I was well into my 30s before I stumbled upon the meaty tradition of Sunday gravy, and the discovery of this rich, wonderful pasta sauce made me pine for the Italian grandmother I never had. Since there is no Nonna for me to base my Sunday gravy on, I’ve adapted this free-form recipe, which I usually turn to about this time of year. I’ve found Sunday gravy is the perfect meal to soothe the anxious boredom that inevitably manifests itself now that most hunting seasons have come to a close.
The key to Sunday gravy is the meat. The all-day braise calls for tough and tasty cuts like venison shoulder, pheasant, or turkey legs (on or off the bone) and fresh, cased sausage, preferably of Italian descent. If you have any wild hog, such as some type of chop, put it in there too. These all get browned in olive oil, then set aside while an array of aromatics are sauteed in the rendered fat. From start to finish, I do this all in my Dutch oven and can think of no higher calling for cast-iron.
Once the diced onion, celery, green peppers and carrots are soft, in goes several cloves of minced garlic and–a few seconds later–a couple glugs of good red wine. As the wine simmers, scrape up any brown bits, which food snobs call the fond, with a wooden spoon. When the wine is reduced by about half, dump in a quart jar of tomatoes from last summer’s garden if you have them, or a 28-ounce can of store bought tomatoes. (San Marzanos are good if you can find them, otherwise any old tomato will do.) Crush them a bit with the back of the wooden spoon. You can also stir in some tomato paste if you have it, along with several pinches of kosher salt, lots of black pepper, and about a tablespoon each of dried oregano and thyme.
As the liquid comes up to a high simmer, add the bigger cuts of meat back in. (The sausage gets added in closer to the end of the cooking time.) Lower the heat, cover the Dutch oven and let everything slowly simmer as long you can stand it, preferably no less than 4 hours. Stir the Sunday gravy every now and again and if it seems like things are getting too thick add a little bit, about ¼ cup, of venison or chicken stock.
About 30 minutes before it’s time to eat, use your wooden spoon or a couple of forks to shred the meat. It should easily fall apart. Remove any bones, then slice the reserved sausages in half and add them back to the pot, along with any fresh herbs you have on hand (I’m thinking some basil here). Now’s a good time to start the pasta as well. Opt for hearty shape with some ridges to soak up the sauce, like a penne or rigatoni. Serve everything with several slices good bread on the side to wipe the bowl clean with.