There are always moments in summer when I am overwhelmed by ripe tomatoes, either that I zealously purchased or that my own vines produced. They are demanding, urgent, precarious; when time is short, I regard them meanly. Yet they are, like so much stale bread or figs splitting at their seams, a problem I love to have. They practically obligate me to make tomato gravy.
Tomato gravy, like other gravies, is an exercise in making much out of little. At its most basic, it amounts to tomatoes thickened by fat and flour, seasoned with salt and pepper. In its process, it transforms good tomatoes into something nearly luxurious, the roux rounding and plumping their flavor and giving rise to a rich, satiny sauce.
“Gravy is the great extender,” says Sheri Castle of Chapel Hill, a Southern food writer, cookbook author and reigning gravy authority. In a skillet, it typically picks up where something else left off – a few pieces of bacon or some crumbled sausage, a couple of pork chops or pieces of fish – maximizing both resource and flavor (although it can also be made with reserved renderings or oil).
In tomato gravy, there is the potential to add another element of utility, capitalizing on an ingredient that might otherwise go to waste, the way my grandmother would set aside leftover sliced tomatoes – the ones she always peeled before serving with dinner – and make tomato gravy when she had enough.
Tomato gravy casts a wide net in the South, where geography, economics and other factors have shaped distinct subregional cuisines. Aside from the choices of bacon fat or sausage grease and oil or butter, a cook might use cornmeal as a thickener instead of flour or use no thickener at all, relics of the onetime scarcity of wheat in the mountain South.
Water or stock might be used to thin the gravy, or even milk or cream. The gravy might be spooned over biscuits or corn bread, rice or grits, alongside or on top of anything that came in the skillet before it.
All the same, a name can be misleading. Tomato gravy is not to be confused with the tomato sauce that Italian-Americans call gravy. It also isn’t the same as New Orleans red gravy, a roux-based tomato sauce with distinctly Sicilian roots. Both of those, which can be fortified with red wine, dotted with meatballs and served over pasta dusted with cheese, are long-simmered productions.
Tomato gravy is, as Castle puts it, “a desperation gravy,” something to get on the table fast, without a lot of fuss. When my own gravy needs thinning, I use water, which preserves the tomatoes' bright acidity and helps keep their flavor loud and clear. Once the pert, jade green pods of okra start to come in, I stir them in as well, sliced into coins and cooked just until their color deepens a shade.
But the tomatoes are what give this gravy purpose. Any variety is fine, so long as they are delicious. Their flesh should be juicy and rich-tasting, the flavor up to the same standards you would apply to a BLT. If that flavor is not quite as developed as one might like, Castle suggests adding the boost of a tablespoon or two of tomato paste.
Look for tomatoes that are a day past just-ripe: Think farmers market seconds, the tomatoes you left on your counter a day too long and the ones on the vine with a fat split down the center. They should peel easily and be slightly soft to the touch; these will give you more sweetness and juice, the better for gravy. They also peel and chop into a nice, chunky slurry more easily, although I prefer to grate them on the large-holed side of a box grater straight into a bowl, which means less mess on the cutting board and makes smoother gravy.
As far as the okra, the smaller the better: Their skins will be more tender and their seeds less obtrusive.
My oil-based roux is cooked just long enough to eliminate the taste of raw flour and bring out a sweet, nutty aroma. Minced onion goes in next, to brown softly around its edges, then the tomatoes, which will hit the pan with a sizzle, seizing in some places as they begin to thicken. Keep whisking until the mixture is thoroughly incorporated, then let it bubble gently until it's glossy and thick, adding only enough water to keep the texture smooth.
You will tip in the okra last, before it has a chance to release too many of its viscous juices. If it does, add more water to adjust the consistency. Of course, if you are serving someone who simply cannot abide okra, the gravy will be fine without it.
At serving time, ladle it into wide bowls, with a couple of biscuits or a heap of rice at the center, maybe a bowl of beans on the side. For me, on a warm night, this is plenty.
If you have gravy left over, you can rewarm it on the stove over low heat, adding a little water to loosen it up. Thin it out even more and add rice to make soup. Pour the dregs over some vegetables off the grill. Get every last drop.
Tomato Gravy With Okra
2 pounds ripe tomatoes
2 tablespoons cooking oil (such as refined peanut, sesame or safflower oil)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 medium or 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or more as needed
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
1/2 cup water (optional)
5 1/2 ounces okra, tops trimmed, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick slices
Slice off the very tops of the tomatoes at the stem end, and remove the cores. Grate the tomatoes (cut sides) on the large-holed side of a box grater seated in a mixing bowl. Discard the skins.
Heat the oil in a large, deep-sided saute pan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth; whisk constantly for 5 to 7 minutes, to form a roux that begins to smell nutty and picks up a little color.
Add the onion and cook for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they begin to lightly brown.
Add the tomatoes, the salt and pepper, stirring thoroughly to incorporate the tomatoes into the roux. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. The gravy should be thick enough to flow from a ladle, but not so thin that it spreads across an entire plate. If the gravy seems too thick, add the water, a few tablespoons at a time.
Stir in the okra; reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until it becomes just tender. Taste, and season with more salt and/or pepper, as needed. Serve over biscuits or corn bread, rice or grits.
Make ahead: The finished gravy can be refrigerated for 3 days. Reheat gently in a heavy pan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and using water to correct the consistency.
Per serving: 140 calories, 3 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 280 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar
Yield: 4 servings (3 cups).