Monday, January 25, 2010

Sunday Gravy (meat sauce)

There are a million ways to make a meat sauce, but I started making it like this about a year ago. I was sitting and watching the movie "Goodfellas", and as I do a lot, I started searching around Google for info about the real Henry Hill, whom the movie is based on. As it turns out, the guy has his own website, has published cookbooks and has been managing his own restaurants ever since he came out of witness protection. So I start looking though an online version of his cookbook and find the section on Sunday Gravy, with a very lengthy and time consuming recipe that followed. I had never heard the term Sunday Gravy before, so I started looking into that.

To start talking about Sunday Gravy, I've got to start at the beginning.

As you probably already know, traditional Italian cuisine prior to the 1600's did not incorporate tomatoes at all, though they were brought to Spain in the early 1500's (from South America). The tomato plant was considered poisonous and only for ornamental purposes. They eventually found, as we now know, that the ripe fruit of the tomato plant is perfectly safe to eat, however the stems, leaves and even the un-ripe fruit of the plant does actually contain a toxic substance called solanine, which is toxic to humans and animals and may have been the basis for the hesitance to try the ripe fruit at the time. The oldest written recipe from Europe that used tomatoes was "Salsa di Pomodoro alla Spagnola", which means, "Spanish Tomato Sauce." This recipe was published in 1692 in "Antonio Latini's cookbook "Lo scalco alla moderna" For various reasons, it is generally thought that the Spanish were actually eating tomatoes before this time, but no written recipes have been found.

"Sunday Gravy" is a term that was used by Italian immigrants on the east coast for the sauce they would cook slowly all Sunday during the family gathering. Italian-American cuisine is the product of an influx of Italian immigrants, all from different parts of Italy converging together in neighborhoods, sharing recipes, being influenced by American culture and using the local ingredients that were available to them at the time. Sunday Gravy is an Italian-American dish where you cook the meat inside of the tomato sauce, so the sauce tastes like meat and the meat tastes like the sauce. You can serve the meat separate or with the sauce on some noodles. Lots of times, this is served with meatballs as well.

The precursor of Sunday Gravy, was most likely Neapolitan Ragu, a traditional Italian tomato and meat sauce, cooked and served in much the same way. The addition the Italian immigrants made was really just putting more than one type of meat in it. So they put some sausage, beef and maybe some pork or whatever they had lying around into the sauce.

A quick note about canned tomatoes, which I use and love: You can always try to use fresh San Marzano tomatoes to make the sauce, but one thing I have found that I can't get fresh from the local farms is canned Italian tomatoes, the cans just don't grow right around here :) All joking aside, I prefer the imported canned tomatoes to anything else. I suppose if I could get some San Marzano tomatoes at the peak of there ripeness, I could try to make the sauce myself, but that's a test for another day. Having said that, I would probably end up canning them first myself to get that familiar taste.

So after MANY experiments, some failed and some moderately successful. I finally came up with a recipe that made my mouth water. It is time consuming, no doubt, but you will not regret taking the time to make it taste just right. Sure, you can throw some tomato sauce with some ground chuck and onions and have a spaghetti sauce whipped up in 20 minutes, but I guarantee you it will not have the same qualities as Sunday Gravy.


Kosher salt
Olive oil
5 cloves of garlic (thinly sliced)
2 Italian sausages (hot or mild)
1 beef shank
3 Anchovies (chopped)
1 carrot (thinly sliced)
1/2 bottle of red wine
3 Tbsp. of double concentrated tomato paste 
2 large cans of San Marzano whole tomatoes. I use "Strianese" brand, imported from Italy
1 can of tomato puree
1 sprig of rosemary
3 sprigs of thyme
1 Bunch of fresh basil
1/2 bunch of fresh Italian Parsley
1-2 cups of homemade chicken stock (depending on how much you reduce the sauce)


Put some olive oil in your dutch oven (or other heavy bottomed pan, I prefer the dutch oven because it has a heavy lid and is deep), slice up the garlic and turn the heat to medium/low. Cook the garlic in the oil for about 3 minutes. Don't cook the garlic so hot that it gets brown at all, we just want to flavor to come out a little, we don't want that bitter brown garlic flavor in this dish. Remove the garlic from the oil and set aside for later use. Turn the heat up to medium/high and let the oil get really hot. Throw the beef shank in and brown it on all sides. Throw in the two sausages and brown those all around as well. Don't worry about overcooking the beef shank, just leave it in there cooking the whole time. You actually want it to lose a lot of its moisture, so that it will take on all the flavors of the sauce later on. You should start to get a brown crust on the bottom of the pan, leave this alone for now, don't scrape it up yet. Throw in the sliced up carrot, stir it around with the meat and let that cook for another minute or two.Chop up the sausage in the pan and pour in almost the entire half bottle of wine, just save a little to de-glaze the pan later. Scrape all the brown crust off the bottom and re-introduce the garlic at this time. Add the chopped up anchovies (don't worry, you wont taste them, but they add an extra dimension to the sauce) and the double concentrated tomato paste. Stir it all up and put the lid on, but leave a crack for some air to escape. Let the wine reduce down about half.

At this point you will be tempted to just forget about the rest of the recipe and eat the meat in wine sauce, and you certainly could, I always take a couple bites of sausage before I continue on.

The tomatoes should be whole in the can, so crush them one by one (by hand) into your dutch oven and dump the puree in that they were sitting in. Add the can of tomato puree and about 7 whole basil leaves. Strip the rosemary and thyme sprigs and finely chop the leaves, then add them into the sauce. Chop up some fresh parsley and basil and set it aside.

Now comes the long part. Once all the ingredients are in, stir it up once and then let it sit. Put the heat just a little under medium and place the lid on. Don't sit and stir the sauce, just leave it alone. If you stir the sauce constantly then the acid, fat and oil will never rise to the top. Every 10-20 minutes check on the pot and skim the little pools of foam and oil off the top and discard it into one of the empty tomato cans. After skimming each time, you can give it one quick stir, but resist the temptation to stir it too much. Besides, we really want another crust to slowly form on the bottom of the pan.

After about 4-5 hours of this (yes...seriously) you will know that it is ready, when you have a really thick, reduced sauce. You should be able to move the sauce to the side and see the dark brown crust on the bottom of the pan. You will think, "Oh no, I dont have enough sauce!", but don't worry, you will once you add the broth. Add a little more red wine into the sauce and with a wooden spatula, de-glaze the bottom of the pan, scraping all the glorious crust into the sauce. By this point the meat will have completely fallen apart into small bits, this is perfect, help it out with the spatula and  just remove the fat chunk from the shank and discard it. I leave the bone in even as I serve it, it looks nice. Add the broth and stir the sauce up. Let it cook for a little longer with the lid, 5-10 more minutes once the broth is in. Right before you serve, throw in the parsley and basil you chopped up earlier, grate some fresh Parmesan and serve over noodles, meat, potatoes, anything you want. I just use this as my spaghetti sauce, but you can do a lot with it.

Try using hot sausage and adding some red pepper flakes for a spicier sauce or try adding some prosciutto or pancetta in with the meat to make it even heartier. Play around with it and tailor it to your tastes.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Tomato with Red Wine Vinegar

If you have to have a certain taste for a lot of red wine vinegar (like me), you will love this as a quick snack. I've been eating this since I was a little kid. Apparently this was a pretty popular snack back in the old days, but I only know of it from my Grandma Greene.


1/2 cup of Red wine vinegar
3 Tbsp. of sugar
1 sliced up Tomato (of your favorite variety)


Mix the vinegar and sugar in a small bowl until the sugar starts to dissolve. Place the tomatoes into the bowl and enjoy.

The Omnivores Dilemma = Required Reading

I picked up this book, "The Omnivores Dilemma" after watching the documentary "Food Inc." What I was expecting was a text book like march through the controversy surrounding the American food industry. What I found instead, was a mind bending thriller, which threw me from page to page, challenging my way of life and causing me to pause, several times, get up and look at the ingredients listed on the side panels of the food I hand to my children every day (AAHH! Chicken nuggets are EVIL!!).

The most interesting part of the book is all about the corn (and soy) industry. An industry subsidized with tax payer's money, to the point that the actual farmers could not survive without the supplemented money. The mantra of more, more, more, drives the mentality of the farmer, letting concepts such as nutrition, quality, and sustainability, become neglected to the extent that they are not even part of the equation anymore.

You know that thing that happens when you learn a new word, and then no less than 2 weeks later, you hear that word again and think "If I hadn't learned that word two weeks ago, I would have never noticed it this time around. I would have just passed over it." That happened to me, in a way, with this book. Pollan talks about the quality of an egg at a farm called Polyface farms. He talks about the bright orange color of the yolk and how it would stand up straight and tall due to the nutritional diet and general happiness of the chicken that had laid it. I had two cartons of eggs. One of the "organic" Costco variety and one from a barn raised, cage free,  family farm in Rippon CA. I never would have noticed prior to reading this book, but there was a world of difference between these two eggs. As I cracked the "organic" Costco egg onto my griddle, the yolk was a pale yellow color and fell flat with the egg white, while the family farm egg had the same qualities Pollan talked about with the Polyface egg, bright orange and strong.

Pollan not only calls into question the industrial food industry, but also the new big industrial organic food industry and how it may suffer from many of the same ailments as it's conventional counterpart.

Why shouldn't I know where the food I eat comes from. I get that some things you just can't get local. Some things you don't need too. Coffee, sugar, tea, other dry goods with naturally long shelf lives, but it is still important to know who the companies are, and be able to hold them accountable to a high standard of cleanliness and ensure they are using sustainable practices. Do we need more government intervention? New safety standards? Or how about a whole new rule book, that does not set the standard of success based on quantity, but instead on purity and sustainability.

But until then, I will begin to hunt for local food, from people I can talk to, from farms and ranches I can visit and evaluate myself. Of course I still have a LONG way to go with all of this. There is still a box of C&H refined sugar in my cupboard, there is still a couple pounds of Kirkland Beef in my freezer. I don't expect that I will suddenly be able to just shut down everything and switch over to an entirely local/seasonal diet. That would not be realistic at all. After all, I have been living at the whim of the industrial food market for 29 years now. No, this does not call for instant and extreme measures. This calls for a well thought transition to a more sustainable, local, seasonal diet.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Who am I and what is this blog about?

My name Michael Greene. Recently I have become obsessed with learning how to eat more locally, with the season and from suppliers who use more sustainable and ethical practices. This, coupled with the fact that I already love cooking, exploring cookbooks, blogs and tv shows, prompted me to start this blog. Partly to document what I am learning as I am learning it and partly to put all the knowledge I am gathering in one place, so that it is easier to share. Hope you enjoy!

Local Eggs and Dairy Products

I eat more eggs and dairy then most people I know. Every morning I eat 3 eggs, sometimes baked with cream and cheese, usually with a side of yogurt. I put sweet cream butter on my toast, in my sauces and on my vegetables. In addition to that, I consume at least 2 tall glasses of cold, whole milk everyday, some kind of cheese finds it's way onto my plate at almost every meal, and I use heavy cream in my coffee (if available, sometimes I have to settle for half and half). Bottom line, I love eggs and I love dairy products.

So how important is it for me to find the highest quality, closest, freshest product that I can? Not only is this very important to me, it is also one of the most challenging changes that I have had to make to my eating recently. Challenging because high quality eggs and dairy are EXPENSIVE!

As I stroll through the refrigerated isle at Costco, temptation sets in. 5 dozen eggs for under 6 bucks you say?? How can this be possible. I could make egg salad, deviled eggs, poached eggs, fried eggs, frittata until I bust and still have extra eggs to figure out what to do with. But is that possible? What IS the true cost of eggs and why am I not paying that figure? What corner has been cut that I am not paying a reasonable and fair price for a product which claims to be clean, safe and nutritious? But hey, and egg is an egg right?...Right?! I won't go into all the nutritional and moral implications that go into buying this product here. But I will recommend everyone go out and watch the documentary "Food Inc." Its on Netflix right now and available to watch instantly. I've never been squeamish about animals having to die in order for me to eat, but the difference between the life of a free range chicken and that of the industrial, conventional bird is so drastically different, that there HAS to be serious differences in the final product, which ultimately ends up on my plate.

Is it important to me that the food I am eating had a life resembling that which could have occurred in nature? Yes. Even more so, I am concerned with what is going into my family's digestive system. I think that is something that more people can relate too.

We all have to trust the farmer to use clean, ethical and sustainable practices that will not destroy the earth, the health of the animals and ultimately the value of the food that we put into our mouths. So does it not make sense that we would want to check out the source of our food? Absolutely, which is why I am planning numerous trips this coming summer to local farms and ranches, so that I can make more educated decisions about what food I will purchase.

In the meantime, I have found a dairy farm with an exceptional reputation and a very informative website about what they are all about. The Straus Family Creamery. Their products can be found at Whole Foods if you are in the Bay Area, and they are more expensive than anything else on the shelf. But that is one investment that I have decided to make, for the health of my family and the future health of the California countryside. Every time we buy a product, we tell the food companies what we want, and how we want them to perform. I hope more people start making this investment into our health and future with me.

I am open for any suggestions on where I can get the best quality products, beef, chicken, eggs, whatever.