This isn't the kind of "gravy" or "sauce" that you serve with pasta, just a creamy white sauce with chopped tomatoes, cooked up in a cast iron skillet and served over split buttermilk biscuits. It's the kind of comfort food that you put together in late summer, when the homegrown tomatoes on the kitchen windowsill are overripe and plentiful.
I first read about a tomato gravy in the classic cookbook "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Scott Peacock and Edna Lewis. These two top Southern chefs served tomato gravy as a side dish for buttermilk fried chicken and in fact, used the ham-flavored drippings from the chicken to make the gravy. There are times when you want tomato gravy, but not fried chicken, so I made it with butter instead.
This is a warm-your-belly up dish that's just right in summer when your garden (or the local farm stand) is full of red, ripe tomatoes. In winter, use good quality canned tomatoes. And, by all means, pick up a copy of "Gift of Southern Cooking" (Knopf, 2003) and discover classic Southern recipes for the best of summer produce.
June 2018: For an updated headnote, I reached out to Scott Peacock for his thoughts on tomato gravy, and here was his response:
“I remember the first time I made tomato gravy, it was years and years ago in Atlanta. Miss Lewis and I had become friends but it was before she moved to Atlanta and years before we became housemates.
“I was still cooking at the Georgia Governor's mansion and had only recently devoted myself completely to the cause of Southern cooking. I think Miss Lewis was the one who suggested I try my hand at tomato gravy and I found a reference to it in a 1912 Southeastern cookbook that my mother gave me.”
He goes on, “I do think it is best made with fresh garden tomatoes but I appreciate that it is divine in the dead of winter made with top quality canned.” I agree with this. I usually make tomato gravy in summer, but it’s a wonderful dish on cold days when you have a couple cans of tomatoes in the pantry and a hankering for biscuits.
So, where did tomato gravy originate? Chef Peacock continues:
“When Miss Lewis mentioned tomato gravy to me the first time, she said she thought of it as an Alabama recipe. I'm not sure why and at that time she had not yet even been to Alabama. But she knew I was from there and had heard me talk about Slocomb tomatoes, in Geneva County near Hartford where I grew up. That might have been the reason. Regardless, I will always be grateful to her for that suggestion and of course a great deal more.”
(Slocomb tomatoes are new to me, a Southern specialty like Alabama’s famous Chilton County peaches and Georgia’s Vidalia onions.)
~ Many thanks to Scott Peacock for sharing his memories about tomato gravy.
Test Kitchen Notes
If healthful eating or an aversion to canned sauces has you passing on gravy, this recipe will quickly get you back on the wagon (or in the boat). Although Southern in name, the genius tomato base keeps the flavor rich while staying light. The instructions are simple enough for a weeknight dinner and extra shortcuts (like skipping the peeling and seeding of the tomato, if you don’t mind extra “texture”) help further cut down on effort and time. As for substitutions, one tablespoon of oil versus two of butter provides equally creamy results. And when deciding how to serve, there’s of course buttermilk biscuits. But don’t forget that a plate of polenta, pulled chicken, or a simple fried egg also beg to be smothered. —Sodium Girl
clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
large ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
In a heavy skillet over medium heat, melt butter and sauté onion until softened. Add garlic, salt, and pepper and cook for another minute. (I start with about a 1/4 teaspoon of salt and maybe 3 turns of the peppermill.)
Sprinkle the flour over and cook, stirring well for another couple minutes.
Stir in the chopped tomato and cook for five more minutes. Slowly add the milk and bring to a simmer. Taste for seasoning, adjust. Serve warm with split buttermilk biscuits and a side of bacon.