Sunday Tradition: Macaroni With Gravy
Our man from New Jersey spills on the sauce
There was a time when I had the desire and patience to go out on Sunday afternoons to watch football. I’d stand in some crowded sports bar with a beer clutched to my chest while trying to follow all seven games at once. The standard nachos and Buffalo wings would be paraded out with countless pitchers of watery beer that smelled like the basement of a frat house. I don’t even mind that really, although I always ended up feeling like shit by six o’clock. It was the fantasy football nerds I couldn’t tolerate. If you want action on the games, just find a bookie like a real degenerate. Stop screaming in my face about your fourth round draft pick gaining nine yards against Cleveland. You’re not a genius “GM” dude. You’re what Bart Simpson calls Dorkus Malorkus.
Let me be honest here, too. I’m not that young anymore. If I go out at all on the weekends, I spend most of my Sunday just trying to pick up the pieces and clear the cobwebs out of my head. That applies regardless of whether I go out on Friday or Saturday night. Some people love booze though and thankfully football supersedes accusations of alcoholism. I prefer to spend my Sundays with friends and family, but if you want to squeeze a few more hours into your weekend trying to pork a girl in a Ben Roethlisberger jersey, that’s your prerogative. I won’t judge you.
When I’m home watching football on Sundays there are a few different things I like to cook and have on hand for the rest of the week, but the most observed Sunday tradition in my family aside from the NFL is macaroni with gravy. Now we all know that nobody makes it as well as grandma does and that’s one of the many reasons I try to go to my grandma's house when I can to maintain this family tradition. When that isn’t possible, I typically invite some of the boys over for football and “Sunday Dinner.” The term has been ruined for me thanks to Jersey Shore and The Situation, but at least the guy seems to know how to fry a chicken cutlet.
You may be baffled by my use of the words macaroni and gravy. Most people know it as tomato sauce, not tomato gravy. My grandparents and others from that generation who came from Italy also seem to call it gravy. A friend of mine claims that the use of the word applies when cooking your tomato sauce with meat. He suggests that meat-based sauces are known as gravies and that’s how the term originated. That explanation is plausible, but when I also consider that the pasta is also called macaroni and my grandparents still call their refrigerator a Frigidaire, it could just be one of those things lost in translation when they moved to New Jersey and acclimated to American culture.
Make A Good Sauce
Whatever you want to call it is fine with me, but let me help you make a good sauce. First, get yourself a pair of brown polyester pants and a Hanes wife-beater. If you can procure a pinky ring, it will help with producing authentic hand gestures while stirring your sauce and yelling about A-Rod needing to go. Self-deprecating stereotypes aside, there is a nice Goodfellas feel to making your own sauce on a cold autumn Sunday and having friends over to watch football and sip a few drinks. You can even slice the garlic with a razor blade like Pauly did (so it liquefies in the pan), but just don’t use too many onions or let the sauce “stick.”
So let’s get down to business already. The recipe obviously depends on the amount of people you’re having over, but remember that you can freeze this easily and use any time you want. I’m suggesting using three cans of crushed tomatoes, which will create enough sauce for a lot of people; maybe 10 to 12. Keeping this in mind, you will start by chopping two small onions, one large carrot, five cloves of garlic and a stalk of celery. The celery and carrots are both optional, but I like to use carrots to cut any acidity that may be present in the tomatoes. Sauté the vegetables in a medium pot with olive oil, salt and pepper. If you are choosing to cook a meat sauce, here is where you would also add your meatballs and begin browning them. If you don’t want to use any meat, that’s fine too, just skip this step.
Traditional meatball recipes contain three types of meat; beef, pork and veal. This combination provides the perfect flavor to accompany your sauce. If you don’t have the time to make your own meatballs, I don’t suggest buying frozen ones. My grandma usually adds a couple short ribs, a lamb shank and pork sausage or bracciole to her gravy, and you can do the same to save some time. The bracciole might be hard to find if you don’t have a specialty store near you, but all the others can be found in any supermarket. Another great combination is just chopped pancetta and onions in a tomato sauce paired with bucatini pasta.
Once the ingredients in your pot are brown (7-8 minutes), it’s time to add the canned tomatoes. Part of the reason Grandma’s gravy tastes so good is because our family peels, crushes and jars our own tomatoes every August. Since most people have no clue about this, the second best option is using Red Pack brand crushed tomatoes. I have sampled several brands of canned tomatoes over the years and this brand tastes the best. I use them for both tomato sauce and chili recipes. Remember, you’re adding three 16oz cans now. After that, add some more salt and pepper, a couple tablespoons of oregano and a dozen fresh basil leaves. You want to taste your sauce for seasoning, but if you’re cooking with meat, just make sure you give it a half hour to cook before you slurp from the wooden spoon.
When you’re cooking the sauce with no meat, you only need to let it simmer for 30-40 minutes. When you’re making the gravy, you can cook the sauce for over an hour on low heat to allow some of the meat to break down and get incorporated into the sauce. Some people choose to stir in grated parmesan cheese during the cooking process, but that is up to you. I don’t think it’s necessary, but I know others who think it is.
Choose Your Pasta
When choosing pasta, you always have to consider your sauce. The only thing you really wouldn’t want to use here is capellini, but most other types of pasta will be good for this recipe. I personally like to use ziti or rigatoni on Sunday, but fettucini and fusilli are perfect too. Whenever I watch cooking shows, the chefs always take the pasta right of out the water and into a pan with the sauce. My Grandma always drains the pasta in a colander and then scoops it into individual bowls before pouring her gravy over it. The meat is then presented on a separate platter. I have used both techniques of combining pasta and sauce prior to consumption and I really don’t notice a difference. Whatever is easier for you will work.
Since it is Sunday and you’re probably planning on spending most of the day on the couch, you should have some red wine and maybe even a little hard booze on-hand. You can also prepare a nice antipasto appetizer for your guests or pick up some Italian pastries for desert. Spend your next football Sunday with this Italian comfort meal. You may never go back to the sports bar again.