Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Gravy

I am so hungry. The sweet smell of Sunday Gravy fills the house. It will be worth the six to eight hours it takes to be ready for spaghetti.

Except for the amount of time it takes, it's not really that hard to make a hearty tomato sauce better than just about any restaurant, and blows the doors off of any jarred stuff. Today I am making a beef tomato sauce. Recipe as follows:

Use a nice, deep non-stick pot or pan. I have a nice one that is sort of in between the two that I picked up at Job-Lot for under $20. Non-stick pan means you don't have to keep stirring all day like we used to. Now, every half hour to 45 minutes give it a good stir, then more frequently toward the end as the sauce really starts to thicken.

Beef - Ground, a pound to a pound an a half of 80-85% lean. Brown in the pan on high heat, letting it sit and sizzle for a bit untouched, almost to the point of burning, to get a sort of char flavor in there. Now break it up really good, add some salt, continue stirring a bit. It's okay if you leave some parts pink, which may happen if you wind up using a partially frozen pack of meat. It will be plenty stewed over the next few hours. DO NOT DRAIN THE FAT.

(Alternatives - Some days I just throw in some Italian sausages raw, rather then the beef. Even adding raw, they will come out super tender and fully cooked. Tender enough to eat with a spoon. Some days I will use ground sausage, or a mix of ground sausage with ground beef. Adding links to other meats takes up too much room in my pan, and may require more tomato, but you could go that route too.Veal chunks or ground veal may be an option to play with. In larger batches I will often add one large veal chop right on top, along with grounhd beef, and sausages. I have also used pork trimmings, or pork chunks, beef chunks, there are a lot of different options really. I tend to stay away from any chicken though. It doesn't really seem to stew well and comes our very grainy. If you are using less fatty meats, be sure to add a good amount of olive oil. Ground beef renders the most fat to meld into our gravy, but other meats will need the added oil.)

Onion - One, chopped, add to ground beef, stir. Some prefer more or less onion, choose the size of your onion accordingly.

Garlic - Chopped or crushed, roughly a heaping tablespoon's worth. I keep a big jar of chopped garlic in the fridge for convenience, but smashing up some fresh garlic and tossing them in there is good too. A little more rustic. You might score a nice, big, soft hunk of garlic in there when you start eating later. Stir.

Mushrooms - I don't have any today sadly, but they go well with ground beef. 1 package of sliced baby bellas or white, your preference. These can be added at just about any point really, if you forget. I just like them to soak up some of that straight beef flavor. Stir.

Tomato - 3 cans. Have them opened ahead of time so you can add right away if things start getting a little too hot too fast since you are still on high heat. Whole canned tomatoes are the best quality, but today I used one can of puree, one can of crushed, and one can of diced. Other times I will hand crush some whole ones. You can go cheap, middle of the road, or even really expensive in your selection of canned tomato. Anywhere from under a buck a can to well over five-bucks a can. Better tomato does make for a better sauce, but even if you use some cheap store brand tomato, you will be fine. More important is to watch the consistency. Take crushed tomato, for example. Usually it's about as thin as puree, with a little bit more coarseness in texture. But today I used a different brand, and it was very thick puree. So I was sure to add the tomatoey water from the diced tomato to thin it out a little, rather than discard the extra juice. Whole tomatoes vary too. Some are just in with some really thin tomato water, others are packed in very thick puree. You want the sauce to thicken up as you cook it down, starting out too thick causes problems, so add or discard tomato water from the can accordingly. Too thin to start, you will have to simmer longer. Stir after you add each can.

Hot chili flakes - The red chili flakes can be omitted, but I like my sauce to have some zip. Not too spicy though. Just a dash will help make it a bit more hearty in flavor, where four to five good shakes will give it a noticeable zip, and then you can add even more if you want to start getting it really spicy. Adding them now will help draw out the full heat of the chili flakes, where adding them later doesn't really help make the sauce deeper in flavor. Stir again.

Cover, and reduce to a simmer. Stir every 30-45 minutes if you have the non-stick pot/pan. If not, stir regularly to be sure the sauce doesn't stick. As the hours tick by, you will want to watch the time more closely, and stir more frequently. When is is done? Hard to say. You just sort of "know" when it's just about ready. It has the right thickness, the onion and garlic have just about disappeared into the sauce, the meat is thoroughly tender. The tomato has cooked off all the tin flavor from the can and gets richer as it goes until it sort of hits a point where the flavor just sort of pops, and you know it is well-cooked to the right, hearty thickness. Minimum of six hours, up to eight hours. Remove the lid if it seems very thin still after a few hours. Let the water steam off.

When I figure it has about 15 or 20 minutes left to go, I add the finishing touches. At this point, you will want to be paying much closer attention and stirring pretty regularly.

Sugar - I usually just kind of eyeball it, but I guess maybe about two good tablespoon's worth. Stir, and keep stirring pretty regularly so the sugar sort of melds and caramelizes right into the sauce. You might want to up the heat on the burner just a touch now too. Be careful not to add too much sugar. You just want a hint of sweetness, you don't really want to know the sugar is really there. Again, you can just sort of sense when the sugar has really thoroughly melded with the sauce and has been exposed to enough heat.

Red Wine - Again, I don't have any on hand today, but it makes for a deeper flavor profile and a bit more sweetness. A cupful or so, to taste. The wine flavor will fade into the background over the next few minutes.

Herbs - I use a lot of parsley, a fair amount of basil, and a bit of oregano. Use your favorite herbs to taste. Do not add until the end though, as the herbs will just burn during the long simmer rather than add any real flavor. This was an important step I learned as I perfected my sauce over the years.

As you are in the final touches stage of your sauce, you can get your favorite cut of pasta on the boil. I prefer thick spaghetti lately, but was on a penne kick for a long time. Cook pasta until just slightly underdone for your liking. Reserve a bit of that starchy water.

Add a portion of pasta to a frying pan, with some of the starchy water, a few big spoonfuls of the sauce, and however much grated cheese you want to your liking. Stir. Add a bit more tomato sauce if necessary. Be sure to ask your guests if they like cheese or not, and prepare accordingly. Some people are revolted by Parmesan, for example. You could also just leave some cheese on the table, but I prefer it sticking to the pasta rather than just sitting on top of the final dish, so that I get the cheese in every bite. A good helping of ricotta can help cool down a sauce that is a little too spicy. A nice dollup on the side of the plate can help as well, to swipe into as you eat.

Plate the pasta in a deep dish plate, and smother with that wonderful sauce which took all day to make.

There should be enough sauce for about 2 maybe 3 boxes of pasta, depending on how generous you are when topping the final dish.
Serve with a green, leafy salad and some garlic bread.