The thing about Thanksgiving is that people have expectations. They expect some kind of squash soup, they expect turkey, of course, and stuffing and taters (mashed and sweet) and all kinds of pies for dessert. Maybe that’s why I don’t like cooking it: the element of surprise is fairly limited (“Oooh look, he put cranberries in the stuffing!”) and even if you half-ass it, people will still enjoy themselves as long as there’s plenty of wine. Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? It’s not just the tryptophan that makes Thanksgiving dinner a sleepy affair.
Truthfully, the best time to Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving. If the idea behind Thanksgiving is that you’re giving thanks for all that you have–your family, your friends, your health, your new table from CB2 (don’t you like it?!)–it’s possible to give that kind of thanks the other 364 days of the year and not only that, you get to cook whatever you want for whomever you want at whatever time you want, no questions asked.
Which is why, two Sundays ago, I invited my carnivorous friends over for a feast of a very different nature. Whereas Thanksgiving dinner comes to us from American history, this dinner came to us courtesy of the New Jersey mafia. Specifically: the Soprano Family. Yes, for this Sunday night Dinner of Gratitude, I was cooking a staple out of The Sopranos Family Cookbook, an America-Italian staple: namely, Sunday Gravy.
What is Sunday Gravy? It’s a big pot of tomato sauce infused with fat from all kinds of meat (pork ribs, veal shoulder, sausage) that simmers for hours. When it’s done simmering, you take out all the meat and serve that on one plate:
[Note: the recipe I used also includes meatballs, but I thought that might be too much of a good thing. Still, I think if I’d made them, people would’ve eaten them, so if you’re gonna go for it, I say go for it.]
Then, you boil pasta (I used two boxes of penne), and take it out just before done and finish cooking it in the sauce:
Two courses for the price of one!
If you serve all of this with a Caesar salad (as I did)…
And Tiramisu for dessert (recipe here)…
…you’ll have yourself a veritable non-Thanksgiving Sunday night feast that completely captures the spirit of Thanksgiving but without any of the boring Thanksgiving trappings. Who needs turkey when you’ve got Gravy? And now, the recipe.
Recipe by Michelle Scicolone
Makes about 8 Cups
For the Sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound meaty pork neck bones or spareribs [I bought “country-style ribs”]
1 pound veal stew meat or 2 veal shoulder chops
1 pound Italian-style plain or fennel pork sausages
4 garlic cloves
1/4 cup tomato paste
Three 28- to 35-ounce cans Italian peeled tomatoes
2 cups water
Salt and freshly ground pepper
6 fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
For the Meatballs:
1 pound ground beef or a combination of beef and pork
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs, preferably homemade
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon very finely minced garlic
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound (I used two!) shells or rigatoni, cooked and still hot
Freshly rated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
To make the sauce, heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Pat the pork dry and put the pieces in the pot. Cook, turning occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until nicely browned on all sides. Transfer the pork to a plate. Brown the veal in the same way and add it to the plate.
Place the sausages in the pot and brown on all sides.
Set the sausages aside with the pork.
Drain off most of the fat from the pot. Add the garlic and cook for about two minutes or until golden.
Remove and discard the garlic. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.
With a food mill, puree the tomatoes, with their juice, into the pot. Or, for a chunkier sauce, just chop up the tomatoes and add them.
[Note: you may want to use a bigger pot, but I was using my biggest to boil the pasta. What choice did I have?]
Add the water and salt and pepper to taste. Add the pork, veal, and sausages and basil and bring the sauce to a simmer. Partially cover the pot and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 2 hours. If the sauce becomes too thick, add a little more water.
Meanwhile, make the meatballs:
Combine all the ingredients except the oil in a large bowl. Mix together thoroughly. Rinse your hands with cool water and lightly shape the mixture into 2-inch balls.
Heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the meatballs and brown them well on all sides. (They will finish cooking later.) Transfer the meatballs to a plate.
After two hours, add the meatballs and cook for 30 minutes or until the sauce is thick and the meats very tender.
To serve, remove the meats from the sauce and set aside. Toss the cooked pasta with the sauce. Sprinkle with cheese. Serve the meats as a second course, or reserve them for another day.