In the latter quarter of the previous century when I was in college, my dorm buddies and I had many bong and beer fueled discussions. Subjects ranged from who was the better detective, Kojak or Baretta, what was the best bathroom reading—and why, Penthouse or Hustler, or which album, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Steely Dan’s “Aja,” or Earth Wind and Fire’s “That’s the Way of the World,” would make it into the top five of best albums of all time list (see the photo below for my pick).
Most of the time, the discussions remained semi-civil. When the subject was the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, it could get very heated. In the hot category, though not as hot as the Yankees-Red Sox discussions, was the debate over sauce or gravy. For some reason, for the Italian-Americans I roomed with, myself included, calling tomato sauce gravy, or vice versa ignited personal passions that boarded on the irrational.
My grandmother immigrated to the States when she was 22 and settled in New Jersey. The sauce she made each Sunday with braciole, meatballs, sausage or any other meats that were around was called sauce or, as she would say, “sugo rosso.” So I am clearly in the tomato sauce corner and, really, until I got to college, never could have imagined that what my grandmother made each Sunday could be called anything but sauce, much less something so…um…earthy…as “gravy.”
When you call it gravy, it makes me wanna holla, throw up both my hands…
In the gravy corner were my friends from Massachusetts and New Jersey. The sauce contingent seemed to be from Connecticut and New York, where I was from. How, I asked when I heard it for the first time, can you put gravy on pasta? Gravy, I always knew as something brownish in color and layered on turkey, roast beef, or meat loaf. This was an affront to my Italian-American sensibilities. The corruption of a basic known culinary term. A gross misuse of nomenclature.
“If you’re really Italian, you call it gravy,” was the insult that was thrown back at me when I confessed my disgust at the vulgarity.
“All I know is that my Italian grandmother calls it sauce…” I insisted.
“You sure she’s Italian,” someone cracked.
At that, a bong might be tipped over. And beer was definitely spilled.
“Come to Worcester and my Nonna will make you a nice gravy,” someone from Mass joked.
“Should I bring the mashed potatoes?” I would shoot back.
The arguments were endless and had no resolution.
“Oh, and one more thing,” a bleary voice from the sauce crowd would chime in. “The Red Sox most definitely suck.”
And just like that, we were onto another of our favorite topics.
Since those days, I’ve still maintained my allegiance to calling sauce what it is…sauce. But over the years I’ve mellowed. I am no longer appalled when I hear someone mistakenly label what my grandmother referred to as sauce as gravy. I get it. It’s what the ill bred were taught. It wasn’t their fault. They were just poorly misinformed about worldly culinary matters.
A gravy/sauce altercation.
As I said earlier, my Grandmother made Sunday sauce with an assortment of meats; pork, beef, sausage, etc. But on a very rare Sunday when none of the above were on hand, she would make the sauce with chicken. Chicken in a Sunday sauce might seem like an anathema, but if you’ve never tried it don’t knock it. The flavor from the chicken, different from the usual meats, gives the sauce heartiness equal to what you might get from red meats but with a slightly smoother taste. It works and not only as an enhancement to the sauce, but also as a way to enjoy the chicken which, after slowly cooked, remains amazingly moist, the sauce practically absorbed into the meat itself.
As part of my willingness to be more accepting to those not as cultured as I, I’ve decided to make a concession by naming what most definitely is a sauce, as gravy. I hereby extend my magnanimity to those I spent countless wasted hours trading insults with and present here, as I sit on my hands so I don’t hold my nose, my recipe for—Pasta with Chicken Gravy.
3 28 ounce can of crushed tomatoes
4 chicken parts (I used two chicken thighs, and two drumsticks, skin on and bone-in)
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
Two tablespoons of olive oil
Quarter cup of red wine
1lb of dried pasta (rigatoni, penne, ziti, preferable)
Salt and pepper to taste
You can make this sauce on the stove top, in fact, it’s probably the best way. If you don’t have the time to stick around the kitchen for hours, a slow cooker works and that’s how I made mine for this recipe. The result, I learned, was equal to what you would accomplish on top of the stove.
In a large frying pan, heat one tablespoon of the olive oil.
Season the chicken parts with salt and pepper. Drop into the hot pan and brown on each side. About two minutes per side. Once the chicken is browned, put it to the side.
Browning the chicken.
Pour the crushed tomatoes into the slow cooker
Throw the garlic into the same frying pan you used for the chicken and cook on medium heat until just lightly brown; two to three minutes. If the pan is dry, add the other tablespoon of oil.
Scrape the oil and garlic into the tomatoes in the slow cooker. Return the frying pan to the stove, turn on to medium-high heat, add about a quarter cup of red wine to deglaze the pan. Cook for about five minutes tops or until the wine cooks down.
Pour whatever liquid and bits from the chicken and garlic remain into the tomatoes in the slow cooker.
Add the browned chicken to the slow cooker.
The “gravy” is now ready to be cooked very slow.
Turn on high for one hour and then set to low for about six hours.
After six hours, if the sauce is too thin for your taste, remove the top, turn to high and cook for another hour or so with the top off until the sauce forms your preferred consistency.
Remove the chicken pieces to a separate platter.
Serve the sauce…I mean gravy…over your favorite pasta.
Top with grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano.
Enjoy, take a look at what’s in the bowl and keep repeating to yourself: “I am eating gravy. I am eating gravy. I am eating gravy.” Say it enough and you might even believe it.
Pasta with chicken gravy