My great-grandparents on my father’s side came to America from Italy. My mom learned a lot of homemade Italian recipes from my great-grandma Florence. Up until very recently, I’ve been either too busy or too inexperienced to attempt any of these homemade recipes. But I found myself wondering the past few weeks, why don’t I just quit buying jarred sauce? Most of the ingredients for the homemade alternative are staples in my pantry anyway, and it is SO good – and healthier, I’m sure. So finally last week I called my mom up and asked how she did it. (Her sauce is always AMAZING.) I’m about to share with you the secrets to that amazing homemade gravy! (Um, right: if you’re not Italian, gravy is spaghetti sauce.)
Okay here goes!
You will need:
*Roughly chopped Veggies (Onion, celery, carrot, mushroom, bell peppers, garlic are all options)
*White wine (or red, or stock of your choice)
*Canned tomatoes (unless you know how to peel and crush them yourself)
*An immersion blender (you can use a regular blender or food processor I suppose, but immersion is so much less work)
*Seasonings – bay leaf, basil, oregano, thyme, etc – whatever you like.
Disclaimer: If you want to do this right, you need to allow for a lot of time. The longer the sauce simmers, the more flavor it’s going to have. I think 3-5 hours is a good goal. Too short and it’ll still be good, but not EXCELLENT; too long and you could find it reduced down too much (unless you want it to cook extra long – just use more of everything).
We start by sweating our veggies. Melt some butter in a large stock pot over medium heat. Just like anything, you can tweak this to your desired tastes. My mom uses Onion, Celery, Carrot, & Garlic. (The first time I made it I used a LOT of carrots. I told myself it was okay, but it wasn’t the sauce my mama made.)
This past time when I made it I started with 2 small farm-fresh yellow onions. Just toss in the pan with the butter. I also used half a red onion. I like the balance of both because red onion is a sharper flavor while the yellow onion is sweeter. Now garlic. I used about 5-6 very large cloves, smashed before chopping. (*Do not do the garlic first, as it could burn much more easily and leave a bitter flavor.) I included about 1/4 cup red & orange bell peppers. Next I added Baby Bella mushrooms. They’re the smaller version of portobello, so add very rich flavor. Stir after adding each new veggie.
Now add your seasonings. Again, use what you want, but I sprinkled dry bay leaf and chopped farm fresh basil. Stir.
Next, 1-2 Tablespoons tomato paste. This time all I had was a pesto-flavored one that I saw and decided to try for fun. I used probably about 1 1/2 Tbspn. Now you stir with a spatula or wooden spoon to mix all the veggies in with the paste, until all the veggies are covered and they’re completely combined.
Here’s my favorite part. This is what we call deglazing the pan: using a small amount of liquid to pull up all the flavors from the bottom of the pan, and to marry the flavors from the veggies and seasonings together. My mom’s secret is using the white wine. Lots of people use red, but she found the flavor is too strong when combined with the tomato paste (I agree!!! Love you Mom!) I think a medium white is perfect. You don’t want a super dry Chardonnay, but you don’t want a Moscato either. A sweeter Pinot Grigio or Savignon Blanc is wonderful. This last time I used a local white called Oktoberfest that my in-laws brought from Galena. Having a wine that’s a little sweeter balances out the strong flavors of basil and garlic, and works well with tomatoes, which are naturally semi-sweet. *Side note: if you don’t drink, or don’t want to use wine, you can substitute chicken or vegetable stock. You only need about 1/4 cup or so – just enough to go once around the pan. Stir that and bump up your heat to medium-high. Now just lean in, carefully, and take a whiff. SO GOOD, right? I did actually add a splash or two of a red blend that I have sitting on my counter, just for good measure. 😉 Let this simmer for 2-3 minutes to really build up that flavor.
Finally, add your canned tomatoes. I added one of those LARGE cans of whole peeled tomatoes and the regular size diced tomatoes. I suppose it doesn’t matter much if they’re diced, finely diced, chopped, or whole, because you’re going to blend it all together anyway, but I’m pretty sure my mom always used whole ones. Therefore, it doesn’t feel right to me without whole peeled tomatoes! Stir that all together, and let it simmer for about an hour.
After the hour is up, blend everything using an immersion blender. You want to turn off your burner and remove it from the heat for this part, in case of splattering. Again, if you don’t have an immersion blender, you have alternate options: wait for it to cool, then use either a regular blender or a food processor. I just don’t like this method because it takes so much more time. If you don’t have a big enough blender or food processor you might have to do it in batches, plus now you have to clean those out… I like my immersion blender. I blend until it’s a thick consistency but still has some very little chunks.
Now all that’s left to do is let it simmer, covered, on low, for another few hours until ready to eat! Mine simmered for 5 hours total and was A-MAY-ZING. I wish I could describe my feelings as I walked in the house after it simmered for that long… I could smell it before we even opened the door. It smelled just like my mom’s house would, and mentally transported me directly to her kitchen. Visually, a picture of her at the stove with her big pot and her whole bay leaves in the sauce.
It always feels good to make something your mama made. This is partly why I love food: passing on the tradition of healthy, simple, homemade recipes. Because when I do that, I feel like a part of my family history and heritage is being passed on as well. It’s timeless. 😉