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While your nonna might have stood all day over a huge saucepan, dutifully stirring the chunks of sausage, ribs, braciole, and meatballs swimming in a rich red sauce to make her Sunday gravy, today we have the advantages of technology to take some of the work out of it. There's a reason the dish is a mainstay in Italian-American culture, and as I sit here typing, eating the leftovers for breakfast, that reason is obvious: This is about as soul-satisfyingly delicious as comfort food gets. It's a celebratory meal—both hearty and humble at once.
This is the kind of dish that sparks adamant opinions about what's right and wrong. It's the sort of thing that's probably never made the same way twice. And that's okay. Some versions include pork neck bones and spareribs. Veal stew meat, veal shoulder chops, and pork sausages are other common add-ins. For me, meatballs are a must
One of the keys to a good Sunday meat sauce is to have a mix of meats, all adding different flavors and textures. My version uses a flank steak braciole, Italian sausage, tender meatballs, and pork ribs, along with a mix of vegetables and red sauce. Let's go through each individual ingredient.
In my mind, braciole—rolled meat stuffed with an herbaceous, garlicky bread crumb mixture—is a must. With a small amount of effort, the payoff is big: the meat simmers in the sauce until it's fall-apart tender, imparting flavor as it yields. Some recipes favor top round, but I find it's too tough. Flank steak provides much better texture and flavor. I also like to roll my flank steak with the grain, so that when you serve it, it can break apart into tender shreds.
For the sausage, choose whatever Italian sausage you prefer. I, for one, like it hot. Incorporating something with bones is helpful flavor-wise; I'd recommend pork ribs to get that job done. Just remove the bones before serving, and return the meat to the sauce. I brown my braciole, sausage, and ribs before adding them to the sauce.
"I save the meatballs for the end, adding them to the slow cooker for the final hour before serving the dish"
As for the meatballs, I realize people have strong opinions on how they should be made, and you're welcome to use your own recipe (or perhaps this simple one). Mine include a bit of unflavored gelatin—a Cook's Illustrated trick—to keep them tender. I do not brown mine in advance (there are plenty of browned flavors in this sauce from the other meats), and I intentionally form them extra-large. I had a few issues with the meatballs in the slow cooker—even with low heat, they ended up overcooking and drying out more than I'd like them to. To solve this problem, I save the meatballs for the end, adding them to the slow cooker for the final hour before serving the dish. They come out perfectly moist and tender that way.
This isn't a particularly saucy sauce: the main focus here is on the meats. Only a single can of tomatoes is included, bolstered by a bit of red wine, a generous amount of chicken stock, and a touch of tomato paste to lend body, all flavored with garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Slow cookers tend to mute flavors, so I often like to finish with a dash of vinegar. In this case, balsamic vinegar delivers the kind of flavor-boosting acidity that's invaluable in a forever-cooked dish.
Before long, an amazing smell will fill the house. Odds are, you won't be able to resist the urge to crack open that slow cooker and dunk in a slice of bread or two. But give it a bit more time, and by the time dinner rolls around, you'll start to hear angels sing.