There's a lot of casual use of the term "life-changing" when it comes to food, but now I'm a believer. Amen, and pass the tomato gravy!
I first spotted tomato gravy on the menu at Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, Miss., home of The University of Mississippi and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Though I had lived in the South for a few years, I had never heard of the stuff, but fell hard after it blanketed the perfect buttermilk biscuits at this John Currence restaurant that often has a line out the door. It was creamy, with sweet bits of onion and a cayenne pepper kick waking things up. Creole-style, this crazy good tomato gravy is kind of the opposite of a traditional sausage gravy, which is over-the-top rich and satisfying, but can lead to a food coma. The nice people at BBB generously shared the recipe, but it's sized for a commercial kitchen, so I've never made it at home. My life has changed because I now dream about tomato gravy, and crave it in between visits to Oxford.
On a recent trip, this time to the SFA's annual food-focused symposium, I scored a double fix of tomato gravy. The version smothering fried blue gill fish at a memorable lunch cooked by superstar chef Sean Brock and his mother, Renee, was very different than the creamy Creole creation I devoured at breakfast earlier that day. The tomato flavor popped, the rustic sweet notes mellowed by the two other ingredients in this winning trifecta of a recipe: lard and cornmeal.
"What's cool about tomato gravy is that it's a perfect representation of the cuisine of Appalachia, that hillbilly culture where you had to make do with what you had on hand," Brock said in a phone interview. "The cornmeal replaces flour in the roux because we can't grow wheat in the Mountain South, and we've got the lard because we're using every part of the animal."
The mission to reduce waste and to cook homey foods like grandma used to make are one of the hottest trends in the culinary world, not that that's what motivates Brock, who helped start the trend at his restaurants in Charleston, South Carolina, and Nashville, Tenn. "When I first moved to Charleston to go to school, I'd be geeking out with food friends, talking about dishes I loved and they had never heard of things like tomato gravy and Leather Britches. It was like I was speaking a foreign language."
Brock learned a lot of those traditional recipes cooking with his "Gran" and his mother, whose humble, delicious menus centered around using what was grown in the family garden: "I remember going down into the basement when I was a kid. It was a wonderland of preserves and some scary looking things fermenting in crocks."
That included jars of tomatoes, destined for gravy. That simple recipe is featured in Brock's widely lauded cookbook, Heritage. Here's hoping that tomato gravy is the next big thing. It deserves to be.
Big Bad Breakfast's Tomato Gravy
This recipe makes a huge batch, making for a great excuse to have a biscuit brunch, no matter where you live.
1 cup flour
1 cup butter
2 onions, diced
8 tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 1/2 tablespoons dry thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 cups whipping cream
3 cups green onions, chopped
4 cups canned crushed tomatoes
salt and pepper, to taste
Saute diced onions in butter until tender. Add flour and cook the roux for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and season with salt and black pepper, to taste. Saute for a few minutes before adding the crushed tomatoes, thyme and cayenne. Bring to a simmer, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the cream and bring the mixture back up to a simmer and then remove from the heat. Stir in the green onions and serve.
Sean Brock's Tomato Gravy
2 tablespoons bacon fat or lard
2 tablespoons Anson Mills Antebellum Fine White Cornmeal
3 cups home-canned tomatoes, or canned San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon freshly cracked black pepper
Heat the bacon fat in a large nonreactive saucepan over high heat. Stir in the cornmeal with a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat to low and cook,
constantly stirring, until the cornmeal turns a light brown color, about 5 minutes. Using your hands, crush the tomatoes into small bite-sized pieces. Add them to the pan and
stir to combine. Increase the heat to medium, bring the gravy to a simmer, and cook it, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until it is slightly thickened and the cornmeal is soft. Be careful that it is not sticking or scorching. Add the salt and pepper. Hold warm on low heat for up to 1 hour.