Friday, January 16, 2009

In Praise of Pot Roast

Ah, the lowly pot roast. Not very glamorous, but quite tasty and satisfying on a day when the high is 18 degrees F. It's also a great recipe for many reasons: at-home moms like me can get it started at naptime and it'll be ready by dinnertime, with minimal attention needed in the afternoon. People with jobs outside the house can make it on the weekend and eat it anytime before Wednesday. Or freeze it and eat it months later.

This is based on the Fannie Farmer Cookbook recipe. It was cheap (I bought a bottom round roast on sale), easy to prepare (the instructions for searing are copious, but not complicated - just trying to be complete), and everything was in my house already (the roast was in the freezer). The cooking liquid makes a nice, tomato-y gravy that has a bit of "body" to it - it's not too thin, and you don't need to muck about with flour to thicken it. The leftover meat is good reheated with the gravy, or sliced thin for sandwiches.

Searing the meat is optional but it does add depth of flavor that I like. You can do this recipe, minus the searing, in a crockpot - just throw all the ingredients in, turn it on, and come back in ~6 hours (I would turn the meat over once or twice while it cooks).

1 hunk of meat, 3-4 lbs of bottom round roast or other roast labeled "braise" or "pot roast"
olive oil
1 big or 2 medium onions, sliced or chopped (depending on how you like your onions)
2-3 tablespoons each of dry sherry and vermouth (or substitute red wine, whiskey, my hubby's 'old secret ingredient' --Jack Daniels-- or skip it altogether)
1 14-ounce can tomato sauce (or 2 8-ounce cans, or canned tomatoes, or even tomato juice)
1-2 bay leaves
fresh or dried thyme
some potatoes, carrots, or other "root" vegetables
some cabbage (sliced) or any other vegetable that you need to use up

Have the onions sliced (or chopped) and waiting in a bowl next to the stove.

Get out a large, deep pot with a heavy bottom that is big enough to hold the roast (the roast should not be touching the sides of the pot, or peek up above the rim of the pot). Place the pot on the stove, turn the heat on medium-high, and let the pot heat up while you prepare the roast. (If your pot has a thin bottom, don't start heating the pan until you've completed the next step). Do NOT put any oil in the pot - you will put the oil on the meat.

Put the roast on a cutting board or large plate and pat it dry with paper towels. Drizzle some olive oil over the roast and give it a good rubdown; the meat should be completely coated with oil, but not dripping with it. Sprinkle salt and pepper all over the meat.

Check that the pot is good and hot: sprinkle a few drops of water on the bottom of the pan - they should skitter across the surface. If they bubble and steam first, let the pan heat up a few more minutes.

Carefully place the oiled roast into the hot pot. You should hear a "searing" noise immediately. After a few minutes, check to see if the meat has seared completely - you should be able to lift it up off of the pan's bottom fairly easily (or, at least with just a little tugging). A big pair of kitchen tongs works well to lift the meat. If the roast is stuck firm, let it cook a little longer. If there are juices starting to come out of the meat and accumulate in the pan, turn up the heat to high. When you can easily lift the meat, look at the bottom - it should be a nice, dark brown color (i.e., caramelization). There will be some caramelization on the bottom of the pot, too.

Flip the roast over onto another side and repeat the searing process, until it is seared on all sides. If an area of the pot bottom is getting too brown, just put the meat back on top of the dark areas to keep them from burning. When the roast is seared on all sides, or when you are tired of doing this step, use the tongs to lift the roast out of the pan and onto a plate.

Turn the heat down to medium and add the onions to the pan. Stir immediately, and often, to keep the caramelized bits in the bottom of the pot from becoming charred bits. When the onion begins to soften (look translucent), add the sherry & vermouth or whatever liquid you're using. Stir with a wooden spoon and scrape up the caramelized bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the onions are soft (limp).

Add the entire can of tomato sauce/tomatoes/tomato juice to the pot. Add a little water to the can (about 1/2 canful) and swish around with a spoon, to rinse the can and add that to the pot, too. Turn the heat up to medium-high, add the bay leaf and the roast, and wait until the liquid is bubbling briskly. Then, put the lid on the pot, turn the heat down low and cook for ~ 3hours, or until the meat is very tender. You want it to cook slowly, so there should be gentle bubbling in the covered pot. Flip the meat over once or twice so that each side of the roast gets bathed in the gently bubbling tomato broth (sounds soothing, doesn't it?).

When the meat is cooked, you can (A) let it cool and put it in the fridge, and finish cooking it sometime in the next two days or (B) add the thyme and whatever vegetables you are using (i.e., whatever you have on hand). If selecting option B, keep simmering for an additional length of time until the veggies are cooked to your liking. For small potatoes and carrot chunks, simmer for about 25 more minutes.

Eat (serve with bread, rice, noodles, potatoes, etc.), or let it cool and refrigerate, then eat sometime within the next 2 days.

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