Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Ultimate Gravy Experience

Great gravy should be the 8th wonder of the world. When I say gravy I don’t mean the brown stuff you drizzle over turkey on Thanksgiving or drown your mashed potatoes in.  I mean the rich tomato saucey goodness spiked with wine, cheese, garlic and spices that makes spaghetti dance and floats tender meatballs on a delightful path straight to the kisser. The stuff you use your fingers to wipe the bowl clean for. When you are still eating even though you were stuffed 10 bites ago but it’s just so damn delicious that it would be a sin to stop. That’s the stuff I’m talking about; that’s true gravy.

I have a lovely Nana and a fantastic Mom, both of whom make excellent sauce.  I grew up on the stuff and it is divine. Being undeniably me, I’ve taken Nana and Mom’s recipes (or lack there of because as everyone knows there’s no ‘recipe’ for great gravy, it’s instinct, experience and a pinch this and that) and turned them into my own. So while claiming my gravy and meatballs blows my family competition out of the water would be an act of war, or more likely get me left at the kids table for Christmas with only the dregs of whatever roast was being served to munch on, I’m just going to say my stuff wouldn’t be half as amazing as it is without the women before me.

So I present to you my ‘recipe’ for one of the greatest gravies of all time. Though some call it marinara, my sauce is so thick and rich with depth of flavor that continues to make me do a little spaghetti and meatball dance just thinking about it that it deserves the true gravy designation. I’ve included a few of my tricks here such as both parmesan and pecorino rinds as well as roasting the sauce which develops the tomato’s natural sweetness and richness. Do not skimp on the lamb..bone in is a must! This is not a quick dish. This is a full day affair that takes a lot of love. Greatness takes time folks. Be patient; just one bite is worth it enough.

Italian Gravy and Meatballs
(Adapted from A Girl and Her Kitchen’s Nana and Mom)

1 very large yellow onion, chopped
4+ garlic cloves, minced (more if you love garlic)
Olive oil
2 cups good red wine
6 hot Italian sausage links
6 sweet (aka mild) Italian Sausage links
2 large lamb shanks or shoulder cuts (bone-in is key)
2 28 oz cans whole peeled tomatoes and their juices
2 28oz cans diced tomatoes
2 28oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 28 oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes
1+ tsp Red Pepper flakes
2 Bay Leaves
1 hunk Parmesan rind
1 hunk Pecorino rind
1 tbsp Herbs de Provence
2+ tbsp Oregano
1+ tbsp dried Basil
1+ tsp dried Thyme
Fresh Basil
1 large batch meatball mix (click here for recipe)
salt and pepper
1 tsp red wine vinegar (optional)
1 tsp baking soda (optional)

Note: all measurements are completely subjective. You may need more or less of something. This is not an exact science. It is a pinch of this and a pinch of that. The sauce is done when it's finished. You know the drill. 

In a very large french oven (or other large oven safe pot) sauté onions in olive oil over medium heat for 3 minutes. Sprinkle with pinch of salt, add garlic and red pepper flakes and continue to sauté for another 5+ minutes until onions begin to soften get slightly golden in color. Remove and set aside.

Raise the heat to medium high and add the sausages. Brown on all sides, about 3 minutes per side. Remove the sausages and set aside. Add the lamb shank and return onions to the pan and brown the lamb on all sides. 
 Once the lamb is browned, add in the red wine to deglaze the pan, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan (there is a lot of flavor in there)! Simmer for 2 minutes. Return the sausages to the pan and toss to coat with the wine and juices. Add the bay leaves, dried basil, oregano, thyme, herbs de provence, cheese rinds and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Mix well.
Stir in the crushed and diced canned tomatoes and their juices. Using your hands gently pop the whole peeled tomatoes (watch out for flying juice) and add them and their juices to the pot as well. 
(The best can tomatoes on the planet.)
 Stir to combine all ingredients, lower the heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally (be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot from time to time to pick up any bits that get stuck). At this point the sausages should be cooked through. Remove the sausages and cut into one-inch hunks and return to pan with any juices. 
Preheat oven to 300 and continue to simmer sauce on stovetop for half an hour more. Cover the pot and put into 300 degree oven for 2 – 3 hours, stirring occasionally (the longer the better). An hour before you remove the sauce from the oven take the meatball mix out of the refrigerator and let rest on the counter to come to room temperature.
Remove pot from oven and place on stovetop over medium heat (uncovered).  Using a large spoon with a thin rim, skim as much of the clear liquid off the top as you can and discard. This is fat and will add a slickness to the dish that is neither here nor there for me but many dislike. (If making a day in advance, save this step for after the sauce has been refrigerated as the fat solidifies into white clumps and can more easily be removed.) 

Remove the lamb shank bones and any remaining lamb meat. Cut meat into bit size pieces and return with juices to pot. Discard bones. Stir well and check for seasoning and adjust as needed including adding a handful of torn fresh basil (this may mean more dried herbs, a splash of red wine vinegar, another splash of red wine, salt and pepper, and/or 1 tsp of baking soda, which helps those who get heart burn from these types of dishes.)

Roll your meatball mix into balls and drop gently into the sauce in concentric circles so as not to overcrowd (you can always bake any extras you can’t fit in the sauce and add them back in later). 
 (The meatball overflow. They bake just fine. This is what happens when you make over 3lbs of meatballs.)
Using your wooden spoon, gently tuck the meatballs under the sauce so they are just covered. Continue to simmer uncovered (well technically with the cover ¾ of the way on or it will splash all over your lovely counters) for maybe 2 more hours until the meatballs are cooked through. Stir gently using the back of the spoon so as not to break all the meatballs. Taste again for seasoning. Serve when ready with spaghetti, garlic bread, torn fresh basil, parmesan and pecorino cheeses.

Cook's note: you can return the pot to the oven to continue to roast after adding meatballs as an alternative option.


  1. this looks really good. i need a nap just looking at it.

  2. Mama mia,this recipe sounds like it definitely delivers on your promise of creating "one of the best tomato sauces ever." Given all the slow-cooked yummy meats in the ingredients, the meatballs seem like mere decorations ;) Can't wait to try it out.

    If you're not feeding the Italian army, can you freeze the extra sauce without flavor loss upon defrosting?

  3. Absolutely freezable! I put two people's worth of sauce and meatballs into freezer safe bags and away you go! Defrost on the counter or in the frige or if you are in a rush, soak the seeled bag and i a bowl of warm water (you'll have to keep refilling the warm water) and then head to a sauce pot for full reheating.