If there’s one condiment Southerners treat with great respect, it’s gravy. So much so that the Southern Foodways Alliance named its quarterly journal after the savory dressing. For the next four weeks, Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook, will share her favorite gravy recipes in the SFA series Inside the Boat.
Gravy made from the sticky leavings in a skillet is alchemy. Can anything more be made from less? Gravy believes that grease is good.
In the hands of skilled Southern home cooks, gravy manifests the art of sauce making. However, unlike prim sauces driven by technique, generous gravy is driven by hunger. Chefs make sauce. Cooks make gravy.
All Southerners recognize gravy when they see it, but they’re not all necessarily looking at the same thing. Consider tomato gravy. Some people have never heard of it. Others have, but they interpret it differently. In some parts of the South—say, in and around New Orleans—tomato gravy is “red gravy,” a roux-thickened tomato sauce with Sicilian roots, scented with herbs and blessed by the holy trinity. In the Mountain South, tomato gravy is a type of pan gravy made after something has been fried.
Pan gravy is incredibly straightforward, requiring nothing more than drippings for flavor, roux for thickening, liquid for deglazing and volume, and maybe some seasoning, at least salt and pepper.
As with other pan gravies that capitalize on the drippings du jour, tomato gravy starts with frying some type of flavorful meat, usually bacon—although chicken, fish, pork chops, and the like are fine. Any amount of fried protein, no matter how meager, will leave some delicious debris and drippings in the bottom of the skillet. (The culinary term for this tasty residue is fond. My grandmother called it “the goody.”) Gravy captures and extends every last drop of that good flavor.
Instead of stock or milk, tomato gravy is made with finely chopped tomatoes and their juices. Tomato gravy demands (and deserves) the most delicious tomatoes available at the moment. In the high holy season of supple, juicy, sun-ripened local tomatoes, use them. In the unholy season of rock-hard, pale, soulless, far-fetched tomatoes, forget them. Use canned tomatoes instead, either home-canned or thoughtfully purchased.
Hot tomato gravy is good ladled over starches, such as biscuits, rice, grits, and potatoes, as well as whatever you fried in the first place.
Tomato Pan Gravy
If you are frying bacon to get the 3 tablespoons of drippings, you’ll need about 8 ounces. Set aside the crisp bacon to sprinkle over the gravy just before serving.
Instant flour is a type of all-purpose flour designed to use in gravies and sauces. You cannot get the stuff to lump. It comes in a small cylindrical canister, not a bag, and is available in most grocery stores right next to the other types of flour.
Whether your tomatoes are fresh or canned, if their flavor isn’t as bold as you’d hoped, boost them with a little tomato paste.
Makes about 4 cups
3 tablespoons bacon drippings or other pan drippings
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to taste
4 tablespoons instant or all-purpose flour
4 cups finely chopped fresh or canned plum tomatoes, with their juices
1 to 2 tablespoons tomato paste, as needed
1/2 cup stock or whole milk, warmed, as needed
Ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat the drippings in a large, heavy skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion and salt. Cook, stirring often, until softened, about 6 minutes.
2. Sprinkle in the flour and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat if the flour starts to scorch.
3. Stir in the tomatoes and their juices. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring often, until the gravy thickens, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste if needed.
4. Depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes, you might need to thin the gravy with some of the warm stock. Add it in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly until you reach the desired consistency.
5. Taste for salt. Season with plenty of pepper. Serve hot.
Sheri Castle is a food writer, cooking teacher, and author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and is fueled by farmers’ market fare, good stories, and excellent bourbon.