Food Republic’s column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher’s. Today, he consults with farmers, butchers, chefs and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, he offers a solution for all those leftover hunks of meat lingering in your fridge.
Right about now, my refrigerator and freezer are starting to resemble a crowded subway car. It’s 8 o’clock on Monday morning. All those containers full of leftovers from hosting friends and family are piled, pushed and stuffed on top of one another, every now and then exploding forth. “Hmmm, when did we cook that?”
I’ve always been good at using the veggies first. There’s always room for those in frittatas, soups, lasagna, hummus — the possibilities are endless. I do, however, get a little stumped with the meat. A bit of sausage here, maybe a single leftover pork chop there, perhaps a few slices of roast beef that never made it into a sandwich. Singularly, none of this makes much of a meal. But what if there were a way to incorporate all these leftover bits into some sort of end-of-the-week elixir capable of turning it all into culinary gold? Well, there is! Sunday gravy. Or, as others call it, Sunday sauce. This is not your basic red sauce — this is a slow-simmered, cram-as-many-types-of-meat-in-there-and-cook-all-day sort of thing.
It’s hard to be sure about the genesis of this Italian-American dish, and there are about as many versions as there are, well, Italian-Americans. And, of course, everybody’s grandmother made it best. I have memories of sitting in my grandparents’ basement in Queens, watching a movie with my grandfather while my grandmother prepared our Sunday feast. Back then (and still sometimes today) I called it “toothpick sauce.” I could barely see over the rim of the pot, and what I could see were dozen of toothpicks holding braciole together.
It didn’t necessarily have to be made on Sunday. In fact, I remember having a ragu on a Tuesday or Thursday, but never on a Friday. As for recipes, well, I wouldn’t exactly say there’s a recipe either. I’d call it more a list of ingredients. But, as I said above, I can think of no better way to clean out the fridge of all those meaty odds and ends. I have fond memories of being in my grandmother’s basement-kitchen. (Didn’t everyone’s grandmother have one?)
The assumption with this meal, and it is a meal, is that you have all this stuff on hand. That’s where the economy of the dish comes in. I’ve even known people to keep a little of the leftover, the “mother” if you will, and add it each week. Some say it goes back years. What this does, I have no idea, but it certainly makes for great lore.
If you were to buy ingredients for this dish, there are definitely a few must-haves. Some like pork chops, but I’d opt for the fattier, fuller flavor of a country-style rib. Your local butcher should have no problem cutting you some off a fully pastured pig — two or three should do the trick. Some say meatballs are a must, some say no way, because they add a bit too much fat. I say that if you’ve got them hanging around, why not use ’em? I’ve always got a few bags of frozen ones ready to go in the freezer. Sausage is a must in my book, but feel free to experiment — the utility of a sweet Italian works great, but for a little added heat, go for a spicy. Then again, why not try a goat or lamb? I’d stay away from sweeter seasoned/spiced sausages and go for ones that stay relatively sane with the ingredients list.
All you’re missing is some big chunks of beef. Oxtails might be hard to come by from your local butcher. So if you can’t get some of those, go for the cross-cut shank — meaty, heavily worked and a bit of marrow from the tibia. That’ll help to thicken things up nicely. And here’s a great cut to get if you can’t find those oxtails. I’ve seen it called boneless oxtail, and those in the meat biz have dubbed it the braison, because “superficial digital flexor” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, or out of the meat case. If any of those are hard to find, you can always use some good ol’ short ribs.
But keep in mind that the idea of this meal is to use up all the scraps of meat that you have left over from your week. And those leftover meaty bits can be anything. Remember, this is really just a collection of ingredients. My gravy contains just about anything — beef, pork, lamb, chicken. Add or subtract what you like and create your own lore! Before you know it, you too will be installing a second stove in your basement.
Keep it simple: rigatoni. I think rigatoni was invented for this specific meal. The larger-than-penne diameter and the ridges down the length all add up to the perfect vessel for encasing and being encased by bits of meat and sauce.
All that’s left is to build the base. Again, this is up for much debate. Canned tomatoes or fresh? Tomato paste or none? Do you add celery and carrots or just the basics of basil, parsley and oregano? I say keep it simple. It’s the winter, so I’m going to assume that fresh tomatoes aren’t readily available. Unless you’re like me and have a pantry stocked with tomato sauce from the end of summer, it might be wise to use the canned variety. San Marzano’s, for very good reason, will do perfectly here. This plum tomato is sweeter, less acidic and has fewer seeds. You can find these whole and peeled, which is much easier to work with. Brands like Muir Glen and Cento come organically grown, which I recommend. Let’s make some gravy, er… sauce.
Sunday Sauce Recipe
5 (28-ounce) cans of whole peeled organic San Marzano tomatoes (Muir Glen/Cento)
1 (12-ounce) can of organic tomato paste
½ cup olive oil
2 pounds sausage (sweet, hot, goat, lamb, a mix, whatever!)
3 pounds country-style pork ribs
3 pounds cross-cut beef shanks, oxtail, braison or short ribs
For good measure, you can always add in some pork bones, too! Let’s say 2 pounds of neck/shoulder bones
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 small yellow onions, diced
3 tablespoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons dried basil
3 bay leaves
3 overflowing tablespoons of Parmigiano Reggiano
2-3 tablespoons of salt (or to taste)
1 cup red wine
- You’re going to need a pot that’s at least 12 quarts large. Over medium-high heat, get that olive oil to a shimmer and start browning. Work in batches, so as not to crowd the pot. Even the neck bones will get a little sear.
- Once you’ve seared and transferred to a plate, reduce heat to medium and add your onions.
- After about 8 minutes, or until they are soft, add the garlic and lightly brown for another 5 minutes.
- Add in the tomato paste and combine with onions and garlic until it’s mixed thoroughly, about 2 minutes.
- Now it’s time for the wine. Add the cup and reduce by half, making sure to scrape up all those bits on the bottom of the pot from the searing.
- Once you’ve reduced your liquid by half, you can add back in your bones and add the tomatoes and remaining spices. You can crush them a bit by hand as you add them or not bother. The long cooking time will reduce them to pulp.
- Increase the heat to bring everything to a nice bubble and give a good stir. Once it’s bubbling, reduce the heat and cook for at least 2 hours while everything thickens.
- After that you can add in your country-style ribs and any beef cuts you purchased. They’ll take the longest, as they’ll need time to break down the connective tissue. After another three hours, you can add your sausage. If you decided to go the meatball route, toss them in at the end — they won’t need long to cook, maybe an hour. You want them to stay formed, not break apart like in a Bolognese.
Note: Some people like to skim the fat off the top while the sauce is cooking. I don’t know who those people are. I stir it all back in.
I’ll cook 2 pounds of rigatoni to al dente, around 11 minutes (follow directions on the box) and serve family-style on a platter with the gravy. I mean, sauce.