Across the Cutting Board with Ris

Cooking with Bob Juliano

By Ari Post, with recipes by Ris Lacoste Ari Post | March 11th, 2011 | 3 comments |
Bob Juliano's Gravy and Meatballs
Ari Post
Bob Juliano's Gravy and Meatballs

Since Ris first brought me into her kitchen, she has told me the tales of Bob Juliano. Powerhouse lobbyist for almost forty years and an unmistakable Chicago native, Bob has been following Ris around since her days at Kinkead’s. Call it a culinary crush. This is a man who has gone to bat with the big boys of Washington, including the Executive Branch, usually fighting for the rights of the working class; he once successfully represented a coal industry coalition on legislation that protected the health care benefits of some 120,000 retired miners. He calls Rahm Emanuel an “old friend.”

What Rahm probably doesn’t know is that Bob makes a mean marinara sauce.

But don’t call it marinara sauce in front of Bob. To him, that’s like wearing a White Sox hat to a Cubs game: supreme ignorance of his hometown culture. If you ask for sauce in a proper Chicago-Italian establishment, he tells me, “They’d ask you what the hell you were talking about.” In Chicago, marinara sauce is gravy. And his has plenty of tomatoes and plenty of vodka. This emphatic adhesion to culture, tradition and flavor is what we would call food culture.

Ris speaks endlessly about the food culture of Washington, and the challenges of defining the palette of a migratory population such as our own. We are a city filled with ambassadors, senators, commuters, news reporters and tourists. Every morning hoards of people flock into the District, and every evening just as many flock out. Even the President, the defining presence of the city, is only here for a few years before grabbing one last half-smoke at Ben’s Chili Bowl and waving goodbye.

Establishing a local food culture is Ris’ enduring crusade, and one that she tackles daily in her kitchen. Her daily soup calendar, for instance, offers different soups every day, drawing inspiration from the regional cuisines of innumerable cultures, much like Washington itself. Come in one day for homestyle New England clam chowder, and go in the next for Thai duck soup. And Wednesday, just so you know, is Italian day.

It is clear that Ris has something of a soft spot for Italian food. Her specials every Wednesday are steeped in Italy’s culinary traditions, which she clearly takes quite seriously. Her gnudi, little dumplings of ricotta, are some of the best things I have ever eaten. She even has a resident pasta maker, Pinat, a native Italian, who is always churning out fresh, handmade cavatelli and spaghetti whenever I come visit the kitchen. The elegant simplicity of Italian cuisine brings out the best of local, fresh produce, and requires high quality, richly flavorful ingredients—all the things important to Ris and vital to a healthy food culture.

Ris had been anxious to consult with Bob, now an old friend, on her own gravy and meatballs. In a curious way, this is perhaps right on the pulse of Washington’s food culture. Start with a traditional recipe from the motherland. Bring it over to America through an immigrant family who hands it down to the son, who in turn grows up to work in government affairs, commuting between the nation’s capital and his hometown Chicago. The son meets a local chef in Washington and shares his family recipe with her. The chef introduces this recipe to the city, combining politics, commuting, immigration, migration and international cultural identity, melding tradition and progression to give the melting pot metaphor some literal and delicious grounding.

As he cooked, Bob kept his face nearly submerged in the pot, perpetually smelling, tasting and adjusting the seasoning of his gravy. A dash of vodka, a sprinkle of fennel, a pinch of sugar. This taste was inoperably engrained in his memory, and it was just a matter of striking the right balance of seasonings, waiting for his tongue to register their harmony. Ris, now the acquisitive student, would dive in with him occasionally, asking questions, offering praise and frankly just having a good time. “My friends said I was crazy, going to cook for one of the best chefs in the country,” Bob said. “But I figured she’s French Canadian and I’m Italian. So what’s the problem?”

Both Bob and Ris agreed that the key to great marinara/gravy is to let it sit and simmer for hours. And make sure to have leftovers. “As the flavors coalesce,” Ris said, “the gravy should get better every day.”

The sauce was surprisingly soft in flavor, the fennel and the vodka adding a beautiful depth to the sweetness of the tomatoes. The delicate flavor of the meatballs, a mixture of beef, pork and veal, showcased the rare versatility of meat in a more subtle, secondary role. Really it was about the tomatoes, the seasoning and the patient simmering. But most importantly, it was about the tradition.

Bob Juliano’s Gravy

I think the key to making good gravy, after watching Bob Juliano in my kitchen, is to never take your eyes off the pot. All of that love and energy directed to the sizzling of onions and garlic in olive oil, the asphyxiating aromas, a heavenly drug in itself….

3 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons garlic, minced
1 cup onions, diced
Sprinkling of salt and pepper
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon fennel seed
½ Tablespoon red pepper flake
½ Tablespoon dried thyme
1 can, 35 ounce, whole San Marzano plum tomatoes
1 can, 28 ounce, crushed tomatoes
1 can, 6 ounce, Contadina tomato paste
4 ounces vodka
More salt and pepper
More fennel seed
1 Tablespoon sugar, or to taste

Warm a heavy-based sauce pot over medium heat. Add the oil and then the garlic and stir constantly with a wooden spoon. When softened and the oil is flavored by the garlic, add the onions and keep stirring until onions are soft. Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.

Add the seasonings and stir some more. This initial cooking of the oil and aromatics takes about 15 minutes, with constant adoration. Stick your head in the pot on occasion to take in the splendor.

Add the plum tomatoes by hand crushing each one into the pot. Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste and stir well. Add the vodka and more salt and pepper. Taste and adjust to preference with more fennel seed, red pepper flake, thyme leaves, etc. Simmer gently for 30 minutes, with a stir and a whiff every now and then. Add the meatballs (or sausages/veal chops/pork ribs) to the gravy and let cook about 15-20 minutes longer until meatballs are just cooked through. Every tomato will vary in flavor and acidity. Adjust final seasoning with all of your spices and with some sugar and even a dash more vodka. Do know that the gravy will taste even better the next day.

Bob Juliano’s Meatballs

1 ½lb ground meat, freshly ground, if possible: mixture of 3 parts beef, 2 parts pork, 1 part veal = 12 ounces beef, 8 ounces pork, 4 ounces veal
2 whole eggs
¾ cup fresh chopped Italian parsley
1 Tablespoon garlic, minced
1 ¾ cup Italian bread crumbs
½ Tablsepoon dried oregano
½ cup grated parmesean reggiano
Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients. Make a sample patty to taste for seasoning and cook in a sauté pan or in the oven if it is on. Adjust seasonings to taste. Form into twelve 2-ounce meatballs. Throw in the gravy and cook until done.

Bob Juliano’s Bolognese Sauce

1/3 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons garlic, minced
1 cup carrots, diced
1 cup onions, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
½ Tablespoon dried thyme
2 pinches sugar
Salt and fresh cracked black pepper
1 ½” ground meat, freshly ground, if possible
mixture of 3 parts beef, 2 parts pork, 1 part veal = 12 ounces beef, 8 ounces pork, 4 ounces veal
salt and fresh cracked black pepper
1 Tablespoon fennel seed
I can, 35 ounce, whole San Marzano plum tomatoes
1 can, 28 ounce, crushed tomatoes
1 can, 6 ounce, Contadina tomato paste
More salt and pepper
More fennel seed
More dried thyme
½ Tablespoon red pepper flake
1 Tablespoon sugar, or to taste
Dash of vodka, why not?

Warm a heavy-based saucepot over medium heat. Add the oil and then the garlic and stir constantly with a wooden spoon. When softened and the oil is flavored by the garlic, add the carrots, onions and celery and just keep stirring until onions are soft. Season with the oregano, thyme, sugar, salt and pepper. Stir and take it all in as above.

Add the ground meat. Stir to break into chunks and mix in with the cooked vegetables. Season with salt and pepper. Add the fennel seed and cook, stirring often, never leaving the pot, breathe in the aromas, until the meat is browned.

Hand crush the whole tomatoes in to the pot and stir in the crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. Add the seasonings, and let cook 30-40 minutes, gently simmering, until delicious. Stay with it. Stir and smell. Adjust seasoning at end. Again, save for tomorrow, if you can wait.

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