How my father learned to cook (Recipe: traditional spaghetti gravy)
Guest post and photos by Sarah in Boston.
When my mother passed away, two days before their anniversary, she and my dad had been married almost 15 years.
While I doubt he ever got over the shock, my dad stepped into the role of single parent and, all things considered, he did a pretty good job. As we moved through those first weeks, one thing that became apparent was that he didn’t really know how to feed two growing daughters. His ideal pantry consisted of dried Great Northern beans, rosemary, sage, bay leaf, table salt, rock salt, pepper, onions, chicken broth and elbow macaroni.
After the funeral my maternal grandmother offered to stay on for a couple of weeks to help him design a week’s worth of recipes. They’d work with what he knew and incorporate some of what she called her "tricks". I can still see them sitting across the table from each other, supposedly talking about food, eating hot pickled peppers, the tears running down their cheeks, laughing and goading each other like kids trying to see who could eat the most.
I don’t know what my grandmother thought we would be eating when she left, but our weekly menu went something like this:
Monday: tomato gravy with elbow macaroni, some kind of sausage, and “greens”.
Tuesday: tomato gravy with elbow macaroni and white beans.
Wednesday: tomato gravy with elbow macaroni and ground beef and onions. (During deer season it would be venison.)
Thursday: all the leftovers added together.
Friday: minute steak sandwiches and fresh bakery donuts.
Preparation was always the same. Sunday after church we would go to Tom’s Market for ground steak, sausages, and the rest of the week’s supplies. In the evening my dad would cook two boxes of elbow macaroni, slather it with butter, and put it in the refrigerator in a green Tupperware bowl with a snap lid.
He would start spaghetti gravy and cook it for about 6 hours during the evening while he did his paperwork for the upcoming work week. At first he would start the 24-hour soak of beans to be cooked the following night, but eventually he discovered precooked Great Northerns in a jar.
We all appreciated the change. Dad had never learned the tricks for how to reduce that gassy feeling that comes sometimes when dried beans are used.
Grandma Colonnese's traditional spaghetti gravy, fine-tuned by my dad and now me
Grandma cooked the gravy for days; it never seemed to come off the stove, just ladles full taken from the pot for meals with leftover dinner meats added. Her recipe serves 10-12.
In a stockpot, heat 1 Tbsp lard. (I know, but Dad loved it and refused to use oil. I suggest covering the bottom of the pot with olive oil.)
Cook 2 slabs of Canadian bacon, or 3 strips of regular bacon.
1 medium onion, chopped
4-6 cloves of garlic. (He used garlic powder, but I prefer fresh garlic.)
(If you’re making a spicier sauce, this is the time to add some chopped hot peppers.)
1 apple, cored and peeled (Dad preferred Rome apples.)
1 medium zucchini or yellow squash, peeled and chopped fine
In a separate bowl, mix thoroughly:
1 cup of chicken broth
1 6-oz can tomato paste
Once the onions are translucent and the zucchini and apple are soft, add the tomato mixture.
Add 5 or 6 plum tomatoes, or 1 32-oz can of stewed tomatoes
Add any or all of the following cooked meats (NOT RAW): pork chop, sausage, chicken, lamb (Dad used whatever we had leftover.)
Add approximately 1/2 cup sugar, to cut the acidity from fresh tomatoes (If your canned tomatoes are already sweetened, add less sugar, to taste.)
Finally, add: 2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine (I think Dad used Chianti; I use red table wine.)
A handful of oregano and basil (1 cup if fresh, chopped fine, or half as much dried sweet basil)
1/2 cup fresh parsley, or 2 Tbsp dry
Let simmer 3 to 4 hours, or a couple of days.