Saturday, June 16, 2012

From the Pantry of Misfit Foods: Fake Sunday Gravy

Sunday gravy is probably the epitome of comfort food. As all great comfort foods, it is low maintenance, time-consuming, and transforms cheap ingredients into something impressive. Everybody's Italian grandmother has a recipe, and everybody without an Italian grandmother likes to pretend they have one so they can indulge in a little family fantasy over a bubbling pot of tomato sauce.
Sunday gravy is basically a few different meats, browned and cooked in a beautiful spaghetti sauce all afternoon. The specifics change based on ingredients at hand and of course, the memory of whose grandmother is calling the shots. After browning, the longest-cooking meats go back in to braise for the longest amount of time and periodically you add back in the next meats: short ribs or pork shoulder, then sausage, then meatballs, for instance. There's usually some mention of an onion, and garlic, olive oil and wine, tomato sauce or canned tomatoes, oregano, basil, red pepper flakes. And the most important element: heat over time. A proper Sunday gravy should take all afternoon, filling up the house with the most divine smell of tomatoes and garlic.

I did not have all afternoon.


Tormented by this craving, I faced a naked-looking pantry on a weeknight and just couldn't bear the thought of another piece of peanut butter toast. I warmed some pressed garlic in a lot of olive oil (we've moved on to plain olive oil; extra-virgin is delicious but too expensive) and a good pinch of red pepper flakes. I scraped out what was left of my spaghetti sauce and let it cook for a few minutes. I added a spoonful of brown sugar and a healthy glug of red wine from the glass I'd already started on. I added what was left of my braised beef and a little dollop of beef bouillon to fake the meaty flavor in a proper sauce. I cooked the spaghetti until it was mostly done, then added it to the sauce with some pasta water and boiled until the pasta was cooked. Luckily I still have Parmesan cheese, so a healthy grating of that calls it dinner.

Though the sauce was nowhere near what a proper Sunday gravy ought to be, the beefy taste made the dish more substantial than just tomato sauce would. If I serve beef with spaghetti I usually do it on the side, like steak and spaghetti. This time the beef strands absorbed the sauce and turned into little chewy bites, juicy with garlicky sauce. Nicely cooked pasta is always satisfying to eat, and the heavy flavors of garlic, wine and cheese gave me just enough flavor to feel like this was an abundant meal.

And on a weeknight, no less.

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