Since becoming a grandmother, I’ve been thinking a lot about how culture stretches across generations, continents, oceans – permeating our very being and making us who we are. Inherited genes likely influence our behaviors and demeanor, but we also inherit the cultural aspect of our ancestry like religion, beliefs, and cuisine. Food is an integral part of any culture with recipes and traditions handed down through the generations. Many of us have grandma’s recipe for ____ (fill in the blank). I wonder what I will share with my grandson and how my choices will shape his tastes and expectations.
My paternal grandmother was Sicilian and was an incredible cook. She taught many generations how to cook: my father and his siblings as they grew up; her daughters-in-law so her sons would not starve; her grandchildren. She expressed her love through her cooking, often spending days in the kitchen making our favorite holiday dishes. I’ve passed those recipes and customs on to my own boys and I hope they continue the chain.
I’m going to introduce my grandson to basic gravy. (Being from the East Coast, we call our tomato sauce “gravy.” When I first brought Mr. Perfect to dinner at my parents’ house, he asked what was being served so he could bring the appropriate wine. He gave me a strange, puzzled look when I said, “Macaroni and gravy. A nice Chianti will go well with that.” He didn’t question my response but thought to himself, “It’s true! Italians put anything on pasta!” But, oh, was he in for a treat!) This sauce is the building block of many of our dishes, whether that is a lasagna, pizza, or a braising base for meats – a simple recipe with complex flavors, aromatic and truly satisfying. My father helped me perfect the recipe as I was growing up. He would bring me to the kitchen, open the gravy pot, and hand me a hunk of bread with a sly wink. After dunking and tasting, he’d ask, “It’s missing something. What does it need?” I’d offer my opinion on what was needed; we would discuss it as if it was a matter of great importance (it was!) and add the seasonings throughout the afternoon until we had achieved perfection!
We generally ate this once a week with spaghetti, bread and a green salad. The gravy would be made on the weekend in the gravy pot and allowed to sit in the refrigerator for a few days while the flavors melded. Every time we opened the fridge, a tantalizing scent would tease us and we would often feel compelled to dip our little fingers into the pot to satisfy our urge. It has a distinctive scent that immediately whisks me back to the kitchens of my grandmother, my parents, and my Italian aunties. Likewise, it is the scent that makes my own children smile, filling their hearts with warmth and love. I’m hoping my own grandson will react the same way and will forever equate the scent of onions, garlic, tomatoes and herbs simmering on a stove with his Nanna, and I hope that long after I’m gone he will teach his own children this basic, fundamental sauce.
I’ve been to Sicily and have eaten the great dishes of that island like pasta con sarde and zuppa di mare, but nothing speaks to my soul like this simple sauce. Make a pot of this and just let it sit in the fridge for a few days, or put it in a container and freeze it for a few weeks or months. You can braise meatballs, braciole, sausages, or other meats in this sauce, or just serve it on your favorite pasta with some grated hard cheese. Add extra oregano for a great pizza sauce. Be sure to splurge on good canned tomatoes and tomato paste because that is the key to success and it really only costs a few dollars more. You are welcome to substitute herbs that you prefer, but try it first with these. All measurements are approximate and you will likely add more as it simmers and you taste. In fact, I just keep those jars of herbs and spices on the counter while it simmers.
Recipe for Nanna’s Gravy:
Olive oil to cover bottom of the pot
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
3-5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2, 28-oz cans of whole tomatoes (plain, without additional herbs)
2, 6-oz cans tomato paste
A small palm-full of salt (probably 2 teaspoons)
A pinch of dried oregano
A pinch (or two) of dried, red pepper flakes
A large palm-full of dried parsley (probably ¼ cup)
2-3 dried bay leaves
A couple dashes of garlic powder
Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium until hot. Add chopped onion and cook until softened (about 5 minutes) and add garlic. Continue to gently sauté for a few more minutes. Meanwhile, coarsely pulse the tomatoes and their juices in a blender or food processor – don’t overdo it! Add to the pot with the onions and garlic; add the tomato paste. Fill each of the tomato cans with water and add to the pot, along with salt, pepper, and dried herbs. Stir. You want it a little watery because it’s going to cook for a few hours.
Bring to a gentle boil and then turn down the heat to low and cover the pot. Gently simmer for 3-5 hours, checking periodically to taste and adjust the seasonings to your liking. Stir occasionally to ensure it does not burn on the bottom and add more water if it becomes too thick. The best way to test the seasoning is with a hunk of bread but a spoon works well, too. If you are braising meat, let the gravy cook for an hour or so before adding the meats to give the sauce time to meld.
This is enough to easily accompany a pound of pasta with extra gravy for mopping up with a nice, chewy bread.