This time of year, New Years resolutions or not, I yearn for things that are warm, cozy and comforting. Big fuzzy blankets. Fleece jackets. Warming cups of tea and spicy hot chocolate. Meals that feed your soul like pot pies, hearty soups and long simmered things in heavy pots pushed to a back burner that make the house smell divine. A few months back, I invited some friends over for lunch, just as the weather was starting turn and made such a thing. It was wonderful.
Listen, I grew up in Arizona where a chilly winter day meant the thermometer hit 60°F and the sun was behind a cloud. I didn’t even own a true winter coat until my early 20’s so the idea of hearty winter comfort foods was rather ridiculous but I was still drawn to the idea. My smallish clan also didn’t have big Sunday family dinners featuring a zillion cousins, Grandma’s ravioli and a big pot of red gravy but I’ve always loved that idea too. When I started hosting my own Sunday Lunches last year, I knew this would be one of them and I finally got around to throwing my own old school Italian lunch with all the classics, as I imagined them to be. And you can too. In fact, I really think you should.
– Baked Brie (ok, not on topic but I was recipe testing and needed eaters)
– Long-simmered Sunday Gravy with Meatballs, Pork Ribs, Italian Sausage and Spaghetti
– Classic Garlic Bread
– Sauteed Kale & Swiss Chard
– Garlic Roasted Potatoes
– Butterscotch Budino with Salted Caramel Sauce & Whipped Crème Fraiche
A good red sauce is part of my regular repertoire and something I can do in my sleep but a long-simmered Sunday Gravy was another matter. What was in it, exactly? I knew I wanted sausage, meatballs and … something else. Should it be pork ribs or necks? Bones or something else meaty? All pork or a little beef? Should I go to the trouble of making braciole too? I found countless recipes, each adamant that their’s was the best, but I wasn’t convinced. For instance: The Soprano’s Sunday Gravy. Legit or gimmick? Discuss.
I clicked through sites and searches, flipped through countless cookbook and magazine pages. Too. Much. Information. I needed a 1-800-Ask-A-Nonna hotline. Ultimately, after much internal debate, I settled on a Cooks Illustrated recipe using pork ribs and sausage because they never steer me wrong. A bunch of obsessive cooking professionals in Vermont would be my Italian grandma stand ins.
I will admit I was skeptical about the meatballs … while I was fine with the mix of ground meats (the typical beef/pork/veal mixture), was the additional proscuitto really necessary? I nearly left it out then in a moment of self-doubt, threw the package into the shopping cart. The inclusion of buttermilk also struck me as odd but in the end, I went with it. I’m glad I did – trust the source. The resulting meatballs were hands down the best version I’ve ever made: tender, surprisingly delicate and packed with flavor. They were outstanding and I immediately regretted sending all the leftovers home with friends. I really should have hid a few, or all of them, for myself.
The sauce itself was outstanding as well, benefitting from a long, slow simmer in the oven, a hands-off method I highly recommend. The ribs were falling apart tender and more than one of us ended up sucking on perfectly clean bones, in an attempt to extract every last bit of flavor. Dried pasta is ideal here as a fresh pasta is far too delicate and misplaced – you need something a bit firmer, a bit heartier to stand up to the sauce. Tangled up in a bowl, with the flavorful meats piled high and covered in a shower of grated parmigiano reggiano, it was pretty spectacular.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: THAT’S AMORE. TRUE STORY. I don’t think anything says I Love You more than something made with time and care, like a big pot of red sauce that you’ve gently tended, building that amazing flavor, for a couple of hours. My dear friends will happily and delightfully inhale anything I put in front of them with gusto but this one was special. There was a moment when we all knew the plates in front of us were like warm enveloping hugs from a big, smiling, squishy Nonna. One friend, having grown up in an Italian family where these types of Sunday Lunches were commonplace, had tears in his eyes. I cannot tell you how blissfully happy sharing this meal made me that day.
On this blog 3 years ago: Bacon Wrapped Dates
On this blog 2 years ago: Caramelized Roasted Pears
On this blog last year: Strecca di Nonna (no-knead stick bread – fantastic stuff)
Other Sunday Lunch menus: click here for other Sunday menus
Other comfort food ideas: Chicken Pot Pie, Won Ton Soup, Chicken Sour Cream Enchiladas, Baked Rice Pudding, Navy Bean Soup, French Onion Soup, Posole Verde, Mexican Hot Chocolate
SUNDAY GRAVY – from Cooks Illustrated
For the sauce:
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2¼ pounds baby back ribs (1 rack), cut into 2-rib sections
kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 pound hot Italian sausage links
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1¼ teaspoons dried oregano
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
⅔ cup beef broth
¼ cup chopped fresh basil leaves
for the meatballs:
2 slices hearty white sandwich bread, crusts removed and bread cut into ½” cubes
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, minced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 large egg yolk
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound meatloaf mix (veal/pork/beef) or ground beef
2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, chopped fine
½ cup parmesan, grated (1 ounce)
½ cup olive oil
for the pasta:
1½ pounds spaghetti
2 Tablespoons kosher salt
grated parmesan for serving
- For the sauce: Adjust oven rack to lower- middle position and heat oven to 325°F.
- Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking.
- Pat ribs dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
- Add half of ribs to pot and brown on both sides, 5-7 minutes total.
- Transfer ribs to large plate and brown remaining ribs. After transferring second batch of ribs to plate, brown sausages on all sides, 5-7 minutes total. Transfer sausages to plate with ribs.
- Reduce heat to medium, add onions and oregano; cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to turn golden brown, about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until very dark, about 3 minutes.
- Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and broth, scraping up any browned bits. Return ribs and sausage to pot; bring to simmer, cover, and transfer to oven.
- Cook until ribs are tender, about 2½ hours.
- For the meatballs: Meanwhile, combine bread cubes, buttermilk, parsley, garlic, egg yolk, salt, and red pepper flakes in medium bowl and mash with fork until no bread chunks remain.
- Add ground meat, prosciutto and cheese to bread mixture; mix with hands until thoroughly combined. Do not overmix or the meatballs will be tough.
- Divide mixture into 12 pieces; roll into balls, transfer to plate, cover with plastic, and refrigerate until ready to use.
- When sauce is 30 minutes from being done, heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.
- Add meatballs and cook until well browned all over, 5-7 minutes.
- Transfer meatballs to paper towel-lined plate to drain briefly. (NOTE: you can do this ahead of time, just allow a little extra time in the sauce to heat through)
- Remove sauce from oven and skim fat from top with large spoon.
- Transfer browned meatballs to sauce and gently submerge.
- Cover, return pot to oven, and continue cooking until meatballs are just cooked through, about 15 minutes.
- For the pasta: Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
- Add pasta and cook, according to the package directions, until al dente.
- Reserve ½ cup cooking water; drain pasta and transfer to a large, warmed serving dish.
- To serve: Toss pasta with 1-2 cups of the sauce and reserved pasta cooking water so that sauce lightly coats pasta.
- Top a separate warmed platter with the meatballs, ribs, and sausage (cut in half for easier serving).
- Stir basil into the remaining sauce and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and pour over the meat pasta.
- Garnish each platter with a generous shaving of parmigiano reggiano, serving additional at the table along with a lot of napkins.