Italian American Gravy

This post is an exceptionally long one because it is a recipe I grew up with and is very dear to me. There was nothing better than the few times a year when I would wake up at eleven and come downstairs to see my dad standing over the stove stirring a gigantic stock pot full of tomato sauce with the smell of fresh meatballs filling the kitchen.
For those of you who have yet to be blessed by the wonders that unfold in your mouth when you eat gravy (some heathens call it sauce) and have no idea what awaits you, gravy is a typical red sauce with meatballs, sausage, large chunks of chuck steak and whatever cheap cuts of meat you can find. This is different from bolognaise in that bolognaise uses finely chopped or ground meats whereas gravy uses whole cuts, making it a full meal in one dish (a rarity in Italian cooking, which is heavily course-based).
When you buy meat for a gravy style sauce, don’t be afraid to reach for the tougher but cheaper cuts. You will be cooking them for a long enough time that, by the end, they will be falling apart.
The secret to perfect gravy is time. I try to start cooking about eight to ten hours before I plan on eating. Yes that is a long time. Yes it is worth it. Yes you need to plan ahead.
What you will need:
  • For the sauce:
    • Several cans of different brands of diced and pureed tomatoes. You will need about two large cans for every three people you are planning on feeding. It is important to have multiple brands because each company treats their tomatoes slightly differently, so you will get a greater variety of flavor combinations.
    • 1/2 a medium onion finely diced.
    • One clove of garlic, sliced very thin. (People who have followed my recipes know that I generally try to vampire-proof my recipes, garlic wise. Don’t worry, we’ll get there)
    • Salt, Pepper, Basil, Oregano and any other spices that suit your fancy
  • For the meats:
    • Equal parts ground veal, pork and beef. The Shoprite near me has a “meatloaf mix” where you can buy all three in one package
    • One pound chuck steak
    • Six to Eight Sweet Italian Sausages
    • Any other meats that strike your fancy. I got some spare pork ribs, but they didn’t fit in my pot. Try to plan so that about a third to a half of the total volume of your gravy is meat.
    • A head of garlic (less one clove)
    • Two eggs and about two cups of bread crumbs for every pound of ground meat
    • The same spices as above
Order of Operations:

A note in advance, I am going to list the parts in the order that they need to be started. Please note that you will still need to keep half an eye on the other portions of the meal.
Now that I’ve scared you, let’s begin!
First thing’s first: start the sauce
  • If you have an immersion blender, go ahead and plunge it into the cans of chopped tomato to puree it a bit. If you don’t have one, get one because immersion blenders are awesome, but in the mean time blend it in a blender.
  • Take the biggest sauce/stock pot you have. Yes, that one that belonged to your great-grandmother and has been sitting in the back of your cabinet for months after that one time you used it to make sangria. Put it on the stove and turn the heat on to high.
  • Into the dry pot, drop the sliced garlic and the diced onion, and stir it around until you begin to get little caramelized marks at the bottom of the pot. Add in a bit of salt, a lot of pepper, some basil and a touch of oregano. When you can just smell the spices start to singe, add in all of your tomatoes and re-add each of the herbs and such you added before.
  • Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat and let it simmer. Get started on the meatballs.
  • Let it simmer for as many hours as you can. Stir it often to keep it from burning or sticking to the pot
Next: the meatballs
  • Preheat the oven to 375F
  • Get yourself a large mixing bowl and a foil pan
  • Put your ground meats, your eggs and breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt, a bunch of pepper a lot of basil and some oregano. (As a side note, and in no way related to my last batch of mildly disappointing meatballs, dried basil and dried oregano look very similar. Check the labels.)
  • Wash your hands
  • Get your hands dirty in that bowl and mix everything together until you have one gross, homogeneous ball of meat
  • Shape the meatballs by hand. I make about 2″ balls, but you can make them smaller if you find that intimidatingly large. Place them directly in the tin pan. You don’t have to keep them from touching, but also don’t pack them super tight (I was able to get a dozen in a large pan).
  • Wash your hands
Set and wait
  • Put the rest of your meats in foil pans. If for some reason you actually like the environment more than your convenience, you can use cookie sheets or keep the pans and wash them.
  • Take the head of garlic and remove cloves but leave them unpeeled. Scatter three to five pieces in each pan of meat and meatballs.
  • Put all of that in the oven for about two hours, or until all of the meat is cooked.
  • Take out the meat and put it in the tomato sauce (which has, by now, been simmering for about 2-1/2 hours)
  • Let that simmer for at least another three hours if not longer
When you have stalled as long as you can, serve with a hearty pasta like rigatoni or large linguine with grated parm and a nice red.
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