Food & Drink | January 2017

By Abby & Kevin Tankersley

Not Your Mother's Gravy (unless she's Italian)

In 1999, Tony Soprano and his family were introduced to America when “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO. The show ran for six seasons, spread out over eight years. Tony was the boss of a Mafia crime syndicate based in New Jersey, and the show revolved around him and his associates, as well as his relationship with his family.

As the show’s popularity grew, it became appointment viewing. Fans gathered Sunday nights and prepared elaborate meals, often of Italian cuisine, to watch the latest goings-on of Tony and both of his families — his actual family and the crime family he oversaw.

Food played a major role in “The Sopranos.” Many scenes took place around Satriale’s Pork Store, as well as in Nuovo Vesuvio, a restaurant specializing in food from the Naples region of Italy, to where most of the characters could trace their lineage. But the most significant meal each week was the family Sunday dinner at the Sopranos’ house.

“The family dinner is a sacred custom,” Christopher J. Vincent wrote in the book “Paying Respect to the Sopranos: A Psychosocial Analysis.” He continues, “The most important tradition for any self-respecting ‘Sopranos’ family is Sunday dinner. Despite their Catholic affiliation, the Soprano family is never shown to use that day for spiritual re-dedication but rather gastronomic celebration. Sunday dinner is their preferred sacrament.”

Sometimes just four people were present for Sunday dinner: Tony, his wife and their two children. At other times, a dozen or more crowded around the table, and there was always room for one more, a straggler or a friend who happened to show up at mealtime.

Food is so integral to “The Sopranos” that the final scene of the series takes place in a diner with the family eating onion rings, which are, according to Tony, the “best in the state as far as I’m concerned.”

I discovered “The Sopranos” after its run on HBO had ended and it was syndicated on A&E, but I was only able to watch sporadically. In 2014, it was added to Amazon Prime Video, which gave me the opportunity to watch the series in order, from the first look at Tony as he’s sitting in his therapist’s waiting room to that final scene in the diner. (The last moments of that scene are still examined and debated among fans today.) “The Sopranos” made for great viewing, if, of course, you don’t mind foul language, violence and nudity.

One topic discussed a few times during the series was what to call the red stuff served over pasta. It was simply tomato sauce, some claimed, but in the old country it was called gravy, as several members of Tony’s business family pointed out. In fact, on a business trip to Italy, one of Tony’s associates isn’t happy with the lavish food set before him. He calls over the waiter and asks, “Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?” The waiter doesn’t understand his request. Aggravated, he continues: “Gravy, gravy, tomato sauce.”

That sent me on a search for gravy. Sunday gravy is what I found, and it’s a recipe I’ve wanted to try for a while now. It’s a rich, heavy dish that takes several hours to prepare, though a lot of that time consists of the large stockpot — and it’s got to be a big pot for this dish — sitting on the stove with the gravy and meat slowly simmering. Serve it with an antipasto salad of lettuce topped with cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers, sliced salami and quality, brine-cured olives.

The first step in the bread recipe below contains directions for biga, which is a type of pre-fermentation often used in Italian baking. It adds complexity to the bread’s flavor.

The Recipes

Sunday Gravy

  • Approximately 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 3 pounds Italian sausage, sweet, hot or a mixture of both, cut into 3-inch slices
  • 2 pounds meatballs (recipe below)
  • 3 pounds country-style pork ribs
  • 2 pounds pork neck bones (or any other pork or beef bones)
  • 2 mild onions, finely chopped
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can (12 ounces) tomato paste
  • 5 cans (28 ounces each) whole peeled tomatoes with juice, crushed until no whole tomatoes remain
  • 3 bay leaves
  • Generous pinch of sugar
  • 2-3 tablespoons salt, or to taste
  • Cooked pasta, for serving

Coat the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot with some of the oil and place over medium-low heat. In the pot, brown the sausage on all sides, then remove. Repeat with the meatballs and ribs. Then brown the bones, but leave them in the stockpot. Add more olive oil as needed.

Add the onions to the pot and slowly brown, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes. Add the garlic and lightly brown for another 3-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the bones. Cook until the paste begins to thicken and darken in color, for about 5 minutes.

Add the crushed tomatoes, bay leaves and sugar, and stir well, making sure to stir all the way to the bottom of the pot. Bring mixture to a low boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken.

After 1 hour, add the ribs. After 1 more hour, add the sausage. Then after 1 additional hour, add the meatballs. Continue to simmer until a layer of fat forms on the top, for about another hour. Skim the fat from the top and discard. Taste the sauce and add salt if needed. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a serving platter. Spoon the sauce over the cooked pasta and serve. Makes 8-10 generous servings.

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Meatballs

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 cup fresh white bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup seasoned dry bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 1/2 cup freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 extra-large egg, beaten
  • 3/4 cup warm water

Place all the ingredients in a bowl. Use a fork to combine very lightly. Using your hands, lightly form the mixture into 1 1/2-inch meatballs. Makes 20-24 meatballs.

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Lard Bread

For the biga:

  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 2/3 cup unbleached bread flour

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For the bread dough:

  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 2 cups unbleached bread flour
  • 1 2/3 cups whole wheat or rye flour
  • 1/4 pound ham, thick-sliced, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

To prepare the biga, pour 1/2 cup tepid water into a small mixing bowl. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the yeast and flour just until a dough forms. It will be a stiff dough. Dust the counter with flour and scrape out the dough. Knead for 1-2 minutes just to work in all the flour and get the dough fairly smooth.

Lightly oil the mixing bowl. Round the biga and place it back in the mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 1 hour, then refrigerate it for at least 8 hours and up to 16 hours. The biga will double in size and become glossy.

To make the dough, remove the biga from the refrigerator and uncover it. It should be soft, airy and a bit sticky. Pour the warm water over the biga and stir with a rubber spatula to soften and break it into clumps. Stir in the yeast, flours, ham and salt until a dough forms.

Using the dough hook on a stand mixer, mix the dough at medium speed until it’s smooth and fairly elastic, for 10-12 minutes.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled, clear, 2-quart container with a lid. Place a piece of tape on the outside of the container at the spot that will indicate the dough has doubled in volume. Cover and leave at room temperature until it doubles, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper, and dust the parchment with flour. Uncover the dough, and turn it out on a very lightly floured counter. Using a scraper or chef’s knife, cut the dough into 2 equal pieces, about 20 ounces each. Shape each into a log about 12 inches long and 3 inches wide. Place the loaves seam side down on the parchment, about 3 inches apart. Lightly drape them with plastic wrap. Let the loaves stand at room temperature until they look puffy and light, for about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

About 1 hour before baking time, heat the oven to 425 F and place a baking stone on the center rack.

Slide the loaves and the parchment directly onto the stone. Bake until the bread is golden brown, for 25-30 minutes. To remove, slide the parchment onto a baking sheet and transfer the bread, still on the parchment, to a wire rack. Cool completely, for at least 1 hour, before slicing. Makes 2 loaves.

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Southern Fried Onion Rings

  • 1-2 quarts peanut or other frying oil, such as canola
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups finely ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 2 large Vidalia or other sweet onions, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • Kosher salt

Heat oil in a large, heavy pot. It should be at least 3 inches deep but more is better.

In a wide, shallow bowl, whisk together flour, cornmeal, cornstarch and cayenne. In a second bowl, beat egg and buttermilk. Separate onion slices into rings.

Working in batches, lightly toss the rings in the flour mixture, then dip into the buttermilk mixture. Allow most of the liquid to drip off, then toss again in the flour mixture. Shake off as much flour as possible and place the rings into the hot oil.

Fry for 2-3 minutes or until golden brown, moving the rings around a bit in the oil to keep them separated.

Put the onion rings on a plate, or bowl, lined with a paper towel, and salt. Repeat until all onions are done. Makes about 4 servings.

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Tiramisu Mousse

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee granules
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream, cold
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 8 ounces mascarpone cheese or cream cheese
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 ounce semi-sweet baking chocolate

 
Place the coffee granules in a small bowl and pour the hot water over them. Stir to dissolve and let cool for 5 minutes.

Beat heavy whipping cream until stiff peaks form. Chill until ready to use.

With a hand mixer, mix the powdered sugar and mascarpone or cream cheese until smooth. Then mix in the vanilla and coffee. Gently fold the whipped cream into coffee mixture.

Spoon the tiramisu into serving cups and refrigerate until ready to serve. Decorate the mousse by either dusting the top lightly with cocoa powder or shaving chocolate over the top of each dessert. Serve immediately. Makes about 6 servings.
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