Monthly Archives: October 2012

Tomato gravy

It’s gravy.  Tomato sauce is what you pour into chili or onto pizza.

Gravy.   That’s what it was called in the Pagano household and the two preceding households that the Pagano household was derived from.  So that’s what it is in the new Pagano household.  (follow me on that? Both Grandparents, my parents and my household).

Call it sauce if you want.  Just don’t tell me what to call it, because I’m not listening.

Gravy, and the liking or disliking, is more a part of what you were brought up on.  That flavor is ingrained in the psyche.  Your taste can change if you have different for a long period of time, but you will always remember Mom’s or Grandma’s gravy and judge against that measure.

I am reminded of Sunday afternoons when I was young, which was when Mom was making gravy for the week.  The house was filled with wonderful aromas; garlic frying in olive oil, the tomatoes cooking down, sausage frying.  The smells of home.  I have come to find out that this was by no means unique to my upbringing.

A gravy, like a lot of things, is family specific.  You learn how to from a higher source.  The taste is passed down.  Even so, my Grandmother’s tasted different from my Mom’s, which is different from my Aunt’s.  But amongst us Pagano’s (including Lisa, my wife) you will taste a distinct similarity.

Here is the bottom line:  You will judge your gravy against that which you know.  As for me, only my Mother and Sister can do better.  The closer mine comes to tasting like theirs is how I gauge how well it came out.

I would put my gravy down next to anyone’s, so confident am I that it is the best.  Although I am sure that mine is the best, I feel this way because it comes closest to what my mother’s tastes like.

Too many chefs (replete with I-can-do-no-wrong opinions of themselves) claim to make a great lasagna, baked ziti or manicotti. But they all topple for lack of a good gravy.

The color, texture and aroma will tell you immediately if a gravy is done right.  Gravy embodies the essence of tomatoes with undertones of sausage and accompaniments of choice spices- garlic and basil.  Hold off on the oregano.  That is for pizza sauce. Notice the word ‘sauce’ after ‘pizza’.

Back to the nature/nurture point made earlier; all gravies have the same basics- tomatoes (fresh, canned, whole, peeled, pureed), olive oil, garlic, basil, salt and pepper.  There after, other spices are incorporated that will make a gravy unique; fennel seed, wine, onion, green pepper, parsley, oregano.  But all in all, the building blocks are the same.

So how much different can one gravy be from another?  That answer lies in the spice formulation particular to the individual or family.  I am reminded of the offensiveness (defensiveness?) I often encounter when I ask someone the secret ingredient to their gravy.

No carrots, onions or peppers.  Not ever.  This isn’t a salad we are making here.  I will concede on one point and one only; onion (and this only out of respect for my friends Marco Piazza and Sue Braun).

It has come to my attention that the onion removes the acidity the tomatoes impart unto the gravy. And here is where the tree begins to branch.  I prefer a more acidic gravy, probably comes from my partial Sicilian heritage (might be the same thing that makes us so bitchy).  The addition of onion in one form or another removes the acid.  This sweetens the gravy somewhat.  Depending on your preference, the onion can make quite a difference.

Fresh or dried spices?  I don’t care.  What is important here is the outcome.  In the summer months I will pluck herbs fresh from the garden.  I have noticed that you need a good deal more fresh than you would use dried and it does affect the outcome.  However, the ingredients are the same.

Chunky, smooth or any of that nonsense not withstanding, a good gravy needs to be thick.  Not so thick that it doesn’t flow well, it must coat the pasta thoroughly, but not so thin that when you fork up some ziti all you are left with is a red film reminiscent of grease.  Diner gravy.  This you may call sauce.

This stuff sucks

So does this

Cooking time is critical.  No matter what, a longer, slower cooked gravy will always taste better than a hastily prepared one.  And remember what my Bro says, “You have to make a mess to make a good gravy.”

And another thing – according to my nephew, William Teeling III, Esq. (yes, Esquire) and I quote, “People that call it ‘gravy’ tend to make it better than those that call it ‘sauce'”.

Amen to that, brother.

Gravy is cooked in a large pot- no lid, slowly.  It takes me 4 hours to spin off a pot of gravy.  The water must be cooked out of it and the tomatoes cooked to perfection.  And therein lies the reasoning behind the long cooking time.  The tomatoes need to be cooked for a long time.

Use the big pot

The incorporation of meat in some way pushes gravy production over the top.  My Sys tells me that pork in some form does it for her.  This I remember from Grandma’s.  I prefer Italian sausage, browned in the same pot as the gravy is being made.

And brown them bitches good.  Slightly burned on the outside is optimum. Then begin your gravy production in the same pot – unwashed!  Add the meat to the gravy for the duration of the cooking process.

And that should settle the ‘is it gravy or is it sauce’ debate.  Gravy, by definition, is made with meat stock and my gravy is made with meat stock, even if it is the burnt remains and oils after a high fire frying.

You cannot have a good pasta dish if you don’t have good gravy.  Great pasta dishes have extraordinary gravy (like mine).

It’s pasta we’re talking about eating here. Not fish, pork, chicken or beans, although all of those could use a good gravy also.

Pasta.  When the gravy is good that is all you need, with maybe the addition of a small salad.  If the gravy is great you won’t be able to stop at 2 helpings.  To conclude this thought I will speak of my Grampa Sam, who could eat pasta every day of the week.  No man can eat pasta every day of the week if it the gravy is not good.

The only gravy recipe I know:

2 small cans tomato paste
2 cans tomato puree
fresh garlic
olive oil
salt, pepper, basil
enough water to fill the two puree cans.

Cook until done.

What? You thought I was going to include detailed instructions on how to make my gravy?

And remember what the ol` man taught me: When we cook, we drink.  Salute!

Hungry yet?


Carcass Soup

I can squeeze quite a few dollars in savings out of a standard roast chicken.

First, there is the meal that I made initially.

The first meal

Then I can usually glean off enough good chicken meat to make a few chicken salad sandwiches.

Chicken salad sandwiches!

After that, there isn’t much left but skeletal remains, but there is still a lot of meat to be had. The pro’lem is how to get at it in an efficient manner without driving yourself to the precipice of insanity.

Ready for the pot

I usually save up a few carcasses – at least 3 – before rendering them into carcass soup.  It seems that one or two remains of bird’s past just don’t lend enough flavor to the soup.  Sure, you could throw in some bullion cubes, but I don’t ever seem to have any of those around.

You’re going to need your big pot.  Don’t think that you can get away with anything less, you’ll be sorry sooner than later.  I know it’s a pain to clean, but you’ll appreciate the high side walls when things get rolling.

I boil down my chicken carcasses until the meat and bones are easily separated.  You’ll know when that time has arrived by probing your cauldron with a stout wooden spoon.  When you can mash things down easily, it is time.

Then, I separate the meat and the bones.  Initially I pull out anything making its presence known right from the pot, but then I do a more thorough selection on the cutting board.  Reason is, there is an awful lot of undesirable looking things that boil down out of a chicken carcass.  It isn’t that difficult of a process, really.  And there is no need to be overly picky about it when you have three carcasses to work with.  If it doesn’t look right, or if you wouldn’t want to spoon it into your pie hole, get rid of it.

All of that meat gets put off to the side, to be added later.

About now is when I start drinking.  Because, as the ol’ man taught me, ‘when we cook, we drink.’  Slainte`.

Even a practiced hand will miss a small bone or two.  This is home-made soup, not that canned crapola you slop into a pot and splash water on top of.  By its very nature there is going to be some things that will need to be picked out and discarded, and those things will only come to light when you have them in your mouth.  Don’t bitch about it, just enjoy.  And a good home-made carcass soup is to be enjoyed, savored, eaten slower than the can of chicken and stars you slurped up at lunch.

And it is better for you, too.  When you sum the total of the parts of a good carcass soup you will find a few major food groups represented:  Protein (chicken), starch (potatoes), vegetables (all the other stuff).  You even nudge up your total water intake for the day.  Serve with bread and you can put a tic mark in the ‘grains’ category.

Turning my attention back to the pot, what I am left with is essentially chicken stock.  Here is where the culinary skills of a well seasoned (got that, seasoned?) carcass soup maker come into play,  as a carcass soup tends the be a manifest of produce long forgotten at the bottom of the freezer, back of the pantry and/or rear end of the crisper drawer in the fridge.

Carrots, celery, potatoes, onions.  Those ingredients are always around somewhere, in various stages of decay.  I like to drop in a turnip (parsnip, rutabaga or what have you).  I usually don’t have one of those lying around, so if I have carcass soup on my mind at the previous food shopping trip, I will purchase one or two.

A word about turnips.  You don’t need many.  A small friggin’ turnip will go a long way in flavoring your cauldron.  No need to purchase the soft ball sized rutabaga, a small one will do nicely.  I always like to get one with a little purple on top, because it just seems so novel.

Herbs and spices.  I rummage around in the freezer and usually come up with one or more of the following:  Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (I tip my hat to Simon and Garfunkle, obviously stoners, because who, save for a couple of stoners, could ever write a song about four herbs in the spice rack?).

Salt and pepper.  Kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, not the hip-hop girl duo from the 80’s.  Accept no substitutes.

And don’t give me a hard time about the salt.  Soup, pasta and potatoes all need salt to taste good.  It’s just the way it goes.  Fresh cracked black?  Tell me you don’t enjoy gnashing a small piece of black pepper between your teeth every now and again when eating soup, go ahead, tell me, and I won’t invite you over for any of mine.

After the veggies are all swimming nicely with the herbs and things are getting nice and soft, turn off the heat and add the chicken meat.  Doing it in this manner keeps it from over cooking.

Multi-tasking.  When I spin off a carcass soup, I can usually get the dishwasher emptied, put a load of clothes into the washer and one into the drier, as well as catch up on the daily news and weather.  All that, and have dinner ready by the time the family comes through the door.  Boo-ya!

The smell.  Your dwelling will fill with the splendid aroma of cooking soup.  As soon as anyone comes through the door, they will begin to salivate, peppering you with questions – what are you cooking?  Ooh, soup… Is it ready yet?  Can I try some?  What time is dinner?

Enjoy it, novella  sous chef, that you are, they are all compliments.

A word or two about starches.  Potatoes hold up fairly well in a soup.  Rice, noodles and pasta do not.  Those things will work fine for the initial offering, enhancing the soup nicely.

However, if you have made more than one meal sitting in your soup pot, and you should with three carcasses and all, what will happen is that the lesser starches will break down quite a bit, thickening your soup into a viscous gruel.  It won’t become apparent until after you pull it out of the fridge and you have what essentially looks like chicken jello.

Everyone likes soup. No one likes gruel.

But fret not!  For your chicken jello will heat back to a nice, thick soup on the stove.  Notice ‘stove’.  The microwave will render your chicken jello into luke-warm gruel.

And no one likes gruel.

How does one avoid said gruel transformation?  You hold off on the rice, pasta or noodles until serving time.  More work?  Sure it is.  But if you want your next batch of carcass soup to be eaten and not sit in the fridge until it becomes a science project, you’ll gladly make them on the side.

5 reasons why camping on the beach sucks

I get the impression that a lot of folks think camping on the beach is all sunshine, lollipops, rainbows and kittens.

Well, maybe more like a two or three day long tiki party.  You know, bamboo huts, pineapples, coconuts, fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them, the picturesque sand dunes with the grass growing on top that waves in the refreshing ocean breeze.

Truth of the matter is that camping on the beach sucks.  Even if the weather is perfect, you still have some serious inherent beach characteristics to deal with.

The relentless sun.  Make no mistake, the sun is brutal on the beach.  More so when there is little or no overhead cover.  Sunscreen will go a long way towards keeping you from burning, but nothing like some good shade.  Go inside the tent?  Sure, it will only be a sweltering hot box filled with humid, stifling, stale air.  The tent walls will block any breeze there might be.  You will stew in your own sweat, the only respite being salty sea water.  Salt lines will form wherever clothing meets flesh.  Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen when you get out of the water.

The sand. That’s what makes camping on the beach so cool, right?  At least when the sun is down.  When the sun is up it will be hot, dry, shifting, offering no traction as you lug your gear across.

And you brought a lot of gear, didn’t you?  Surely an extra cooler or two because ice melts so fast on the beach.

You remember those movies about the French Foreign Legion?  You want to know why those guys were so tough?  It was from marching in the shifting sand under the brutal sun all day.

The sand will infiltrate everything you have – food, drinks, tent, clothes, camera, towels, undergarments, nether regions.  Nothing will be safe.  Sand will swirl at the bottom of your cup, coat the back of your legs, crunch between your teeth.

Issues with tartar buildup on your teeth? You won’t after a weekend camping out on the beach.

Another thing about the sand – it doesn’t hold heat.  So, although you roasted all day like a salmon fillet on the grill, at night you will freeze your ass off.

Face it, you’re screwed.

Ferocious bugs.  Remember the picturesque sand dunes and the waving dune grass?  That is where the resident evil population of insects live and breed.

Blood sucking green heads and biting flies will feast on your tender sunburned flesh like an underfed poor kid at a pig roast.  They will laugh as you swat at them, nimbly dodging your lame hand and landing back down, out of reach and quickly biting you a second time before you can recover from the first swat.

Mosquitoes will send out viral emails to everyone they know and a flash mob will gather about your person at dusk.

Bug repellent?  It works, to a point.  But it also acts like a spray on adhesive for the sand.  And don’t spray it in or near the tent, it melts the fabric.  Anyplace else, the wind blows it away from your body.

Lotion? Surely you jest.  After you squirt some into your hands and slather your body you will try to pick something up out of the sand and find that lotion is like a sand magnet.  That, or try to pick up your sweaty beverage and find that lotion is also a really good water based lubricant.  Of course, you could always grab a handful of sand to get some traction.

Again,  you’re screwed.

No firewood.  No camping trip is complete without a fire.  Certainly no beach camping trip.  You’re obligated.  And screwed.

Most beaches that I have seen are devoid of firewood.  If you are even allowed to have a fire, you must bring your own firewood.  You will have lug all of it across the same sand that drags at your every step.

Even if you are in an area where wood is plentiful, you still have to cut and haul it across the sand.  You remembered to bring your wood cutting tools, right?  Have fun with that.

Unpredictable weather.  Sudden, fierce storms blow up quick off of the ocean.  And when they do all beach denizens scatter for well constructed shelter, namely their homes or motel rooms;  dwellings that survive wind blown rain, lightening and occasional hail just fine.

But you and your peeps are in a tent, on the beach, covered in sand, drunk, down a pint of blood due to biting flies and exposed to the elements, as is all of your gear and your firewood.

Did I mention the being screwed part?

There are no bathrooms, of course.  So you’ll have to duck into a sand dune.  Of course, the dunes are full of biting flies and green heads,  so,  good luck with that.

%d bloggers like this: