The best of all gravies is broiled steak juice that follows the knife and collects in the hot platter, mingled with the dribblings of butter which was spread on the sizzling meat when it was taken from the grill. Even though one can have a steak like that, there is never enough dish gravy to give each person more than a taste. So this great, natural gravy is something to think about wistfully, rather than to eat.
Next best is the essence of meat that flows out of it during the process of cooking, and even this must be stretched to go around. By the time it is increased by thinning, and then is thickened with tasteless flour, it too often serves no other purpose than to wet the food it is spooned over. To make up for its deficiencies, store catsup, or some other expensive commercial condiment, is put on the table to pep things up, thus adding one more item to the budget which would not be necessary were the meat's natural dressing all it should be.
The first requisite for a good gravy is a good gravy maker, one who is not too hurried and flurried at the moment of taking up a meal to give the crowning sauce all the care and quick thought it demands. The next requisite is a wooden spoon to stir it with, and a small collection of herbs and seasonings to give it inspiration. Such a gravy maker knows that the pan liquid should never be diluted with plain water.
Vegetables are usually cooking in other vessels on the stove, and it is just as easy to take some of the tasty broth from boiling potatoes, or peas, or string beans, as to reach for the tea kettle. She will also save for this purpose the liquids in which foods were cooked for former meals. A cup of leftover soup will come in handy, too, and, of course, milk for veal and chicken. Anything to add flavor instead of weakening it.
There are three ways to thicken a gravy with flour:
(i) Work the flour smooth in a little liquid, strain as an extra precaution against lumps, and pour into the simmering pot liquor slowly, stirring carefully all the while until thick and smooth. This procedure is suitable only for stews and fricassees which are already fully seasoned and which will be served in the gravy. The solid portions should be lifted out with a skimmer, kept hot, and returned to the pot for a few minutes for a final immersion in the simmering sauce before serving.
(2) Knead equal quantities of flour and butter, or fat, together, and drop tiny bits of the mixture into the pot, here and there, shaking or otherwise agitating the liquid so the lumps dissolve evenly and mingle smoothly with the whole. This way is appropriate for a mixture of meat and vegetables which cannot be skimmed out easily before gravy-making begins, or for fish slices or other foods of such delicate texture that their appearance is spoiled by too much handling.
In using either of these first two methods one should make absolutely sure there are no lumps, and that the consistency is right, neither too thick nor too thin. And then the solids and liquid should simmer together for at least 15 minutes in order to completely cook the starch, and to let it make a coating over each morsel.
(3) In a separate sauce pan or frying pan, fat and flour are cooked together over heat so low that they may simmer for 15 minutes without scorching. Gravies for roasts, pot-roasts, and ragouts, are best made in this manner, with some of the fat skimmed from pot or roasting pan. The general rule for quantities is i tablespoon of fat to I tablespoon of flour, and i cup of liquid. The thorough cooking of flour and fat together before the liquid is added prevents the pastiness that is characteristic of bad gravies. It is obvious that this part of the process should begin before the meat is quite done.
The careless gravy maker errs right here, by starting so late that either the gravy is stickily underdone, or the meat is drying out in the oven while she is patiently stirring, seasoning, and straining the gravy. Before this final cooking, the gravy should be tasted, and here is where the artistry comes in. While the tongue is holding the flavor, the cook stands before her seasoning
shelf, so that inspiration may decide just what touch of this or that will make the composition perfect. For flavor is what one craves in a gravy, not too much, but just enough to enhance the food it accompanies. Our seasoning shelf for sauces contains such simple things as these: a glass jar of dried celery leaves, another of dried parsley, others containing thyme, marjoram, sage, etc.; a sifter of dried chili peppers, to be crumbled between the hands; a shaker of celery salt; a bottle of red chili peppers in vinegar; soy sauce from Chinatown — cheaper than Worcestershire; a jar of tomato paste bought in bulk at an Italian grocery, with a little oil always poured over the surface to keep it moist and fresh; paprika — the best Hungarian is cheap and wonderful, but buy it in bulk; whole peppers to be twisted in a corner of cloth and crushed to give real pepper flavor; beef and chicken cubes, of which the Herb-Ox brand is the best weVe found. It has appetizing green specks of tangy herbs in it.
No milk gravy for meats should ever turn out white. It should be tawny with delicately browned flour, or pale pink with paprika. And it should have an appetizing flavor of its own, imparted by celery leaves, or parsley, or a little grated onion — whatever goes best with the meat.
For dark gravies the French have a trick we have adopted. We very slowly fry a minced onion in about 2 tablespoons of the meat fat, cover the pan and let the onion merely smother until nearly done, sprinkle in the flour — about a tablespoonful — through a sieve; stir and fry for 5 minutes. The liquid goes in then, and stirring is vigorous until all are well mixed. It must simmer for 10 minutes longer, be occasionally stirred, and finally finished by straining. French cooks sometimes fry a grated small carrot with the onion, and drop in a little chopped celery before simmering. The result is truly tasty. Try it and you'll see why they do it.