Back to Basics

One thing won’t change: that basic favorite, a pot roast, will be as popular this year as ever. It is a slow-food survivor of generations past. It gets its name from the vessel in which it is cooked, and can be cooked on top of the stove or in the oven or the easiest way of all—in the Crockpot.

If you are on the road, put it into an electric slow cooker when you go to bed, let it cook all night, and simply reheat it in the oven when you pull into a campground the next night.

In the early days, beef was usually old and not very tender. Housewives were advised to first soak a piece of beef in a half pint of red wine, then boil it and finally simmer it until it could be easily cut. The larger roasts must have been very tough and stringy because it was suggested in some old cookbooks that holes should be made in the meat with an awl or screwdriver and then filled with strips of salt pork, before steaming the meat for hours.

That’s not true with today’s beef. A good pot roast by definition entails the transformation of a tough, cheap, nearly unpalatable cut of meat into a tender, rich, flavorful main course by means of a slow, moist cooking process called braising.

The chuck cuts—shoulder roast, boneless chuck roast, cross rib, seven-bone roast, and chuck-eye roast—cook up the most tender, according to some experts. The meat should never be sliceable, nor should it be pink or rosy in the middle.

The introduction of moisture by means of a braising liquid is thought to be integral to the breakdown of the tough muscle fibers. Browning it first in a little oil and high heat caramelizes the exterior of the beef and boosts both the flavor and appearance. One expert maintains that the moistest meat is produced when liquid is added halfway up the sides of the roast. The expert also suggests adding a piece of foil on top of the Dutch oven before putting on the lid to keep liquid from escaping in the form of steam. As for what kind of liquid to add other than water, red wine is said to have the most startling effect on the meat, but the result, while good, is not the traditional pot roast.

And what makes the most tender, moist and flavorful pot roast? Some say you cook it until it is done, and then keep on cooking it. Here’s a simple pot roast recipe:

1 boneless chuck eye roast (about 3 1/2 pounds)
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons of sugar
1 cup of canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup of canned low-sodium beef broth
1 teaspoon of thyme
1 1/2 cups of water
1/4 cup of dry red wine

Thoroughly pat roast dry with paper towels; sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Brown roast thoroughly on all sides, 8-10 minutes. Do not let it smoke.

Transfer roast to platter; set aside.

Reduce heat to medium; add onion, carrot, and celery to pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 6-8 minutes. Add garlic and sugar; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add chicken and beef broths and thyme, scraping bottom of pan with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits. Return roast and any accumulated juices to pot; add enough water to come halfway up the sides of the roast. Bring liquid to simmer over medium heat, then place foil over pot and cover tightly with lid; transfer pot to oven that has been preheated to 300-degrees.

Cook, turning roast every 30 minutes, until fully tender and meat fork easily slips in and out of meat, 3 1/2 to 4 hours. Transfer roast to carving board; tent with foil to keep warm. Allow liquid in pot to settle about 5 minutes, then skim fat off surface. Boil over high heat until reduced to about one and one-half cups, about 8 minutes. Add red wine and reduce again to one and one-half cups, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cut meat into one-half inch thick slices, or pull apart into larger pieces; put onto platter and pour sauce over top and serve.

Maybe you are spending some time in nice warm weather and want to cook your pot roast outside. Here is one, wrapped in foil, that can go to a campsite or a backyard. It is a pot roast without the pot.

1 chuck roast (3 1/2 to 4 pound)
1 envelop of Sloppy Joe seasoning mix
1 medium onion, cut in thick slices
1/2 cup of water
Juice of 1 lemon

Place roast on double thickness of 2 large sheets of heavy-duty foil. Sprinkle with seasoning mix and top with onion slices. Combine water and lemon juice and pour over the meat. Wrap roast securely in foil so juices will not escape during cooking.

Place directly on bed of hot coals, building up coals around the sides of the package.
Cook without turning 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on how hot the coals are.

After all the rich foods we enjoy over the holiday season, a simple pot roast is a welcome change, most especially when each bite has a soft, silky texture and rich, succulent flavor. And all that comes, according to the experts who write for Cook’s Illustrated magazine, with cooking the pot roast until it is done, and then to keep on cooking it.

HINT OF THE MONTH: To keep the beef roast from losing so much juice on the platter before carving it, never pierce the meat with a knife or fork when transferring it to the platter—instead, use pancake turners or tongs. If using a meat thermometer, pierce the meat in only one spot, preferably top center. And be sure to allow for the “standing time” called for in the recipe. This out-of-the-oven time allows the temperature of the roast to equalize and the juices to be evenly distributed, so the meat is easier to slice, and less juice runs out.

Marian Platt's regional narrative cookbook of Washington’s Sequim Valley, From My Kitchen Window, can be ordered by sending cash, check or money order for $25 (includes tax and handling/mailing costs) to Marian Platt, 434 Chicken Coop Rd., Sequim, WA 98382. Phone (360) 683-4691

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