Friday I spent most of the day in preparation for Saturday's blizzard. By preparation I mean stocking up on wine and making my dad's version of my great Aunt Terry's sauce, or as she called it, gravy. (My dad and I can't quite pull that off.) It's my go-to each time a big storm is in the forecast, one because it's hearty, warm and delicious, but also because it's inherently comforting.
Aunt Terry was the only Italian in our family and I looked to her as another grandmother. She's been gone far too long, but I still see her so clearly. She was short. Really short and gave the best hugs. She had jet black hair that I never saw out of place (I can still smell her hairspray), and always wore perfectly applied red or pink lipstick. She was fastidious, tidy and loved her soap operas. She watched them on a little television in the kitchen. Sometimes I would join her to watch One Life to Live or All my Children. We spent hours at her table playing Yahtzee and Racko while my dad and uncle played Cribbage. She had an arsenal of slip on Keds and button down blouses that were like her uniform. On the night she died, I remember seeing them lined up in her closet so neatly. I was struck by how much seeing them made me feel like she was still there. She was funny and warm and for the weeks we visited each year, she had a knack for making everything feel special, even doing the dishes together. She was my home away from home.
Somewhere along the way, Aunt Terry who was born and bred in California, taught my very New York, Irish dad how to make her gravy and eventually, my dad taught me. Beyond scrambled eggs and waffles, it's really the only meal I remember my dad making. And he makes it really well. I remember him making it when the weather would first get cold or when we would have a big crowd over. My mom loved it too, but would spend at least an hour cleaning up after the fruits of his labor. I think of this every time I make it myself and find sauce splattered on the cabinets. One time after a group fishing trip it was cure all for my seasickness. To this day, it's true comfort food.
In a lot of ways, my dad and I are pretty similar and we have a very easy relationship. We get each other's humor and often use it as a means to deal with unpleasant ends. I remember his cooking lesson so clearly. It's something I'm really grateful for. No matter how far away my dad is, or how many years my aunt has been gone, a part of them is with me and alive when I prepare it. My kids now look forward to this meal the way I always did and ask me to tell the stories that go along with it.
I know this recipe isn't anything too original, and that every Italian family probably has their own way of making but good food is meant to be shared. So, as Aunt Terry used to say, "Mangia!" and enjoy.
my California-New York inspired "Gravy"
2 cans (28 oz) crushed tomatoes ( I like Cento or San Marzano, Dad likes Red Pack ; )
2 cans (28 oz) tomato sauce
1 medium onion chopped
1 T garlic, minced
Italian seasonings, to taste (I use dried but add fresh herbs as well when I have it)
garlic powder, to taste
fresh basil, parsley or oregano to taste, optional
sweet Italian sausage in its casings (1 package/6-8 links)
hot-Italian sausage in its casings (1 package/6-8 links)
Pepperoni (depending on the crowd, I buy one or two sticks and cut them in quarters)
sugar or red wine, to taste
salt and pepper, to taste (and about 1/2 teaspoon for the base)
1/2 t (or more depending on your taste) of crushed red pepper flakes
serves: a lot! maybe 10-12
Brown the sausage in olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of a pan) for a couple of minutes on each side. They do not have to be cooked all the way through at this point. Reserve for later. In the same pan, add garlic and sauté just until fragrant. (add more olive oil if needed)
Add the onions and cook until soft, about 2-3 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, Italian seasonings and crushed red pepper flakes. Add one can of the tomato sauce and a half of a can of crushed tomatoes. Stir and simmer (low to medium heat) for a few minutes. I usually add a little red wine or sugar at this point to balance out the sweetness and acidity. Adjust the seasonings to taste here a little, but don't go crazy trying to get it perfect yet.
Get your meat ready. Add the browned sausage to a large pot. If I'm using both sweet and hot sausage, I cut the hot sausage in half before I add them. This way when I'm serving them I can distinguish between the two. If using pepperoni, I cut the sticks in quarters.
After 5-10 minutes of simmering the base on fairly low-medium heat, transfer to the large pot that has the meat in it. Add the remaining cans of crushed tomatoes and sauce. Add a little more seasoning, sugar or wine and let it simmer for a while before tasting again. Keep the heat low-to medium and stir frequently enough to avoid having the sauce burn or stick to the bottom.
The beauty of this kind of sauce is that you can let it simmer all day and really let the meat flavor it or just simmer for an hour or two depending upon how much time you have. I've found that the more I leave it alone in the beginning, the better. That pepperoni is my dad's secret weapon (not anymore). It really lends some fantastic flavor. Continue to adjust the seasonings to your taste and preference as the day goes on. I recommend not going too heavy on the salt, as the meat is fairly salty. At the end, I usually add more sugar or wine, salt, pepper, garlic powder (or a little Adobo powder) and Italian seasonings if it needs more depth.
When you've gotten it where you want it, serve and enjoy with your favorite pasta, a salad and some warm bread and the rest of the wine you were cooking with ; ). Oh, and be sure to freeze the leftovers.
What recipes do you find comfort in? I'd love to know. You can share them in the comments or on FB or Instagram, or email me: email@example.com.