Saturday, January 16, 2010

Meat sauce -- "Gravy"

One of the staples of Italian-American cooking is meat sauce, or “gravy” as it’s known to Philadelphians.  It's called that probably from the fact that “gravy” is a reasonable translation of the Italian ragù, which is what the Italians would call these tomato-based sauces used as a condimento for pasta.

There seem to be, generally speaking, two types of ragù one sees in Italy: the Bolognese style sauce, with bits of ground meat in the tomato base, and the Neapolitan style, flavored with meat, but without the ground meat in the sauce itself.  Both of these sauces are distinct from the many other tomato-based -- but meatless -- sauces one sees in the Italian cucina, sauces like the marinara (or as one might see it these days on restaurant menus, "pomodoro"), or variations on that like amatriciana (tomato base, with onions and guanciale). 

Bolognese style sauce was utterly foreign to us and our family; meat was used to flavor the gravy, but ground or minced meat was never part of the sauce itself.  Our gravies were made with sausage, pork spare ribs, brasciole, and meatballs, and the meat served separately from the sauce, usually as a second course after the pasta.

As in many other recipes of this nature, there is broad license to vary from the basic formula, especially in the quantity or type of meat.  One of the variations that I've grown very fond of is to add a couple shoulder-blade lamp chops to the mix of meats.  Lamb adds a distinct and pleasing character to the sauce.  Lamb-based tomato sauces are in fact quite common in the Abruzzo region. 

This recipe is a general guideline for making a meat sauce.  Not included is the recipe for brasciole, a thin steak filled with garlic, parsley, and cheese, then rolled, and sautéed, then braised in the sauce.  I find it invariably dry and tough.

Meat sauce
1/4 c    olive oil
2 lb    Italian sausage, half sweet and half hot, according to your preference, cut into links
1 lb    country style pork spare ribs (the meatier variety), or other fatty pork parts, such as hunks of pork shoulder (don't use very lean center-cut loin chops)
2    shoulder-blade lamb chops
1    medium onion, chopped fine
1    carrot, shredded
1/2    bell pepper, red or green, cubed (red is highly preferable if you can get it)
6    cloves garlic, minced fine
3    35-oz cans whole Italian plum tomatoes, puréed in a blender
1    6-oz can Italian tomato paste
1 c    red wine
Salt and pepper
1 t    Italian seasoning
1/2 c    parsley, chopped fine

In a large Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.

My go-to pot for gravy:  a 12-qt Le Creuset enameled cast iron Dutch oven.

 Brown the meat -- pork ribs, lamb chops, sausage.  Season each side. Set aside.

Pork ribs browning in the pot. 

Browned lamb chops sitting on the side.

The browned bits left in the pot after the meat has been browned and removed.

Add onion, carrot, garlic, and bell pepper to the pot and sauté a few minutes until they have softened. 

Carrot shredded and onion diced.

Minced garlic.

Sauteed vegetable mixture.

Add the tomato paste to the pot and cook for a minute or two.

Cooking the tomato paste with the sauteed vegetables.  
Puree the tomatoes either in a blender or food processor or through a food mill.   

Add them to the pot. Add wine. Stir to mix well.  Season with salt, pepper, Italian seasoning.  Add the browned meat back to the pot.

Bring sauce to a simmer, and then simmer over medium-low heat for about an hour to an hour and a half.

Taste the sauce.  Adjust seasoning if necessary.  A finished sauce will have a smooth, rich, non-acid flavor to it.  Don’t overcook it. 

Cook pasta al dente and toss with the sauce.  Pass cheese at the table.

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