Cooking for the Cooking Impaired: Lesson #1 – A Pot of Gravy

For those of you who can handle themselves in the kitchen, you can probably stop reading at this point. I’ll give you a moment or two to go on surfing.

Hum de dum dum

* taps fingers on desk *

Are they gone now? Fine. For those who are still reading, you are just like me. I wasn’t a natural in the kitchen. My mom was (and still is) a recipe cook; she was not a ‘cook from scratch’-kind of person. I also never really hung around in the kitchen as a child, so I didn’t pick up any cooking skills. I worried about boiling water. Seriously. When Lisa and I spent out first summer living together, wayyyyyy back in the summer of 1991, she asked me to make Rice-A-Roni, and I had trouble with the instructions on the box. Seriously.

Thank goodness for Lisa. Lisa learned her cooking from Grandma Fusco and her mom, who were both capable of grabbing anything out of the fridge and making dinner. They cooked by taste. Having someone who can cook by taste as a coach, which is what Lisa became for me, has been such a gift. Now, I can scan the fridge and pantry without any help and throw together a meal – and one that tastes pretty good.

So for those who enjoy food but are afraid of the kitchen, I come to you as one who has been there and burned that. Every so often I will present a simple (and I do mean simple) recipe you can make that will help take the fear out of cooking.

In our house, we don’t make tomato sauce: we put on a pot of gravy. I learned this early on when I became a part of Lisa’s family, and now it sounds weird saying it any other way. I learned this recipe from Lisa, who had learned it from Grandma Fusco. Learn to make a pot of gravy and you’ll never go hungry.


1 6oz can of tomato paste
2-3  29oz cans of tomato puree
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, pressed or finely chopped
garlic powder
Yes, we’re using canned tomato products. Remember, this is an easy recipe. If you’re making gravy for the first time, don’t get too caught up in what brand of paste and puree to buy. Over time, you’ll find the brands you like. I will say that if you can find the Jersey Fresh puree, by all means get that.

Grab one of your big pots, preferably one with a thick bottom, and put the heat on medium to medium high. Put in your olive oil.

Give the heat a couple of minutes to take some of the viscosity out of the oil. Then pick up your pot and give the oil a good swirl, covering the whole bottom. Once you have the bottom covered and you just start to see a little trace of smoke, add your garlic.

What you’re now going to do is sweat the garlic. Grandma Fusco would say to sfriche the garlic. It’s not quite a saute; we want to move the garlic around until you just start to see a few hints of golden brown color. If you see a lot of brown, you’ve burned the garlic and the smell will be awful. Trust me of this one. For this step, you want to stick by your pot and watch closely as you move the garlic around.

Once you get your golden brown color, dump in your can of tomato paste. Then immediately fill the empty can with water and dump that right in as well. Stir the paste, water and garlic until well combined, like this:

You have now completed the hardest part of the whole recipe. If your garlic didn’t burn, you’re pretty much in the clear.

Now we need to add the puree. As with the paste, add your can of puree and then fill your can with water and add that to the pot. Stir until all components are well combined. If you’re making a larger amount, you can add additional cans of puree, so long as you add the water as well.

Now it’s time to add our herbs and spices. You’ll notice that I did not put any measurements in the recipe. This is because the amounts you will add will be based on your tastebuds. Yes, we’re going to rely on our taste. Don’t be scared; trust me – unless you dump a whole container of salt into the pot, you’re not going to screw things up beyond repair.

Start with the salt. See the amount in that big meaty paw I call a hand? Start with that amount and dump it in. It’s better to add less than what you think and be able to add more than to put in too much to start.

Next comes the basil. If you have fresh basil, chop up a small handful of leaves (it can be a rough chop – don’t worry about how nice they look) and add them to the pot. I did not have fresh, so I used dry. The basil is going to add to the sweetness of your sauce, so keep that in mind. Please – do NOT add sugar.

Now the oregano. I don’t add a lot to my sauce because I find the bitterness can be too overwhelming. As they say, your mileage may vary.

Last but not least, some garlic powder to add a little extra garlic flavor.

And now, lid up your pot, turn the heat down to a low simmer, and let the low and slow heat do its thing.

How long do you let the gravy simmer? You have to allow for at least 2 hours. If you can let it go all day, stirring it every once in a while, that would be even better. As the water is taken out, the flavors will intensify. Don’t skip adding the water though – it allows you to cook your gravy low and slow without worrying about burning the bottom. And having a pot of gravy simmer all day is good aromatherapy – you can never be down when you can smell gravy simmering.

As you get more comfortable, feel free to add other flavors. Red pepper flakes are great if you like your gravy a little spicy. Red wine can add another layer of richness. Brown up some ground beef and add to the pot for a meatier gravy. Chop up some onions and add them along with the garlic add another texture and flavor.

So now you can make gravy. Pastas and pizzas are within reach. And once you learn to make your own meatballs, you’ll be a regular culinary ninja!

– John

4 thoughts on “Cooking for the Cooking Impaired: Lesson #1 – A Pot of Gravy

  1. So true about the aromatherapy! Everyone should have a great tomato sauce/gravy recipe that they can make on a Sunday at home.

  2. I still have to remember that here in Joisey you call tomato sauce…’Gravy’, when I grew up to make a good gravy was to saute some meat scraps and until brown, add flour and stock; until thickens, lolBut I can live with your ‘gravy’! The best is the country!!!

  3. Pingback: Osso Bucco, Baby!

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