and cut into a small dice if you want them to cook down into the sauce, or in larger pieces if you prefer to have the stewed carrots in the final results. Do the same with the celery.
If using fresh tomatoes, dice them and set them aside.
Dice, slice or chop the onion. The texture is a personal choice. I like dicing the onions so they melt into the sauce. You might like to have more rustic cut onions.
Place your pot over a medium heat again and when hot, deglaze the pan by drizzling in some of the wine. Using a flat bottom wooden spoon, scrape away at the fond (the brown bits) that developed when browning the beef until the bottom of the pan looks clean again.
Place the onions into the same pot, heat still on medium and simmer until they are translucent and have taken on the color of the wine.
Add the rest of your vegetables into the pot, along with the rest of the wine and beef stock. If using canned diced tomatoes, add them now.
Add all the spices into the pot, then mix well into the vegetable mixture. If using springs of rosemary, place them on the sides, then place your roast on top of the vegetables, fat side up. Briefly, spoon some of the liquids over the roast.
Cover the pot and place on the smallest burner of your cooktop or on a medium burner using a cast iron flame retarder (heat diffuser) under the pot. Cook for 3 hours, occasionally spooning sauce on top of the roast.
After the roast is tender, but before reaching a "fall apart" stage, remove the roast and place onto a cutting board, letting it cool to the touch for a few minutes. Slice into half-inch slices. Carefully, return each slice back into the pot, making sure each one is under the surface of the sauce. Continue cooking on a low temperature for an additional 30 minutes. This should make your slices fork-tender--you won't need a knife when eating.
When finished, decide if your sauce is as thick as you would like. If you would like it a bit thicker, you can stir in a handful of dried breadcrumbs (and old Nonna trick). Personally, I like the sauce a little on the runny side so I can use a scarpetta while eating to sop it up.
You can serve this as Italians do, as a Secundo (second course) after the Primo (pasta course). Or as we do, a casa Finzi... served over a bed of ziti rigati or risotto. Another option is to service it as northern Italians might, with fresh made spaetzel, the Austrian-German style of dumpling (look for my recipe soon). Definitely serve with a rich Italian wine, a Barolo, Primativo or even a bright Chianti. And try the "Ratatouille" test that my son Lucas and I picked up from the animated film: take a forkful of beef, then a sip of wine. Close your eyes and see how they merge into a wonderful mix of flavors in your mouth...
Allora... Buon appitito!
Don't forget to write and tell me how yours turned out... --Jerry Finzi
GVI CUCINA HACK In this recipe, I shared the trick of thickening with breadcrumbs, which gives a rustic charm to the dish. Of course, if you'd like a richer, even more tomato-y version, you can thicken the sauce during cooking by adding a little tomato paste--perhaps a couple of tablespoons. You can also thicken by using cornstarch... dissolve a tablespoon of cornstarch in a 1/4 cup of cold water and then stir it into the hot, bubbling sauce while stirring to distribute it. (High heat is needed for it to thicken).
Growing up, one of my favorite things to ask for when my family went to a restaurant was "meat sauce". Meat sauce on spaghetti. Meat sauce on ravioli. Meat sauce on veal cutlets. I'd even ask for meat sauce on top of chicken parmesan! Well, I've grown up and matured (OK, somewhat). In this article I'll show you how to make a grown-up version of "meat sauce"--Ragù alla Bolognese.
One of the very first meals we had during our Voyage to Italy was Pici al Ragù... a Tuscan version of Spaghetti Bolognese. We had just gotten off the train from Rome in the small Tuscan town of Chiusi Scalo ("Scalo" designates the part of a town that surrounds a railway station). Chiusi proper, an historic Tuscan town with proud roots back to the Etruscans, was up on the nearby hilltop.
We were so weary from having traveled about 16 hours or more, first by air to Rome and then by train from Rome to Chiusi, where we were to pick up our rental car. And at this point we were also famished--needing to re-fuel. When we got off the train, the Hertz office was closed for riposa (a 3 hour siesta), so we had planned to have lunch while we waited. Believe it or not, I had already picked out the trattoria that we would eat at, selected weeks before while fine-tuning the details on my Google Earth maps... we would eat our first Italian meal at Trattoria Porsenna, one block from the train station. It was a fantastic choice. With only 12 tables and a casual country style, we order a bottle of gassata for the table and waited for our meals. When the Pici al Ragù came, I couldn't believe how delicious it was.
By the way... Pici is a sort of thick, hand rolled spaghetti. Ragù is basically a meat sauce, the best of which is Ragù alla Bolognese, which originated in Bologna but is found all over Italy nowadays. People will tell you that "spaghetti Bolognese" doesn't exist in Italy--but it does. The sauce will just be called "Ragù" instead of "Bolognese", as in "Spaghetti al Ragù", and typically in place of spaghetti the dish is usually served with tagliatelle, a long, flat, fresh pasta noodle--"Tagliatelle al Ragù".
Historic records even prove that in centuries past, spaghetti (dried) was commonly used with a Ragù sauce anyway. (NOTE: In the weeks that followed, we saw "Spaghetti alla Bolognese" listed on many menus). So, whatever the name, and no matter what type of pasta you put under it, I knew that this was the Ragù I wanted to duplicate when I returned back home.
Ingredients 2 pounds ground beef (80% or less fat) 1/4 pound speck (cut 1/4" thick), 1/4" dice (Speck is a smoked prosciutto) 1 large Vidalia onion (or 2 large yellow onions) 1 teaspoon sugar (for sauteing onions) 4 tablespoons canola oil (for sauteing) 3 carrots, 1/4" dice 3 celery stalks, 1/4" dice 4 garlic cloves, smashed then diced 5 bay leaves (remove after cooking) 1-1/2 tablespoons thyme 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes 1-tablespoon dried basil 1 cup full bodied red wine (Primativo, Montepulciano, Chianti, etc.) 1-28 ounce can Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes 1-6 ounce can tomato paste 1 cup heavy cream
My Bolognese sauce
Heat 4 tablespoons of canola in in large stock pot, then add the onions, carrots and celery. Sprinkle in the sugar. Saute on medium heat until onions are translucent.
Add the diced Speck and saute for 1 minute, then add the diced garlic. Cook for another minute or two, but don't burn the garlic.
Add the ground beef and cook on moderate flame, stirring occasionally until lightly browned. You can add the spices at this point... basil, thyme, pepper flakes and bay leaves.
As the meat cooks, turn over the mixture to allow for equal browning and distribution of the spices.
Turn up the flame and add the wine. Using a flat bottom wooden spoon, scrape the bottom of the pan (you want to get up any fond that might have developed). Cook for 2 minutes until the alcohol has evaporated from the wine.
Turning the flame down to medium, add the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and combine well into the meat/vegetable mixture. Cook for 3-5 minutes.
Next, add the heavy cream, mix, then turn the flame down to simmer (use a smaller back burner, or use a heat diffuser plate under your pot).
Simmer, stirring occasionally and cook for 3 hours covered. Then, remove the lid and continue simmering for another hour or until the sauce thickens considerably (making sure the bottom of the pot doesn't burn). If you feel like your sauce hasn't thickened enough, you can always use an the old Italian Nonna's trick.... toss in a handful or two of breadcrumbs).
This recipe will make enough Bolognese sauce for several meals. It also freezes very well.
My dad, Sal was a great cook. He loved food and worked with it every day, starting out selling produce down by the Hoboken waterfront with his brother Anselmo and their "three-legged (lame) horse " and cart. Later on he worked as a greengrocer and as a deli man. He even grew food in our tiny backyard garden--especially tomatoes. When his customers saw him around the county, they'd shout out "There's My Baloney Man!"
My Mom did all the daily cooking--soups, chicken, pastas and all that, but my Dad did the special meals: Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas Baked Ham, Roast Beef and lots of other Italian specialties like smelts, fried eel, and quick lunches like his "potatoes and egg" frittata. He was always great at making something from pretty much anything he found in the fridge.
But what I loved best was the way he made fist-sized meatballs in the deli. Only one of them would fit into a pint sized container. It was always a special treat when he brought some home. One of these giants on a plate with spaghetti was a feast--one meatball equal to about 4 or 5 the way my mother made them. No need to ask for any other meatballs--one was certainly more than enough.
Once every few years, in honor of Dad, I set out to make his meatballs, his way. His size.
Bigger than a baseball, slightly smaller than a softball
Formed and ready for the oven
They measure around 3-1/2" in diameter
Before roasting, I brush them with some Extra Virgin olive oil
Instead of frying, as we normally do for our polpette, he would roast them in the oven
Each meatball weighs 10-12 ounces each
In this recipe, we used about 4 pounds of beef--ground chuck. You can use your own family's meatballs recipe or ours HERE. The ingredients would need to be increased to account for the 4 pounds (if you're making a lot), or simply make less meatballs. Four pounds would give you from 6-8 giant meatballs--2 pounds, probably 4 meatballs.
In the bottom of a roasting pan, I placed light olive oil, about 1/4" deep. The meatballs are placed in the pan and brushed with Extra Virgin Olive Oil to help the browning. The oven should be pre-heated to 450 F at first, then roasting the meatballs, uncovered for about 30 minutes. Next, cover lightly with foil and turn the oven down to 350 F and bake for another 30-45 minutes (ovens vary). Check occasionally to ensure the bottoms aren't burning. Turn the meatballs over a few times if necessary. You want them nicely browned, or until the internal temperature reaches 165 F (using an instant digital probe thermometer).
After the meatballs are done, you can serve over pasta with some of your tomato sauce, or place them into a large pot of your Sugo (Sunday Gravy) to flavor the sauce. You can also cut up one meatball to make a large meatball hero (sub) sandwich, topped with grated parmagiano and toasted in the oven, or smash one with sauce and sliced provolone cheese inside a large flatbread, like the type used to make a muffaletta sandwich. You might also serve half a meatball, cut side down on separate plates with pasta for an intimate supper... calling the half-moon dish Mezzaluna. "When the Moon Hits Your Eye... That's Amore!"
No matter how you enjoy them, you'll love making these huge polpette--my dad, Sal's Giant Meatballs.
A key ingredient in tiramisu and zabaglione, mascarpone is velvety soft, slightly acidic, and expensive. Mascarpone is milky-white in color and is easy to spread. It is used in various Lombardy dishes, and is considered a specialty in the region. Mascarpone originated in the area between Lodi and Abbiategrasso, southwest of Milan, probably in the late 16th or early 17th century.
The name more than likely is derived from mascarpa, an unrelated milk product made from the whey of stracchino (a young, barely aged cheese), or from mascarpia, a word in the local dialect for ricotta. Others claims the name comes from the Spanish mas que bueno, "better than good." Ricotta, unlike mascarpone, is also made from whey.
Usually sold fresh in tubs, It is one of the main ingredients in the modern Italian dessert known as tiramisu, and is sometimes used instead of butter or Parmesan cheese to thicken and enrich risotto. Mascarpone is also used to produce Italian cheesecakes. It's a highly perishable cheese meant to be consumed as soon as possible after it is made.
Italian cheese made with mascarpone
How to Use Mascarpone
Mix with or as a topping for fruits or berries.
Whipped Cream Substitute, use with a drizzle of honey over ice cream or pie.
Spread on toast with a sprinkle or sea salt or cinnamon/sugar and a drizzle of honey.
Add a dollop on the side of oven roasted, caramelized root vegetables.
Use a sauce for making a White Pizza.
Place a dollop into butternut squash soup along with a tablespoon of cranberry sauce.
Add to your tomato sauce to make a richer, creamier pasta sauce.
Spread some on toast with Nutella.
Mascarpone definitely works on top of a baked potato.
Substitute: Blend 8 ounces softened cream cheese with 1/4 cup whipping cream.
Mascarpone is made from two ingredients... whole cream and citric or tartaric acid (to thicken the cream).
In theprovince of Teramo, in Abruzzo there is a recipe that rivals the Sugo of the Neapolitan tradition: Chitarra con Pallottini. If there is any ancestor of Italian-American style "spaghetti & meatballs" (a dish that doesn't exist in Italy), then this is it...
Let me explain the name first. Chitarra means guitar in Italian, but in this case it refers to the pasta making tool called a chitarra because it's wire strings resemble a guitar (OK, perhaps it looks more like a zither or auto-harp, but let's not quibble.) The chitarra is used to make a type of spaghetti with a square edged profile, called Pasta alla Chitarra. A thin sheet of fresh pasta is laid on top of the chitarra and a small matterello pin is rolled over the pasta to squeeze it down and through the wires, creating the square sides. The pasta falls below, picked up and dried or cooked fresh. Kids would love to help make this pasta. The name of this type of pasta has taken on the name chitarra.
Click HERE or on the Photo at left to see this quality Chitarra on Amazon. This one has two sides--one for spaghetti, the other for fettuccine. The strings should be left loose in storage and tightened before use.
As for the Pallottini... palla means ball, the "-ini" ending means they are small. Small isn't the word. These Abruzzo meatballs are absolutely tiny. When I made this recipe, it took me well over an hour to make 268 tiny pallottine from about 3 pounds of minced, lean chuck. (Yes, I counted them). I should have waited until my son, Lucas came home from school to help me! While making them, I discovered that it was difficult to make the pallotine as small as the ones I found in authentic Abruzzese recipes. Mine came out around 3/4 inch in diameter... instead of the 1/2" or smaller seen in Abruzzo. The problem was trying to pinch a small enough bit of meat in between the tips of my fingers. Perhaps using a 1/4 teaspoon measure would have worked better. Tiny fingers and hands of young children would be perfect for the task, but knowing how tedious this task is, more than likely it would be considered as child labor.
On Sundays, when Neapolitannonnas and mamas are making their Sugo, the kitchens in Abruzzo are filled with similar scents of Nonnas making their Sugo, pasta alla chitarra and pallottine. Traditionally, the dish is accompanied by a rich meat and tomato based Sugo rather than a simple marinara sauce. The sugo is slow-cooked all day with lamb, beef, and pork added to a large pot of crushed tomatoes. The sauce isn't finished until the meat easily falls or shreds apart and can be mixed into the sugo. In my recipe, I slow cooked the pallottine with crushed tomatoes and spices, leaving out the other meats. My thinking was that 3 pounds of tiny meatballs will still add loads of meaty flavor to the resulting sugo.
I made 268 little meatballs... And yes, I counted them.
Some claim that Chitarra con Pallottini is a dish from the Piedmont region in the north from the early 20th century. In Abruzzo people have been making and eating pallottini since the early 1800s, a full 100 years earlier. To add to the confusion, a recent report by an Italian expert in archeological gastronomy discovered a Piedmont recipe in a monk's cookbook dated 1344 that described tiny meatballs used in a rice and pork blood dish. Wherever it stemmed from, this dish is unique and well worth making...
I fried the pallottini in about 3/4 inch-deep olive oil
Amazingly small Pallottine--perhaps half the size of the ones I made--served with the square-edged Chitarra pasta.
Since I didn't have a chitarra to make the proper type of pasta, we had our Pallattine with tagliatelle. (Our Chitarra tool is on order). For scale, this is a salad plate.
Since I didn't have a Chitarra when I made this recipe, I used some 3/4 inch wide tagliatelle for my dish. I also changed up the recipe a bit from the originals I found. They tend to use nothing but ground beef, one egg and a sprinkle of nutmeg to make the pallottini. I wanted to add a bit more flavor, so I added a very small minced of garlic (in a jar, imported from Italy) and since these meatballs were SO tiny, I couldn't use fresh diced onions as I do in normal sized polpette. Instead, I used dried onion flakes, knowing they would re-hydrate when added to the meat mixture.
I won't get into the recipe for the traditional Sugo here, but if you like, you can make my recipe HERE. Otherwise, for a fresher sauce, make a quick marinara with crushed tomatoes, a bit of sugar, and a decent amount of dried basil.
Ingredients (pallottini) 3 pounds of lean, chopped (minced) chuck/beef 2 tablespoons dried onion flakes 2 teaspoon minced garlic (in jar) 2 tablespoons fine sea salt 40 cracks fresh black pepper 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes 1 beaten egg
Directions In a large mixing bowl, mix the minced chuck with the beaten egg, the minced garlic and all the other dry spices. Get in there with your hands and mix really well, until you are certain that each and every tiny meatball will get an assortment of garlic, onion flakes and other spices.
Lay out several sheets of wax paper on your work counter and start making the pallotine. If using your bare hands, barely pinch a little bit of meat mixture in between the tips of your thumb and two forefingers. Roll the meat into a ball shape between your palms. As I mentioned, the pallottine should be less than 3/4 inch around. If you want to try a 1/4 teaspoon measure, this might help to measure out a smaller amount.
Once you finished making all of the pallottine, heat a large saute pan with light olive oil filled to a depth of 3/4 inch deep. If you would like to brown the pallottine a bit more, you can use half the amount of oil, but you will have to pay much more attention to turning them as they brown. These tiny balls cook quickly!
Cook them in batches and remove with a slotted spoon, then place on a large baking tray covered with several layers of paper towels to drain.
When completed, you can place them in your marinara or Sugo and slowly simmer for about 1-1/2 hours or longer if you are adding them to a Sugo with several other meats.
So, the next time someone claims there is no such thing as Spaghetti and Meatballs in Italy, try winning a bar bet with your knowledge of Pallottine!
P.S. When I get my Chitarra tool, I'll update this article with photos of the Pallottine on top of fresh made Pasta alla Chitarra.
Nearly every Sunday of my early childhood my Mom made something most Italian-Americans (especially those from Naples) called Sunday Gravy. Simply put, Sunday Gravy is essentially a large batch of tomato sauce with various types of meat slow cooked into it. In Italian, the word salsa means sauce... a sauce is made from something other than meat. Like putting a fruit or cheese sauce over meat, chicken or fish. The Italian word sugo means gravy. A gravy is made from the liquids and fat that are rendered from various meats--like using turkey drippings to make a gravy. The all-day cooking of meat in tomato sauce gives off a heady scent, that would fill our apartment, and waft out into the hallway for the entire building to smell--"Ahh... the Finzis are making Gravy today!"
The secret of Sugo is in its slow cooking, or pippiare (literally, to bubble) technique.Sunday Gravy has it's origins from a beef stew popular in medieval XII-XIV century, way before tomatoes were introduced from the New World--a clay cooker slow cooked the stew of beef and vegetables for hours and hours. This beef stew turned into a ragù, at first created in northern Italy, with the southern Neapolitans evolving the dish further by the eighteenth century. It began as a a dish for nobility, using more expensive cuts of meat, such as beef and veal, but no tomato. (Tomatoes didn't gain popularity right away in Europe... they were thought to be poisonous). This dish was mainly prepared on Sundays, the sauce placed on top of the pasta, with larger cuts of meat served as a second course. One historian described a Sugo using tomatoes in 1857 that was being served in taverns in Naples.
You can think of Sunday Gravy is a hybrid of sorts... it starts out as a tomato sauce and becomes a gravy after meats have been added and have rendered their flavors during a long cooking period--the Sunday Gravy of my childhood.
Some of the meat ready to be added to the Gravy
But Sunday Gravy wasn't just about a making a single meal in la nostra casa. It was an event--a gathering. Making Sunday Gravy is reminiscent of an entire village doing their weekly communal cooking... coming together to make pasta, make bread, make the olive oil, tend the olive trees, fix a roof, gossip, laugh and be together. In Italian communities, ovens were often communal, but ingredients were also communal in many respects--Giuseppe just slaughtered a large pig and barters off some of the meat with Mario, the baker for bread, or perhaps his cousin Maria still has some tomatoes hanging that she would swap, and Marcello's owes him some olive oil to offset the wine that was traded last spring for some pasta. Food was communal. Food was family. And good food takes time and preparation and lasts for more than a single meal...
My Mom started making Sunday Gravy sometimes on Saturday... or even in the middle of the week before. Being a working Mom and was frugal with her time. She would make a meat dish one night--maybe the meatballs. Then she'd give us a simple dinner with some of them, but hold most of them for adding to the Sunday Gravy pot. Maybe on Saturday after shopping, she'd make the brasciole and brown the pork ribs under the broiler. These would also go into the fridge, ready for the Sunday Gravy pot.
Sunday morning would arrive and I'd go to Mass with one of my sisters and then stop at a bakery to pick up "buns" for our whole family--even my Aunt Rose's family who lived upstairs. In our family's jargon, "Buns" were anything sweet from the bakery... cream donuts dusted with cinnamon, raisin "buns" (my favorite), a crumb cake with crumbs as big as my 5 year old fist, a cheese danish that would fill a plate, and maybe a dozen "mixed buns"... assorted goodies that the person behind the counter would surprise us with
Crumb Cake--more crumb than cake
The Sunday papers and "Buns" from the bakery, were all part of the Sunday Gravy ritual. We'd carry the big white bags and boxes tied with string back home to our street, then stop at the candy store to pick up the Sunday papers, as heavy as the sauce Mom was going to make. We didn't have breakfast on Sundays. We had "buns" and comics. Mom and Dad would have coffee with theirs, and the five of us kids would dunk our "buns" in milk and read Dick Tracy, Mandrake, Little Orphan Annie and Blondie... But before I could finish reading the comics, the cooking would start and the smells would change from sweet cinnamon to Gravy...
Sunday Gravy wasn't just about the one meal. It was also about what we'd be eating in the coming week--there would be lots of leftovers in that big pot. The gravy might even allow us to cheat a little on "meatless Friday" by using just the tomato sauce without any meat on pasta, ravioli or with fish. And everyone knows that Gravy tastes even better over the next few days. The flavors of all those meats meld into the sauce turning it magically into a true gravy--rendered from meat. It's a carnivore's manna--nectar straight from our Roman and Greek bloodlines. My Dad's very large family ate from a single pot.... and a single bowl in the middle of the table. You can imagine the Sunday Gravy there with brothers and sisters taking a meatball here, a rib there... a couple of these meats, a piece of bread or pasta and some of this gravy and you had an incredible meal. Filling, nutritious and delicious. A necessary thing when our Nonna's had so many mouths to feed with so little.
Mariantonia Delulia, my Grandma
In our famiglia, there were lots of mouths to feed--seven of us in our family, and the dog. My cousins and Aunt would stop by, too. Then there were my sisters' girl friends and my brother's crew. There were always extra plates for whoever stopped by.
It was about the famiglia... the heritage... the food... the tastes that even our memories had forgotten and unknowingly were our a link to our past.... Naples, Molfetta... and my maternal Grandmother, Mariantonia Delulia.
(Once I learned her real name I was compelled to say her full name over and over... like poetry off an Italian tongue... "Maree - ahn-TONE-eaa-ahh Day-LULE-eeah". )
This wonderful lady towered over me (as a small child) at 4' 10", with her greyed hair tucked into a bun in the daytime, but releasing nearly three feet of it down her back at night before bed. Grandma made her own version of Gravy... everyone does it slightly differently. She'd add large strips of peppers and larger chunks of onions, and put pignoli in her meatballs. A cut up pork shoulder (the affordable cut for poor immigrants, when they could afford it) was key to her recipe, along with hot sausage (way too spicy for my young tongue back then).
The soffritto read to start the Gravy
Spicing things up
Before we would get through the comics, our little railroad apartment would start to smell differently.... sweet, pungent... Italian. Mom would start by taking a huge onion and cutting it up into small pieces... and sautéing them in the bottom of her huge stock pot on the kitchen stove until they were soft and glistening and letting off their pungent scent. Then she would add the diced carrots, celery and garlic. After that, my Dad would get the wine from the cellar (he'd sometimes have jugs of some home made wine he got from my Uncle down there) and pour some into the pot. Not sure how much.... maybe a couple of cups.
Next, Mom would let one of us open the cans--big cans of imported tomato puree. It was fun opening cans using the wall-hung can opener over by the dumb waiter door (nailed shut by Dad so us kids wouldn't try to go for a ride.) About four or five cans would go into the pot. Next came the spices. A handful of sugar to cut the acidity, half-handful each of dried basil, oregano, thyme, garlic powder (or a 5-6 cloves of fresh when Mom had it), a good sprinkle of red pepper flakes, a tablespoon each of salt and pepper, then a quarter cup of olive oil. If Mom had any leftover rinds of cheese from a grating wedge, they'd go in too.
Then she'd take out the meat... lots of it. A rack of ribs cut up would be layered in like logs at the bottom of a red lake. Then would come the sausage browned and cut up into 2 inch pieces, then add the brasciole--all tied up like meaty little packages, and then the meatballs. Then the Sunday Gravy pot is put on the back burner--the smallest one--and starts to simmer and simmer, bubbling like a crater of lava from the old world. The aromas get more and more intense as the day goes on--you can taste the flavors turning the tomato sauce into something... luscious. My siblings' friends come and go with an open door policy, my mother always inviting them to have a "bun" or sit down for a meatball sandwich. There was more than enough... a few would never be missed.
After several hours of bubbling along with the meats, the sauce comes a Gravy.
As for us, we would taste the Gravy all day long by getting a piece of bread and spooning some on top. What a treat. I still do this when I make gravy--or sauce. Taste it on top of a piece of bread... fine tune the spices, then simmer some more. Lucas is growing to love this little snack way before dinnertime. In the Fifties we would sometimes eat Sunday "dinner" at 2 in the afternoon if my Mom was lucky enough to get the Sunday Gravy in the pot early enough. Otherwise, we'd eat by 5 or so. There was no set dinner time on Sundays in our house. Besides, we had "buns" in our bellies--the starch, fat and sugars keeping our fluttering young hearts going. No one went hungry on Sundays.
The New Famiglia Finzi "Gravy"
This past Easter I made Sunday Gravy, as I described above. I didn't follow a recipe... I followed my memories. Perhaps this is why I didn't write this article as I would a normal recipe. I don't want people to simple follow the recipe in any strict way. This a recipe that needs to be felt. Vary it with love--the things you love, and share it with people you love. Make meals out of its components both before, during--and after--making it.
We've already had two meals from it. It all came together for Easter Sunday's late afternoon meal, as my family had done time and time again so many years ago. We'll probably freeze half of it for future meals. We made home made tagliatelle to have with it the first night and a risotto for another meal on another day. But we also had each other. We shared garlic bread and wine with it--Lucas had a little glass too. I'm teaching Lucas how to drink with a meal rather than drink to get drunk. He places a small forkful of meat in his mouth, chews a bit, sips some wine and discovers the flavors as they mingle and merge into something Godlike.
Tagliatelle with Sugo
Making the tagliatelle
Making Sunday Gravy was like having a family Mass with a prayer beforehand, and more afterwards. It's a joy to watch my boy Lucas' eyes light up as he discovers great flavors. Lisa helped me with some parts of the meat preparations as early as Thursday. Lucas helped make the meatballs and the pasta. Lucas is also a spice expert (great palette on that kid), so I told him to, "Make an Italian tasting spice rub for the ribs". He nailed it. Mom made the risotto we had for our second meal (her first time making risotto... usually I do all the stirring). The Gravy mixing with the rice turning it into something dreamy.
My mother in her element
Traditions--or perhaps I should say rituals-- are important in our family, and in our food. After all, the food holds ties to our heritage and the food eventually becomes us. Literally and spiritually.
Ok, here's my basic pizza sauce. On lazy nights when I'm in a hurry, sure, I'll use a bit of jar sauce (I like Bertolli Tomato & Basil, real basic), Whatever you do, don't use any of the jarred sauces called "pizza sauce". Any that I've tried have been absolutely terrible. Trust me, there's nothing like making your own pizza sauce.
To start with, there are two brands of crushed or diced tomatoes that you can use as a starting point. Del Monte Diced Tomatoes with Basil, Oregano and Garlic is a decent one. It has finely diced tomatoes of decent quality and taste. There isn't much sweetness so I tend to add a bit of sugar to cut the acidity. Cirio Crushed Tomatoes is a recent favorite for when I'm looking for a more Italian taste... it has a higher sugar content, so I don't add sugar when I use Cirio. The box is a bit awkward to open... be careful.
But lately, my all time favorite to use for pizza sauce (and sauce recipes) is Tuttorosso Natural Crushed Tomatoes with Basil(a six pack of 28 ounce cans on Amazon, $19) . The "crushed" is so extreme that it makes the sauce in the can thick. I will always add a half cup of water or so to thin it out a bit when making pizza sauce. The flavor that this brand gives to the sauce is amazing.
Ingredients 1 - 16 ounce can/box of crushed or diced tomatoes 2 tablespoons of dried basil pinch of salt 1 tablespoon sugar (unless using Cirio brand) 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil optional, 1/2 teaspoon of chopped/ground red pepper flakes (if you like heat) optional, 3 cloves garlic, finely sliced (or a tablespoon of Bellino Minced Garlic) optional, 1 small diced onion, sauteed in olive oil first
Place all the ingredients in a saucepan and heat for 5-10 minutes, then use an immersion blender to smooth our the texture. If when using the Cirio crushed tomatoes the sauce looks a bit thick, add a bit of water (2-3 tablespoons) and blend again. When I use the Tuttorosso, there is no need for the immersion blender but I always add about 1/2 cup water. If you like a chunkier sauce, use the Del Monte diced tomatoes in your recipe but don't blend it.
For a fresher flavor, combine all the ingredients and don't heat it. Simply blend to a smooth liquid and use this directly on your pizza. Heating the sauce combines the flavors cohesively while using a cold sauce on pizza gives a brighter, fresher flavor. Try it both ways and see what you think.
In summer, you can simply use tomatoes off the vine to make a sauce. Drop the whole tomatoes (San Marzano plum or any paste tomato varieties types are great) into a pot of boiling water for a few seconds, then transfer immediately into an ice water bath. This loosens the skin. Remove from the ice water then using your hands, slip the skins off. Crush them in your hands then use in the recipe preparation above.
I use a small ladle to spread the sauce on my pizza, just remember... don't use too much sauce. (Store any unused sauce in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks). There are some pizzas (like a basic pizza Margherita) that are much better with a splash of sauce here and there with some of the dough showing through. And experiment: while most put the sauce on the dough first, other types of pizzas call for the cheese underneath the sauce. Your choice.
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Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.