New Orleans Red Gravy

"Ya want spaghetti and red gravy wit' dat?"

A question heard at places like Mandina's, Liuzza's and myriad other Creole-Italian joints in New Orleans, as well as in myriad households throughout the city. One of the great components of New Orleans cuisine was that which was given to us by immigrants from Italy (primarly from Sicily) in the latter part of the 19th Century, and the southern Italians brought tomato gravy with them to the Crescent City.

In New Orleans, this simple basic tomato sauce is just called "red gravy", and is often found served over spaghetti as a side dish along with many Creole-Italian entrées. It's very versatile, though; you can serve it over any other kind of pasta, over baked or pannéd chicken, fish, even smoked sausage (although for sausage I prefer a similar but slightly less Italian Creole gravy).

My own touch to this local classic is the addition of tomato paste which is cooked and browned slightly, thus caramelizing the sugars and adding an additional depth of flavor. I also like to use a really good fruity extra-virgin olive oil if it's available; the flavor can't be beat. Make sure you don't burn your garlic in the first step, or it'll get unpleasantly bitter.

And don't even think about garlic from a jar, or garlic powder. As I write this I'm cursing in Italian at the very idea of such a thing. Somebody's Nonna would slap you for that, too.

The recipe easily doubles; make plenty and freeze the rest to have on hand whenever you need red gravy (and if you're living a properly ordered life, you'll find the need for it often).

Place the olive oil, sliced garlic cloves, and 2 of the bay leaves in a 2-quart saucepan. Brown garlic on both sides over medium heat, about 2 to 3 minutes, stirring often. Remove garlic from pan. Add the onions to the pan and sauté over medium-low heat until onion edges start to brown (DON'T burn it!), about 6 to 8 minutes, stirring frequently. You're caramelizing here, not burning.

Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the onions. Cook the tomato paste with the onions until the color deepens slightly to a red mahogany color. Add the remaining bay leaf and all other ingredients. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat if necessary to maintain a very low simmer and cook for about one hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaves before serving.

YIELD: About 6 cups


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Chuck Taggart   email chuck (at) gumbopages (dot) com