Thursday, March 29, 2012

The rest is gravy

I'm sure I've told you before. I am first-generation Italian-American. My father emigrated from Italy at 17, and not too long after, married my mother, an American girl of French, German, and Irish heritage.

I think about this frequently, yet I'm still amazed that our family mostly identifies with our Italian heritage, probably because we've always practiced and have still retained such strong cultural traditions from our paternal side. My siblings and I feel mostly Italian, I think, because the maternal side of our family really didn't carry on any European traditions from the old world. It seems that side of the family was just happy to come to America and assimilate.

My mother is second generation herself, so maybe some customs her parents or grandparents may have practiced got lost in translation through the generations. But even mom's memory is that her parents didn't instill in her or her siblings any old-world traditions associated with holidays as the Italian side of the family did for us. It seems my maternal relatives didn't feel any strong need to keep the ties to their past.

Sunday dinner was, yes, as important to the "Americans" as it was to the "Italians," as we lovingly and practically named each side of the family as children. But we knew and accepted that the French-German and Irish sides of the family were now all happy to be as American as apple pie. No tarte aux pommes, Apfelkuchen, or úll pie for them.

So even though I'm proud to be a European mutt, to be honest, I really feel Italian at heart. And so this Italian-American girl from Philly loves her red gravy and pasta. If you are Italian, or were lucky enough to grow up with some and share a meal with them, you know we call our tomato sauce "gravy." I can still hear the screams of childhood classmates, as they envisioned brown gravy on meat and potatoes. "Ack, you eat gravy on your spaghetti?" I remember responding, "Yes, don't you?" I didn't know then that they didn't call red tomato sauce "gravy" like we did.

Wikipedia says that some Italian Americans on the East Coast and around the  Chicago area refer to tomato sauce as "gravy", "tomato gravy", or "Sunday gravy", especially sauces with a large quantity of meat simmered in them, similar to the Italian Neapolitan ragù. It goes on to say that "gravy" is an erroneous English translation from the Italian sugo which means juice, but can also mean sauce (as in sugo per pastasciutta). The expression for "gravy" in Italian is sugo d'arrosto, which is literally "juice of a roast" and is not specifically tomato sauce."

Well, that error in translation makes sense coming from a generation of immigrants learning English from each other and watching TV. I can say that because they're my relatives. I'm amazed they all speak and write English as well as they do with no formal education, but I know from friends that their accents are still thick to this day. It's what I've always known, though, and it's always been natural to hear my family botch the English language. My mind just automatically translates what they say to what I know they mean. They are no different than any of us would be immersed in a foreign country, botching up the language as we learn.

So enough ruminating about family traditions and the origin of red gravy, as fun as that is for me.

Let's get to the recipe I want to share with you. Yes, dad makes fantastic red gravy, but I'm the matriarchal cook in the family for years now, and even though I can be a traditionalist, I'm also one to seek out new recipes and regional dishes. Dad really only knows the dishes from his own region in Italy. Bruno is from small-town Montecilfone in the Province of Campobasso in the Italian region of Molise in the southern half of the boot. Peasant food at its best is the tradition we know and love from childhood memories in this country, along with visits to Montecilfone.

Yet I like to surprise dad with Italian dishes from other regions and variations that he never imagined. Dad didn't know he would, but he loves this gravy I make for years now that is as good as any recipes handed down in the family. 

This favorite recipe of mine is from James Beard's Beard on Pasta, which was reprinted from The New James Beard. As Beard wrote, this recipe "forms the basis for a nearly limitless number of variations." You can used canned tomatoes, so you aren't dependent on the season or the quality of the tomatoes in your market.

This recipe makes 3 cups, enough for about 1 pound of pasta. I always make extra, especially when I'm making chicken parmigiana, so I can use the gravy to top the chicken cutlets.

My Favorite Gravy

28-oz. can Redpack whole tomatoes in purée

(This Beard recipe calls for canned whole tomatoes, but I usually use a 28-oz can of Trader Joe's Marinara Sauce or Trader Giotto's Tuscano Marinara Sauce, and then I don't have to worry about squirting whole tomatoes all over myself, which I'm sure to do. Haha!)

2 small onions, sliced very thin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp. dried basil (or fresh is even better, I think)
4 tblsps. butter (yes, butter!)

Cook the tomatoes, onions, salt, pepper, and basil over medium-high heat for 20 minutes, stirring frequently.

Beard tells us to strain this or purée in a food processor if we want a smooth sauce. Beard liked lumps in his sauce, just breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. If you use the marinara sauce as I do sometimes, then you won't have lumps, so try this a few ways based on what else you're cooking or to discover your own preference.

Then add the butter and continue to cook until it melts.

This is where the magic happens. Watching the butter melt into the gravy the first time, I just didn't know what to expect. I didn't dare tell my dad, straight off the boat from Italy, what I was doing to gravy as he knows it. Butter in our red gravy wouldn't seem Italian to dad. It would be a desecration of something fine and wonderful, a sin against all that is good about red gravy. I had to be sure he tasted the gravy and loved it first before he knew there was butter, if ever.

Well, dad loved the gravy, and to this day he always remarks how good and fresh it tastes every time I serve it. So this winning recipe is, for sure, a keeper. The butter truly imparts such a fresh flavor, bringing out the best in the tomatoes so that they taste like they're right off the vine and into your pot.

Of course, you can experiment and substitute with other spices and herbs for your own variations. Instead of basil, you can always use 1 tsp. dried oregano or tarragon or any other herb you're in the mood for.

I like this gravy for my chicken parmigiana recipe with spaghetti, but you can certainly pair this with any favorite recipe you may have. There are as many ways to make gravy, so you just have to experiment to find your favorites. Be imaginative and remember the flavor of this gravy is all about you. Use your favorite herbs and spices to make it your own.

So stir the pot with all your love, and if you don't forget the butter, the rest is gravy!

Until next time, yours in fun and cooking...Therese

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