My Mama’s Homemade ‘Gravy’

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)
*Tomato Paste
*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.)

Too many carrots! Orange, not red.

Too many carrots! Orange, not red.

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.

Oh. YEAH.

Oh. YEAH.

Onion, garlic, mushroom, peppers, fresh basil, bay leaf, and wine. MMM mmm good!

Onion, garlic, mushroom, peppers, fresh basil, bay leaf, and wine. MMM mmm good!

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. 😉

Mama's gravy with spaghetti squash and sausage (recipe tomorrow!)

Mama’s gravy with spaghetti squash and sausage (recipe tomorrow!)

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Homemade Chicken Soup

This is Recipe #4 of our Meal Plan using Chicken Breast.

What we’re repurposing
Homemade stock (8 1/2 cups total)
Chicken, about 2 breasts worth, chopped
*Note: I love dark meat in soup too. If you prefer shredded meat, you can use chicken thighs and the soup is equally good!

What you need
Half an onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, cut in half lengthwise and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Carrot – probably about 1/2 cup total, peeled and chopped
Noodles – Whatever shape your family likes. This time I used whole wheat rotini.
*Optional: Seasonings (bay leaf, oregano, parsley, basil are good in chicken soup)

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I like to let my soup cook as long as possible, because it develops flavor better that way. And usually, the longer you let the chicken simmer in the broth, the softer it gets and it breaks into smaller pieces. I started my prep around 9:30 in the morning and we ate around 4:30.
In a stock pot or large sauce pan add a pat of butter, then add your chopped onion.
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Next add garlic.
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When onions looking translucent…
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Add celery.
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Here’s how I like to do my carrots. One end is always thicker than the other, so right in the middle I cut the carrot in half:

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Then I cut the thicker piece in half lengthwise:

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Then chop!

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Add carrots to the pot.
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If you’re using additional seasonings, now’s the time to add them. Sprinkle maybe a 1/2 teaspoon of each that you’d like to use and stir. I didn’t use them this time because I just wanted a good chicken flavor and a more mild broth since I’m still on the mend. Plus our chicken was heavily seasoned, so that will add lots of flavor.
Now we’re going to “sweat” the veggies. Place the lid on the pot and let them cook for a few minutes. When you open it again, it will be steamy, aromatic, and the veggies will be nice and soft:
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Now it’s time for our chicken stock! You can add little by little if you want, but I just pour it right in, stirring all the while.
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And now for our chicken! Cut the breast into strips and cut each strip in half:
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Then chop the strips:

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Once it’s chopped, add to soup and stir.
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After 3 hours it will look a little something like this:
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Continue to simmer over low heat until dinner time – another 3 hours is good.
Add your choice of noodles about 10 – 15 minutes prior to serving, depending on the type of noodles. Remember that the longer it simmers with the noodles in it, the more the noodles will absorb the liquid. So be careful not to leave it too long, or you’ll end up with no broth!

Complete!

Complete! Nutritious, delicious, great for a sick day or a cold one!

Serve with salad and a nice loaf of bread.
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Boiling Water for Beginners (and other pasta cooking tips)

I remember when the hubs and I first got married and realizing I was going to have to cook dinner every day. I watched my mom cook plenty of times, and probably helped her a bunch too – but I definitely did not do enough to be solely responsible for my own and my husband’s meals every night.  (How did I get through college?? I must’ve eaten more dorm & fast food than I thought.)

There I was, a newly blushing bride, utterly uncomfortable in my own kitchen. The few things I did feel comfortable making were frozen pizza, sandwiches, French toast, and I figured I could handle Mac N Cheese or maybe spaghetti (not with homemade sauce, the way my mom made it; but the store-bought stuff I could surely handle).

I remember filling the pot with water and wondering if it was too much or not enough. Should I keep the lid off or put it on? Shouldn’t I put salt in the water or something? I stared at that pot of water waiting for something to happen. I was so scared of messing up that I kept messing with the heat levels. After what seemed like forever, tiny little bubbles appeared on the bottom surface of the pan. Is this it?  I remember thinking. Should I put the macaroni in now? I just didn’t know.

So I called my mom.
You can imagine how that went. Thankfully my mom is an incredibly patient lady!

So to spare a newbie an embarrassing phone call, I figured I’d go back to basics and share a few tips on boiling water and cooking pasta.

To Boil Water:
1. Start by choosing a pot based on the quantity and type of pasta you’re making. Spaghetti or fettucine calls for a large stock pot. Smaller amounts of shape pasta (rotini, macaroni, bow tie, shells, etc) can be cooked in a medium size pot.

2. Now fill that pot with hot water. The hotter the water, the faster it will boil. (If you don’t believe me, you can ask the hubs who was CERTAIN cold water would boil faster. So we did a friendly little experiment and I proved him wrong 🙂 I usually fill my pot to three quarters full. You definitely want enough that when you put the pasta in, all of it is covered completely under water, with an inch or so of water above it.
If you put too little water, the pasta might soak it up and you will end up with dry sticky pasta. You do not want to ‘crowd’ your pasta as it will prevent it from cooking properly.
I don’t believe there is any such thing as too much water – as long as you’re not overflowing your pot. Remember: when you add the pasta, the water level will rise also. 

3. Put 3-4 shakes of table salt from your salt shaker in the water (or, 2 pinches of Kosher salt). The salt not only will flavor the pasta, but there’s a wive’s tale out there that says it helps your water boil faster. Cover pot with a lid (clear lids are preferable so you can see what’s going on in there) and set heat to medium. If you’re brave and impatient you can set it to medium high or even high – but don’t you dare leave it alone!

I can’t give you a time on how long this will take, because there are many factors – how hot your water is; if you have electric or gas; how big your pot and how much water is in there.

First, though, you will notice small clear bubbles forming on the bottom of your pan. This will happen right before the boil. It will probably only be another minute or two (depending on your heat level) to develop into a full boil, which is defined by large clear bubbles rising to the top of the water.

4. This is the time to add your pasta! Measure if your recipe calls for it. You will get better at knowing how much you need for yourself/family/recipes with time. Immediately after you add the pasta, give it a stir with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. You will have to stir about 2-3 times more before it is time to drain the water.
Do not replace the lid! It will trap the heat and your pot will boil over – creating a nasty mess for you to clean up.

Here is a picture of a ‘rolling boil’:
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Usually after you put your pasta into the boiling water, you will see this white filmy looking layer on top. This is caused by the pasta releasing its starches.
Most of the time I leave my water at a medium-heat setting. This allows the pasta to have a big enough boil to cook without overflowing your pot or overcooking your pasta.

5. Cooking times: You can pretty much ALWAYS find the cooking times for your pasta on the box or package it came in. Some guidelines:
*Fresh pasta (refrigerated or homemade) takes the least amount of time to cook – usually only 2-4 minutes.
*Semolina pasta (white pasta) can vary depending on thickness. Angel hair (capellini) takes less than Spaghetti, for example. These usually take anywhere from 6-9 minutes.
*Whole Wheat pasta takes the longest – usually around 10 minutes.

When time is up, drain the pasta by pouring the entire contents of the pot into a colander in the sink. (Or, if you have cool pasta pots like I do, which have holes on the lids, you can drain directly from the pot without a colander. Just be sure to keep a firm grip on the lid and use a potholder to prevent burning.)

Here’s another little trick. If you want your pasta to soak up the flavors of the sauce it is in (you do!), cook it a few minutes less than what it says on the box. Drain early, and add to the sauce. Let it cook for the remainder of the time in the pasta sauce, stirring occasionally.
Regardless if you add sauce after letting cook the entire recommended time, or if you cook it awhile IN the sauce, be sure to add sauce immediately after draining to prevent it from turning into one big pot shaped mold. 😉

A few notes:
Boxed pastas generally hold their shape better than fresh. It is much more difficult to overcook and make them mushy. (Unfortunately I think it has to do with preservatives.)
Also, many times those boxes include a recipe for an accompanying sauce. Take a look next time you’re at the store, and decide if it’s something that looks easy enough for you to make. They are usually pretty basic, but good, recipes.

Trouble shooting:
*I cooked my pasta for the recommended amount of time, but it still came out hard and chewy. You probably got scared of the boil and reduced your heat too low, and the pasta was unable to cook enough. Maybe you turned it down because you had to walk away for a minute (that was smart) but forgot to turn it back up (not so smart). Leave it at a moderate boil (medium heat should do it) and stick nearby next time, until you get the hang of how long it takes.

*My pasta is really soggy and sticking together. Most likely you either forgot to stir your pasta while it was boiling, or you let it cook too long. This can also happen if you leave it alone too long after draining and don’t add a sauce immediately. If your sauce isn’t ready yet, add a few drizzles of olive oil and stir just to keep it from sticking.

So there it is. Hopefully I have spared a few newbies some headache and embarrassment!

And even if I didn’t, the best way to learn how to cook (and in life!) is through your mistakes. Try, Fail, Adjust!

NEW – Beginner’s Series

When I consider where I started in my cooking journey, I remembered how long it took me to really grasp certain concepts. Many hours watching cooking shows, asking my mom questions over the phone, poring over magazine articles and recipes; I eventually got familiar with the basics: necessary prep, different cooking methods, different ingredients, and most importantly, CULINARY LINGO. (Because I remember not knowing the difference between a dice and a chop and a mince, and why did I have to do one to an onion and another to a clove of garlic? What’s a HEAD of garlic, and what’s a CLOVE? And how do you get the skin off that garlic anyway??)

So, in an effort to aid others who may be in the same boat I was, I am starting a Beginner’s Series. These posts will discuss very basic things like how to boil water; cooking pasta; the difference between broiling, baking, frying, steaming, etc.

If you, as a reader, have a question, please post it here and I will do my best to answer, as best I know how!

Happy cooking!

A good place to start learning is by searching the “Quick Tip” Category.

Crock Pot Beef Bourguinon

I made this today and it was amazing. Like, lick the pot out amazing (which I may or may not have done). It Was everything you want a beef “stew” to be. Warm, hearty, tender. I’m not sure, but i think this is what they call “umami”.

I served it with egg noodles.

I couldn’t NOT share with you. Here’s the recipe:
http://www.food.com/recipe/crock-pot-beef-bourguignon-127752

MINOR CHANGES:
I sliced the onion and carrot with a mandolin instead of my knife (purely for time reasons). I think it made it better,  because everything kind of melted into one amazing tasting sauce.
I also used baby bella mushrooms because they have more flavor.
…And accidentally added some of them and the wine an hour early, so I added another splash of wine (point noir) and the second batch of mushrooms when I was supposed to.

Happy cooking!