The Great Debate

A few weeks back I wrote a post about the great sauce vs.  gravy debate. It provoked quite a heated argument in the comments section, so I figured I should weigh in again. After careful consideration I have finally made a decision. Drum roll please….I’ve decided that the delicious concoction that results from simmering a multitude of meat products in a big vat of tomato puree for hours is indeed called….GRAVY. (If you listen carefully you might be able to hear my boyfriend crying tears of joy.) I came to this conclusion this past weekend when my aunt had me over to make a pot of gravy together. I decided that anyone who can cook sauce (I mean gravy) as well as my aunt can, must know the proper nomenclature.  So if Carol Ann says it’s gravy, I’m calling it gravy.

My aunt Carol Ann learned to cook from her Grandmother, who was celebrating her 92nd birthday the day we were making the gravy. My aunt has gravy making down to a science and I could tell that this meal was full of memories for her. From little passed down tips like rinsing out the cans of tomatoes puree to get every last drop of sauce, to the meatball lollipops (aka a meatball on fork) that her grandmother would give everyone while the gravy cooked. I love hearing about people’s food memories, they’re so heartwarming and they really give you so much insight about a person’s past and the things that they hold dear. The only thing better than hearing about food memories is tasting food memories. And this was certainly one delicious memory.

In my last gravy post I said I had learned to make sauce through osmosis, by watching my roommate do it. But this time I was so excited to be getting a full blown lesson. My aunt makes her gravy with sausage, meatballs, country style pork ribs, and braciole. I got out to Long Island around noon and she had already started browning the sausage and ribs. You need to start this process early because gravy gets better with age, and the longer it cooks the more time the meat has to flavor the sauce. The juices and fat that render from the meat are what set “gravy” apart from your everyday out of the jar sauce. The meat adds complexity to the flavor and that’s what makes it “lick your bowl” delicious.

As the meat was browning I got to work on the base of the gravy, the garlic and onions. I diced up one small onion and five cloves of garlic. I sauted them in a little bit of olive oil and then we added five (yes five!) 28oz cans of tomato puree. Did I mention my aunt has seven kids and was having an additional seven dinner guests over to eat this meal…needless to say we were making a lot of gravy.  We then added the seasonings, hot Italian pepper, salt, sugar, and basil. My aunt told me she likes to keep the seasoning to a minimum because, like I said before, the real flavor comes from the meat.

We added the browned sausage and ribs and got to work on the braciole. Bracoile is very thin meat that is rolled around a seasoning mixture, or in some cases a boiled egg. For this recipe we pounded out thinly sliced bottom round, sprinkled it with a mixture of bread crumbs, garlic, roasted red peppers and mozerella cheese. Then we rolled them up and tied them into cute little meat packages. We browned them in a skillet then finished them in the gravy. As we were cooking my uncle came home with 5 loaves of Italian bread. “This is how you test the gravy” he said as he promised that one loaf would be annihilated before dinner even began. “These people mean business,” I thought. Oh, and he was right, we sat down to dinner with only 4 loaves of bread.

Next we were up to the final step, making the meatballs. My aunt uses ground beef and mixes it with bread crumbs, garlic, and eggs. We rolled them into golf ball sized balls and baked them in the oven. This was one of my favorite tricks, sometimes when you fry meatballs you loose that perfect shape that you worked so hard rolling out. One side gets flat, or one side gets too burnt, and your never really sure if you cooked them through. To remedy this we just arranged them on a cookie sheet and baked them in oven. They were perfect! When they came out they went into the gravy with the rest of the meat (but not before my cousins and I sampled a few.)

Then it was time to wait and let the gravy simmer…I learned that you can tell it’s coming along when you start to see ribbons of deep red form on the surface. This means the meats are giving off their fats and juices and they have started flavoring the gravy. As the smells filled the house my anticipation began to build. I started pulling off pieces of bread and “testing” the gravy what seemed like every five minutes, I couldn’t wait for a forkful of pasta dripping with this meat-y, tomato-y, goodness. When it was finally time to eat. We took the meat out of the sauce with a slotted spoon and served it separately on the table. My aunt made two types of pasta, “the reds” and “the whites.” The reds were pasta with the gravy and the whites were pasta with riccotta cheese and a little pasta water. My favorite was mixing the reds and the whites together to get this creamy and tangy combination.

Dinner was outstanding, this is definitely my new go-to gravy recipe. I can’t wait to make it for my boyfriend’s family and impress them with my Italian authenticity. After dinner I remembered one of my favorite things about going to Long Island (besides seeing my cousins of course), Long Island bakeries. While we were making the gravy my uncle had bought a cannoli tart. What’s a cannoli tart you ask? Well it’s simply a tart shell, filled with cannoli cream, topped with more cannolis and chocolate dipped strawberries. (Who comes up with these things?!) The tart topped off the decadent Italian feast in style.

I  was so happy that my aunt invited me over to cook with her. I absolutely love spending all day in the kitchen, especially when it’s filled with fun people to chat with. I love Italian cooking so much that I sometimes secretly wish that I were Italian too. But since I’m Irish and Polish I just have to get all my Italian-ness from the few Italian relatives who married into my family.  One of those relatives being my Great Uncle Lou. As I wrote this post I couldn’t help but think of him. Lou passed away this past week, and he will be deeply missed. He was a great man, with a big heart, and a passion for life. Lou loved his family and he loved his Italian food. I was thinking about him while my aunt and I were cooking and I think he would have been really proud of our gravy on Sunday. This one’s for you Uncle Lou.

Carol Ann’s Sunday Gravy


Olive Oil

1 onion diced

1 head of garlic diced

5 28 oz. cans of tomato puree  (maybe 6)

2.5 28 oz. cans of water

A few shakes of Italian pepper, salt, and basil.

2 tbsp. of sugar

2 lbs. Country style pork ribs

2 lbs. Sweet Italian Sausage

4 lbs. Bottom round thinly sliced

Bread crumbs

1 cup shredded mozzarella

2 roasted red peppers, diced

Butchers twine

3 lbs. ground beef

3 eggs beaten


Heat the olive oil in  a large stock pot, saute 5 gloves of garlic and onion, add the puree and the spices. Meanwhile brown the  sweet Italian sausage and country style pork ribs. Add them to the gravy along with their juices. Using a large mallet pound out the bottom round until it’s a 1/4 inch thick.  In a bowl combine 2 cups of bread crumbs, roasted red peppers, 3 cloves of garlic, and mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle the mixture over each slice of meat and press in. Roll each piece of meat and tie on either side with butchers twine. Brown the braciole on all sides and add it to the gravy. Finally, combine the ground meat, bread crumbs, eggs, and garlic. Form into golf ball sized balls and bake in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. Add the meatballs and the juices to the gravy. Let simmer for a few hours, adding one more can of puree if necessary.

Thanks for the recipe Aunt Carolann! Did I get it right?


3 thoughts on “The Great Debate

  1. I think we’re related to your aunt’s family…everything sounds so familiar! From eating the meatballs before they’re put into the gravy, rinsing the tomato cans with water, golf ball sized meatballs and tasting the gravy while it simmers. Our family uses pork neck bones instead of ribs, but they probably have a similar taste. We still have a few holdouts who fry the meatballs, but I switched to baking years ago (healthier and less messy).

    I think I can hear two grown men crying tears of joy…Matt and his dad, now that you’ve decided on GRAVY! Great post.

    (Sorry to hear about your Uncle Lou)

  2. Ahh victory….Actually, the real win is knowing how much you love making gravy. Expect weekly requests. Don’t worry, I’ll keep on bringing the wine.

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