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.
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.