When someone has “too many tomatoes,” their thoughts often turn to making marinara, passata, or soup. But if you’re from the South of the U.S., you might think instead of tomato gravy (not to be confused with Italian Sunday gravy, or Creole-Italian red gravy).
I say “might,” because I am from the South, but did not grow up cooking or eating tomato gravy. My stepmom (who hails from Monroe Country in northern Mississippi) had heard of it, but never made it; my mom (who comes from Natchez, which is farther south, across the river from Louisiana) had “seen it quite a bit” in her childhood, but did not eat it at home, mostly because her mother was, and continues to be, a bit of health nut who avoids roux-based gravies. (No shade to Grandmother Rita. She routinely medals in the senior Olympics and is probably healthier than I am.)
Tomato gravy is something I wish I had grown up eating, because it is delicious. I’m a big fan of roux-based gravies, and a bigger fan of tomatoes and bacon grease, which make up half of the ingredients list. (The other half: water and flour.) Like a lot of Southern cuisine, tomato gravy is a “desperation food,” an economical recipe you turn to when confronted with a glut of tomatoes that are teetering on the edge of overripeness but aren’t yet technically “bad.” They may not be tomato sandwich worthy, but they make a great gravy.
Like most sub-regional cuisine, tomato gravy allows room for variation, even with so few ingredients. You can make the roux with bacon fat, sausage grease, or butter; and thin the gravy with water, stock, or milk. I come from a bacon-fat family (on my father’s side), so choosing the fat for my roux was easy. And while I was tempted by the thought of milk, I decided to go with plain ol’ water, as the extra dairy would only obscure the tomatoes and bacon grease, two flavours that shine in tandem. Again, the idea is to make do with what you have, so don’t make a special trip to the store for specific fats or liquids. If all you have is butter, then make yours with butter. Butter and tomatoes are fast friends.
Tomato gravy is great on biscuits, potatoes, fried pork chops, eggs, or any other food that would benefit from a savoury, slightly sweet and tangy sauce. You could even eat it on pasta. (The Italians won’t approve, but they are not the boss of you, or of tomatoes, for that matter.)
Southern tomato gravy recipe
What you’ll need:
- 2 tablespoons bacon grease
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 large, very ripe tomato, cut in a 1/4-inch dice
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup water
- Melt the bacon grease in a nonreactive pan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir, breaking up the clumps completely. Cook for about five minutes, until the roux turns a pale golden colour a little darker than straw.
- Remove from the heat and add the tomatoes, stirring rapidly to coat them with the roux. Season with salt and stir again, then add the water and return to the burner over medium-low heat. Let simmer until thickened, then give it a taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Serve with biscuits, chicken, eggs, pork chops, potatoes, or anything you’d usually eat with a big spoonful of gravy.
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