Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Good Gravy (Bacon Shallot Herb Gravy)

Thanksgiving is all about tradition, but it's also nice to change things up. Since the stakes are too high to chance an untried recipe, however, my friends and I have taken to a pre-Thanksgiving tradition: hosting a small dinner party to vet new entries to the menu before they have a chance to end in tears. I headed to our test kitchen last week, camera in-hand, to pick the best recipe for this month's article, and this bacon shallot herb gravy was the undisputed star of the evening. I think gravy is an unsung hero on the Thanksgiving table. Certainly most people have a favored recipe, (I have very fond memories of my aunt always making ours with the turkey drippings in the roasting pan, itself), but it's a humble condiment. I'm not sure anyone would cite it as their favorite thing on the table. I aim to change that with this recipe, a simple but stunning offering adapted from Justin Chapple that should please even the most discriminating gourmand. Conversely, if you're the type of person to always prepare gravy from a can, jar, or (God bless you) packet, you need to knock that off immediately and try this recipe, instead.

All aboard the gravy train
Gravy is an ancient tradition so endemic to cooking it claims no specific history or provenance. Gravy is instead typically defined by its base components (meat vs. cream or onion vs. mushroom, for example), or means of thickening. Most classic gravies start with a roux (pronounced "roo"), a cooked paste of fat and flour. This approach helps to fully emulsify the flour, avoiding lumps, while also cooking the flour to develop its color and flavor. The goal is usually a golden-brown, toffee shade and this guarantees no taste of raw flour in the finished product. Other alternatives are beurre manié (French, literally "kneaded butter") a "dough," of sorts, made of equal parts butter and flour that can be added mid-cooking, or a slurry or cornstarch or arrowroot and cold water, stirred in towards the end. While likely the largest time investment, the roux is my preferred method: it's more flavorful and essentially fool-proof, being mostly stirring. The primary pitfalls of gravy-making are lumpiness and thinness: use the roux method to avoid the first and a standard recipe to banish the second. It may seem like a good idea to chuck in an extra cup of orange juice, but it won't do you any favors unless you adjust the other liquids to accommodate.

Holy Trinitity
Gravy acts as a means of polishing up the pan from roasting meat, turning those deeply browned bits adhered to the bottom into deliciously savory sauces. The standard process hits the hot pan with an acid or alcohol (wine, sherry, and brandy are perfect for this), to dissolve away the caramelized goodness. I first arrived at this recipe as a suggestion from my friend Laura.  At her insistence, this is our second year deep frying the turkey, which is delicious, but leaves one conspicuously lacking in a pan of browned bits and roasting juices to make gravy with. This recipe relies on sweet shallots and salty bacon to form the base of the sauce. Use a regular (not non-stick) stainless steel saucepan and you'll have browned bits aplenty.

Shallots and herbs are less wildly popular than bacon, but no less important
I was skeptical, at first. Surely turkey-less gravy can't taste better than the actual roasting juices and home-made stock but, in fact, this version is even better. Despite bacon, shallots, and herbs all having strong flavors, none of them overpower. You can distinctly taste each layer of flavor in the gravy and they act as the perfect complement to just about anything. Our miniature Thanksgiving trial run to double-check the fryolator and test the gravy recipe proved it's equally delicious on roasted meat, Parmesan potatoes, or lemony roasted crucifers of all kinds. You could probably even get it on the pumpkin pie and still have a winning combination. Dinner was punctuated by statements like "pass the potatoes, please, I need an excuse to eat more gravy," and "we should just serve this as a soup!" So, if you experience a gravy disaster and need a last-minute save, want an easy make-ahead recipe to amaze your friends, or simply want to try the best gravy, ever: dig in!

Or dive in, as the case may be
Bacon shallot herb gravy
Adapted from Food & Wine

With no roasting juices required, this gravy is very handy to make up to three days ahead, but it thickens a great deal as it cools. Just be sure to keep a little extra stock (up to half a cup, added slowly as needed) on hand and whisk it as you reheat the gravy. Serves 8.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound thick-cut uncured bacon, finely diced
1 1/2 cups shallots (about 4 large), minced
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup flour
2/3 cup dry white wine
4 cups turkey stock
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 teaspoon fresh sage leaves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves, minced 

In a very large, heavy skillet, warm the oil over medium heat.

Time to add the flour
Add the bacon, shallots, and salt and sauté lightly until the fat renders from the bacon, the shallots turn translucent, and the bacon just starts to take on its red, cooked colors. About 10 minutes.

Sift the flour into the bacon while stirring constantly and continue to stir for 1-2 minutes more. You should have a thick, toffee-colored paste, heavily studded with bacon bits and caramelized shallots.

Boozing it up
Pour in the wine (which will foam and sizzle a great deal) and stir until most of the browned bits are skimmed off the bottom and the wine and flour are incorporated into a thick, creamy mixture.

Stream the stock in very slowly, stirring constantly with a sturdy wire whisk, and pausing between each cup to ensure it's fully incorporated. 

Silky smooth
Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until thickened and reduced by about one third. About 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter, pepper, and herbs. Taste to adjust seasonings, and serve immediately in a heated gravy boat or pitcher.

 This post is also available as an article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.

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