We take gravy seriously in my family.
There is an on-going battle among the cousins (all 12 of us) that we each make the best gravy, meaning our own personal recipe is better than everyone else’s gravy in the family. The funny thing is, we all make a variation of the exact same gravy, which is our Grandma Caruso’s gravy that she made for years.
My Grandma, Donatella Pacelli Caruso, had 5 kids who she taught how to make the family recipe for gravy, and we (grandkids) all learned to make that gravy from our parents. So, depending on which of those 5 siblings was your parent, you learned to make it their way. Meaning, maybe Aunt Lu liked hers with more basil, maybe Uncle Frankie (my Dad) liked his with lots of garlic, or maybe Uncle Billy added a special something-or-other to his gravy, and so on.
Basically there are a few key ingredients and methods that we all follow, and then alter it to what we like. The same goes for our meatballs, but I will get to those later this summer. I can’t tell you about gravy and meatballs in the same post. There is just too much to say.
And because whenever the cousins get together, we all brag about our own gravy so much (because we can’t help talking about food) that we’re thinking about having a gravy/meatball cook-off. We’d form a panel of unbiased judges (people who know a-thing-or-two about eating), we’d each make our own gravy and meatballs and a winner would be declared.
You’re getting to know the family a little better, aren’t you? We’re a bunch of hard heads as my Grandma would say, and we like to be right.
Speaking of hard heads, my family is not willing to give up their secrets, either. Be it an ingredient, a cooking method, anything. Their gravy and meatball recipes are under lock and key and nobody will ever know exactly what makes them so good.
When asked to give me a list of family favorites and recipes for my blog, what I heard from most of them was, “I’ll never tell!” My brother makes one of the best gravies I have ever had in my entire life and the little brat won’t give up the goods on his “secret ingredient”. (Actually I have an idea of what it is because I’m pretty sure I tickled it out of my little niece the other day.)
OK, chefs. I love you. And I respect your feelings. But, I JUST. DON’T. GET IT.
The only one who gives up her secrets is my mother. Thank you, Mom. I don’t know where I would be without you.
Recently my cousin Mark asked me to do a blog post on gravy. Mark is not part of the gravy-battle because he is actually my first cousin Diane’s son. Mark said that he wanted to learn our true family recipe for gravy, because he’s heard different things along the way, but then he pointed out that the family might not be very happy about me revealing any of our family secrets and may even cast the Evil Eye on me. Yikes!
Yes, we do have Sicilian blood. Even I have been known to throw a plate or two in the heat of the moment. OK, not really, but there are a lot of hot heads in my family, as we like to call ourselves, and did I mention stubborn? Oh, we’re stubborn. Especially when it comes to giving up recipes.
I really do love my family and this is all said with love. We like to laugh and joke and tease each other, which is another good thing Grandma Caruso passed along. She was one-of-a-kind, that one. Sarcastic and funny.
And she had her own language. If you didn’t hear what she said you were a “tin ears”, if you didn’t think before you acted you were an “empty head”, if you were being stubborn you were a “hard head”. There are so many more, but I’ll stop with those, before I “give you a head like a floor lamp.” (if you talked so much that you bored her, she’d start crossing herself behind your back!)
My Grandma died when I was 17 and I was not-as-much-into-cooking back then, so I can’t tell you exactly how she made her gravy, but it was delicious and I remember one thing for sure. She always said that neck bones make the best gravy. Yes, neck bones.
Not really so bad when you consider my grandfather’s family in Sicily ate sparrow gravy. Not even kidding. Sparrows?! How do you even catch those things?
Although I’ve never cooked neck bones myself, I grew up eating them every Sunday. The meat was so sweet and delicious and would just fall off those funny-looking bones. They were covered in gravy and we’d pick them up with our hands and slurp and suck the meat out of all of the little crevices until the bones were clean. Did you ever eat something so tasty that you just got lost in it? Neck bones will do that to you.
And there isn’t much meat on them, so we’d eat at least 3 or 4 each, (along with a meatball or two) and end up with a big pile of bones on our plate. And things got really messy with all that slurping going on, but we loved it. My Dad used to wear a napkin bib when he sat down to a bowl of neck bones.
At some point along the way, my mom started making gravy with pork ribs instead of neck bones, which also make a delicious gravy. She did this because there is more meat on ribs so you get some big meaty bites. And also, they are not as off-putting to dinner guests. I mean, not everyone is going to be open to eating a neck bone. That’s too bad because they really don’t know what they are missing.
So of course, now I make my gravy with pork ribs and that’s what I’m sharing with you. If you want to be adventurous and find some neck bones for your gravy, please by all means, DO IT! You will be so happy that you did.
So get some pork ribs (or neck bones),
hot Italian sausage,
and make meatballs if you want to (since I’m saving those for another post, I don’t have a photo). And sometimes we also make braciole (bra’zhul), which is rolled, stuffed steak.
So first you brown the sausage. Or, you can brown the ribs first, doesn’t matter.
And this is really important. Browning is what creates all that yummy flavor.
and then the ribs,
And then you have this nicely browned bottom, which is what you want.
How beautiful is that?
And then you add some tomato paste, and look what happens to all those tasty browned bits,
Yep, right into your gravy it goes, with all of that flavor. And you really want to cook the tomato paste until it darkens because it sweetens and the acidity breaks down. Then you add the garlic, the rest of the tomatoes, cheese, and herbs and throw all the meat back into the pot.
Use a Dutch oven, like this one that I adore, because now you put this whole thing into the oven and let is simmer all day. After about 2 ½ hours, you have to remove the ribs because they can get so tender that the meat literally falls off the bone.
Once I forgot about them and when I tried pulling them out of the gravy with tongs, I pulled out clean bones. But I have to say, that gravy turned into a hearty meat sauce that was pretty delicious! But, let’s try for some meat on them.
You can leave the sausage and meatballs in, simmering away and flavoring your gravy. It will be hard from this point on not to dip a piece of crusty bread in to take a taste more than once.
My recipe is for a 5 1/2 quart pot full of gravy. I like to make a big pot of it so I have leftovers that I freeze for later.
Now you can make any type of pasta you’re in the mood for and cover it with your delicious gravy.
Make sure to serve additional gravy on the table and extra grated Romano cheese. I always have hot giardiniera on the table, too because I love it. My Dad would pile lots of it on top of his pasta and then proceed to tell everyone how hot it was, moping his brow with his napkin (bib), as if he were some kind of hot-pepper-eating-hero for being able to stand it.
I loved that.
Really good gravy is all about the meat and the method. Time = tasty, and of course, fresh ingredients. And if you have a secret ingredient of your own that you would like to add…..red wine, beef stock, sugar, and maybe even RAISINS (hmm, Phill?!), feel free to experiment and make it your own.
So, at the risk of having the Evil Sicilian Eye cast upon me, I give you my beloved gravy recipe that is very special to me and close to my heart.
And to my family, go ahead and take notes. If you think you can top this, I have two words for you cuties:
Inspired by Grandma Caruso, adapted from Mom
Makes a large 5 1/2-quart pot, enough to freeze for later
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 rack baby back ribs (about 2 1/4 pounds), cut into 2-rib sections
1 pound hot Italian sausage links, cut into 2-3″ chunks
2 medium onions , chopped fine (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons fresh oregano, plus 2 tbsp dried oregano
6 garlic cloves , minced or pressed through a garlic press
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
2 (28-ounce) cans tomato sauce
1 can tomato paste, 6 oz.
chopped fresh basil leaves, 2 big handfuls
1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
½ tablespoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
freshly ground pepper
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 º. Heat oil in 5 ½ quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Pat ribs dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Add half of the ribs to the pot and brown on both sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer ribs to large plate and brown remaining ribs. After transferring second batch of ribs to plate, brown sausages on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer sausages to plate with ribs.
Reduce heat to medium, add onions and dried oregano; cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly and scraping up the browned bits, until very dark, about 3 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Fill up the empty tomato paste can with water and add that while stirring and scraping up any more browned bits.
Add the rest of the tomatoes, cheese, 1 hand full of the chopped basil, ½ tbsp Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper. Return ribs and sausage to pot (and some meatballs if you’ve made them); bring to simmer, cover, and transfer to oven. Cook until ribs are tender, about 2½ hours. Remove ribs with tongs to serving platter and cover.
Turn the oven down to 200º, put the pot of gravy back in and let it simmer until dinner time. You can eat now, but I feel the longer, the better.
When ready, using tongs, transfer sausage and meatballs to serving platter with the ribs. Stir the remaining handful of basil and the fresh oregano into gravy and adjust the seasoning with cheese, salt and pepper.
When your pasta is done, we like to put some gravy into the bottom of the serving bowl first, then mix the pasta with some gravy to coat it. Then you serve a big gravy boat (is that what they are called?) full of gravy for the table so everyone can add as much as they like. Serve the pasta with the meat platter, extra grated cheese, salt & pepper and don’t forget the hot giardiniera.
Is it Sunday yet?