Saturday, August 23, 2014

Nonna’s Sunday Gravy

The trend these days is for mystery novels—particularly if they involve food—to have recipes printed at the end. I’ve therefore been pondering over the past few weeks what dishes from my manuscript, A Matter of Taste, would be good to include as recipes in the published book.

One of the obvious choices is Nonna’s Sunday Gravy, which the Italian grandmother of my protagonist, Sally, cooks up every week for a family dinner. This hearty, tomato-based stew is called “gravy” by many Italian-American families, as it’s traditionally eaten as two separate courses. The sauce (i.e., “gravy”) is served over pasta as the primo, or first course:

my gravy, over penne and rigatoni

And the braised meat is served as the secondo, or second course, with a vegetable or salad contorno (side dish):

the meat, along with sautéd zucchini

Although there is a fairly detailed description of how Nonna prepares her gravy in my book, I had actually never made the dish, so I decided to see what others had said about it before attempting to cook it myself. After consulting numerous online recipes, I decided on a combination, using bits and pieces from several methods I’d read about.

I’m the kind of cook who generally doesn’t do a lot of measuring—a sort of seat-of-the-pants type who tastes, adds this and that, then tastes again. So when folks ask me for recipes of things I’ve concocted, they’ll often get something like: “Make a cream sauce, add grated cheddar cheese and a little sherry and S&P, and then pour over cubed boiled potatoes and bake” (my grandmother’s cheese-potato recipe—try it; it’s awesome!).

This sort of shorthand wouldn’t fly for the recipes in my book, however. I was going to have to measure and weigh ingredients to get exact amounts, and consult my watch frequently to figure out exact cooking times.

Last week, while visiting Robin’s parents, I made the Sunday Gravy for dinner (even though it was actually a Wednesday). What I present here is merely a general description, with photos I took of the process. If you want the full recipe—with measurements and times—you’ll have to wait and buy the book when it comes out.

non-meat ingredients

I used a combination of beef chuck, pork shoulder, and sweet Italian sausages. Brown them in olive oil in a heavy pot. (It’s best not to use cast-iron, as the acid in the tomatoes can leach out the metal and give a funny taste to the dish. As you’ll see from my photos, I forgot this important fact, only remembering after the dish had been braising for several hours. As my pot is well-seasoned, however, the dish tasted fine. But don’t you make the same mistake.) Set the browned meat aside on a plate.

Next sauté a couple diced onions along with a few cloves of chopped garlic over medium heat:

When the onions start to brown, add a small can of tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring often, until it turns a reddish brown:

Now dump in a couple cans of whole plum tomatoes, and cut them into pieces with a sharp knife:

Add to this red wine, chopped fresh oregano, basil, and Italian parsley, and a little sugar:

Stir it all together, and then put the browned meat back into the pot.

Simmer over low heat, partially covered, for about three hours, stirring occasionally to prevent the meat from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning.

The gravy is done when the meat is almost falling apart. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve (with or without the meat) over pasta, topped with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.

I’m not generally a big fan of red sauces (being the cream hound I am, I tend to prefer the Northern Italian-style dishes made with butter and white sauces). But I have to say this gravy turned out to be quite delicious, with an intense umami flavor. 

Buon appetito!


  1. Mi piace molto!

  2. Maybe you could cook this for your book trailer...

  3. My mouth is watering. Good lord, that looks tasty!