Nonna Giovanna is the 86-year-old grandmother of my protagonist, Sally Solari. Tiny but feisty, Nonna is never happier than when, having spent the day cooking, she gets to scold guests in her thick Tuscan accent that they need to eat more: Mangia, mangia! Luckily for Sally’s family, however, when it’s Nonna’s mouth-watering Sunday Gravy on the menu, not much scolding is ever necessary.
The sauce (i.e., “gravy”) is served over pasta as the primo, or first course:
And the braised meat is served as the secondo, or second course, with a vegetable or salad contorno (side dish):
(The following recipe is excerpted—with slight changes—from those included in Dying for a Taste. But unlike in the book, you get photos of the process, here!)
¼ cup olive oil
1 ½ pounds beef chuck or short ribs (slightly more if bone-in)
1 ½ pounds pork chops or shoulder (slightly more if bone-in)
1 pound sweet Italian sausages
2 tablespoons chopped garlic (2-3 cloves)
2 cups coarsely chopped yellow onion (2 med. onions)
1 6-oz. can tomato paste
2 28-oz. cans plum tomatoes
½ bottle hearty red wine (about 2 cups)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
salt and black pepper
cooked penne, rigatoni, or spaghetti
grated Parmesan, Romano, or other hard Italian cheese
Cut the beef and pork shoulder into three pieces each and season with salt and pepper.
In batches, so as to not crowd the pot, fry the beef, pork, and sausages over a medium-high heat in half the olive oil (2 tablespoons) until golden brown on all sides. Nonna Giovanna likes to prepare her Sunday gravy in an enameled Dutch oven, but any large, heavy pot will do. (Note that it’s best to avoid cast iron, as the acid in the tomatoes can leach out the iron, imparting a metallic taste to the gravy. As you’ll see from my photos, however, I forgot this important fact, only remembering after the dish had been braising for several hours. Since my pot is well-seasoned, however, the dish tasted fine. But don’t you make the same mistake!) Remove the meat to a large plate once browned.
If needed, add the rest of the olive oil to the pot, and sauté the onions and garlic over medium heat until the onions are just beginning to brown.
Add the can of tomato paste and stir into the onions and garlic, and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the paste turns a deep, reddish brown (about 5 minutes).
Add the two cans of tomatoes, with juice, to the pot. Using a fork and sharp knife, cut the largest tomatoes into quarters and the smaller ones in half.
Then add the wine, sugar, and herbs, and stir.
Add the meat (along with any liquid on the plate) back to the pot, and stir to cover the meat. If needed, add water so that the liquid in the pot just covers the meat.
Simmer over low heat, partially covered, for 3 hours, stirring occasionally to keep the meat from sticking to the bottom of the pot. When done, the meat should be almost falling apart and the sauce fairly thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Remove the meat from the pot if you are going to serve it as a separate course. If not, you can cut the meat into smaller pieces and mix it into the sauce, being sure to remove any bones.
Serve the gravy over cooked pasta, topped with grated hard Italian cheese. Garnish with more of the chopped herbs, for added color and flavor. (See photos at top of post.)
Readers: Does your family sit down together regularly for a traditional meal prepared by your nonna (or abuela, or nana, or babushka)? If so, I’d love to hear about the dishes you eat! Leave a comment to be entered into a drawing for a copy of DYING FOR A TASTE!
BIO: Leslie Karst is the author of the culinary mystery, Dying for a Taste, the first of the Sally Solari Mystery series (Crooked Lane Books). A former research and appellate attorney, Leslie now spends her days cooking, gardening, reading, cycling, singing alto in the local community chorus, and of course writing. She and her wife, Robin, and their Jack Russell mix, Ziggy, split their time between Santa Cruz, California and Hilo, Hawai‘i. Visit her at Leslie Karst Author for more.
SYNOPSIS: After losing her mother to cancer, Sally Solari quits her job as an attorney to help her dad run his old-style Italian eatery in Santa Cruz, California, but soon finds that managing the front of the house is far from her dream job of running her own kitchen.
Then her Aunt Letta is found stabbed to death at Gauguin, Letta’s swank Polynesian-French restaurant, and Sally is the only one who can keep the place afloat. When the Gauguin sous chef is accused of the crime, however, Sally must delve into the unfamiliar world of organic food, sustainable farming, and animal rights activists—not to mention a few family secrets—to help clear his name and catch the true culprit before her timer runs out.