Sunday, January 10, 2010

Simple Pot Roast

Pot roast is the ultimate comfort food–serve mashed potatoes or whipped parsnips along side of it, or hearty, buttered egg noodles. Gravy made from the reduced juices is also delicious. I made this for supper last night which was the perfect ending to a winter day.

Roast beef and pot roast are among two of many reasons I probably could never become a vegetarian, even if I wanted to for ethical reasons. OK, and steak and a good hamburger, and the occasional roast lamb, too. They are also two of the dishes that I feared making properly for years. Most of us have suffered through really tough pot roast in our lives and I've certainly made a few of those myself. But I learned through trial and error–and this really fabulous and easy recipe–that the secret to making both perfect roast beef or pot roast is similar: slow and low.

Look for boneless, pink cuts of meat with lots of good marbling–that's what you want for the most tender, fork-cut pot roast.

With pot roast it's a slightly different process because you want to first braise the meat on all sides in order to start the necessary break down of the connective tissues–those great grisly bits marbled into a cheaper cut of meat (which is ideal for pot roast–you don't want anything too lean). And yet, it is similar to roast beef, too, which I like to cook quite high for about 20 minutes to sear it and form a good crust before reducing the oven temperature. This essential braising is what eventually leads to tenderizing the meat with its slow-cooking in the oven. It is also what gives a "well done" (in the flavor and texture sense of the word) pot roast its melt-in-your mouth characteristic.

You can use almost any combination of vegetables and additions to cradle your pot roast while it's cooking, but here are the basics.

I rarely use a crock pot any more but you could probably make this in a crock pot–I just can't guarantee the outcome. I fear those, too, for most varieties of slow cooking because "crock pot" pot roasts are what created my anxiety about making them in the first place: after a day of stewing, even after the requisite braising and then in the cooker on low, they were tough and awful. Fortunately, you can replicate that slow-cooker process in your own oven with even better results.

My cooking dish of preference for most things is my Le Creuset® covered dish–the medium baker, which I think is a bit more than a gallon capacity. The nice thing about Le Creuset® cookware, which is now being widely imitated, is that it's baked enamel-over cast iron finish means that it is already seasoned–and it's also easier to clean. It's my favorite pot in the house and when lidded it works like a Dutch oven. A few years ago my husband got me a starter set for Christmas at Sur la Table and I use this particular piece practically every day and for all sorts of things. [I even got one for a friend and she calls it her "magic blue pot"–and it was Edie who taught me about braising. In fact, I used up some of her Bee's Wing Farm garlic, which was a welcome gift.]

So here is the recipe for "Simple Pot Roast," from my edition of American Classics by the editors of Cook's Illustrated. It has since been updated and I've made many recipes from this cookbook, and many from a few others in my collection that they published. What you can count on from their cookbooks, like their magazines (they also publish Cook's Country, to which I subscribe), is that you know they have tested the recipes–and tweaked them–dozens of times. They also write about their methodology, and sometimes the background of a recipe and its history, in further detail which is ideal for anyone who might want more information on what went into the end results. Or you can just cut right to the well-defined recipes. I don't always like a wordy cookbook and theirs can be short on photographs, but it's like following the detailed steps of a scientific experiment while also easy to make–as long as you first do what they say and embellish on your own later.

Simple Pot Roast from American Classics
[This is the basic recipe–in true form, only broken down into more steps. It also goes on for several pages of commentary and variations, which I did not include. I highly recommend this cookbook and others from Cook's Illustrated. Here is more information about the book.]

The editors recommend chuck-eye roast. I'm not sure what our cut was but I bought it two years ago at the co-op outside of Hanover, New Hampshire and it was another "bottom of the freezer" find. I'm convinced that with double-wrapping, meat can be frozen forever and taste just as good when it's thawed.

  • 1 boneless chuck-eye roast (or any pot roast cut), about 3.5 pounds
  • salt and ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped medium (I used a large one)
  • 1 small carrot, chopped medium (I used a 1-lb bag of baby carrots and halved them)
  • 1 small rib celery, chopped medium (I used half a bag of celery)
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced (I added more garlic)
  • 2 tsps. sugar
  • 1 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth (I used my own from the freezer)
  • 1 cup canned low-sodium beef broth
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (I rarely have this on hand!)
  • 1-1/2 cups water
  • 1/4 dry red wine (I omitted this part because of time issues)
1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Thoroughly pat the roast dry with paper towels; sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

2. Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven (see Le Crueset®, above) over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking.

3. Brown the roast thoroughly on all sides, reducing the heat if the fat begins to smoke, 8-10 minutes.

4. Transfer the roast to a large plate; set aside. [The roast might look done in this photograph but it still has to be slow-cooked in the oven. We like Penfold's Shiraz with beef and lamb dishes. You can also add shallots with your onions, which I forgot to do.]

5. Reduce the heat to medium; add the onion, carrot and celery to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sugar; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

6. Add the chicken and beef broths and thyme, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits. Return the roast and any accumulated juices to the pot; add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the roast. Place a large piece of aluminum foil over the pot and cover tightly with a lid (this step is very important!); bring the liquid to a simmer over medium heat, then transfer the pot to the oven.

7. Cook, turning the roast every 30 minutes (I don't bother with this step), until fully tender and a meat fork or sharp knife easily slips in and out of the meat, about 3.5 to 4 hours.

NOTE: At this point you can take out the vegetables and cook down the juice and transform it into your own meat gravy (much better than just the reduced juice, I think). If you don't want to add the wine, drink it while waiting or preparing the dish. I also serve the root vegetable mass on the side as there are many good cooked carrots which are too good to toss.

8. Transfer the roast to a carving board; tent with foil to keep warm. Allow the liquid in the pot to settle about 5 minutes, then use a wide spoon to skim the fat off the surface; discard the thyme. Boil over high heat until reduced to about 1.5 cups, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and reduce again to 1.5 cups, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

9. Cut the meat into 1/2-inch-thick slices, or pull apart into large pieces; transfer the meat to a warmed serving platter and pour about 1/2 cup of the sauce over the meat. Serve, passing the remaining sauce separately.


a Cupcake near you! said...

Catherine, this looks so delicious! We don't eat much in the way of red meat but I used to make a pot roast every fall when the temperature dropped. I'll let you in on the secret for a roast that will melt-in-your-mouth: make it the day before! Make your roast, strain the vegetables out of the broth, submerge the roast back in the broth and refrigerate overnight. (You can leave the veggies in but it's easier to remove the hardened fat the next day if it's just broth.)Use a bit of the beef fat to make your gravy, and put the rest outside for the birds. I like to slice the cold roast and gently reheat it in broth or gravy. It's out of this world. I don't know the scientific whys and wherefors but resting overnight in the broth yields a very tender roast. And it's perfect for company because the main course is already done.
Bon Appetit!

a Cupcake near you! said...

Wherefores. I meant wherefores.

I hate when I misspell things!


Catherine said...

Peaches, I take this as the highest of all culinary compliments from YOU, the Zen Ramma Master of All Things Pastry and Piquant!

Your idea is great--and I find so many soups are better the second day, too (and potato salad, definitely).

We just got the spoils of our dry-aged beef that we got at a benefit auction and I can't wait to try his little roasties.