Monday, December 26, 2011

UnRecipe: Upgrading the Classics

We're still in that home stretch of holiday meals, meaning rich complicated feasts that take days to prepare. Even with Christmas out of the way, we still have New Year's Eve coming up, and in between the festivities, it's good to do something simple and cozy like our good old friend, the humble pot roast. Feelings of comfort and home are what the holidays are all about, and we're still in a festive season. Who says you can't relax between the celebrations with an extra-rich slow cooked pot roast and a riff on a classic PB and J?

Pot roast does not have to be boring - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I cooked this a little while back, when I was so very glad to be pulling out the old kitchen friend, the slow cooker.  The summer heat had ended, the fall chill was starting to set in and I was doing a happy dance to be entering the season of warm, cozy food. Pot roast is one of those weekday staples that your mom probably cooked once a week and you likely became totally bored of it after being subjected to it week after week. It's one of those dishes where over the years, it's gotten a bad rep from its ho-hum status, also not being helped by the fact that you can actually buy a pot roast already cooked, veggies and all, in a prepackaged container in grocery stores. This skeeves me out. Mostly because I have to wonder how much salt and preservatives have to be injected into that container to keep it shelf-stable, gravy and all. A nuclear winter isn't going to knock a dent into this thing, and someone wants to make you believe you're serving up a wholesome family meal? Only if you want to be as well-preserved as Joan Rivers' face. And I also have to wonder why you'd pay a premium on something that was always meant to be made cheaply, simply and at home? It's kind of like buying Rice Krispy treats already made. Really, America? Are we that lazy that we can't be bothered to make our own Rice Krispy treats, the undisputed king of all lazy no-bake snacks???

But I digress. Back to the lowly pot roast. Which is the thing, it's not so lowly if you take the time to build up its flavor. You get a sinewy, inexpensive cut of beef, likely something that's labeled "pot roast," because that's probably all it's good for. But you salt and pepper that baby up, sear it nicely on all sides in a hot stew pot, developing a nicely caramelized crust, and let it sit on the sidelines for a moment while you build up a nice braising liquid that will infuse this chunk of meat with really good flavor. I like to deglaze the pot I browned the meat in with stock and red wine. I've used just red wine, but it sometimes makes the sauce extra acidic, so you end up adding a lot of extra sugar to balance it out. I like making a braising liquid that's half stock (whatever you have on hand, I usually use chicken), and half wine, usually a lighter, fruity red like a Pinot Noir or Syrah/Shiraz, just because that's what I tend to drink at home; select your weapon of choice accordingly. Chop up a bunch of carrots, onions and whatever odd root vegetable bits you have on hand into small cubes, not big chunks. I just like that it breaks down faster, making the sauce less like a stew, more like a chunky ragout sauce. The vegetables get soft and silky, thickening the sauce and the flavors meld together nicely, especially the carrots, which help sweeten the sauce naturally. You can always add some sugar if you want to balance out the flavor, but it's nice when you can get that vegetable sweetness to do the work for you. I add a big spoonful of tomato paste as well. It gives it a zippy flavor and brightens things up. A few dried bay leaves and this is my braising liquid of choice for when the seared meat is added back in, the pot is lidded-up and I put the pot into the slow cooker heating element and let it do its thing, breaking down the toughness of the meat and making the sauce melt-in-your-mouth perfect. In a slow cooker, this can take four or five hours, but on a stovetop, set to low, it may cut the time as much as half. I like doing the half-half time, using a stove to do preliminary high heat and let the slow cooker finish it off, as you can walk away and not have to worry about a burner being on for hours.

Comfort meal, complete with dessert - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The resulting pot roast is a stick-to-your-ribs good meal, tasting extra good spooned over a pile of pasta. I had some dried tagliatelle pasta, but egg noodles or even shell pasta would be fine. A mash of potatoes is also fine n' dandy -- anything starchy that soaks up all the sauce, so you don't miss out on any of that flavor you worked to build up. And another great thing about a good pot roast is that it gets even better the next day. If you can hold out, make your pot roast the day before you want to eat it, so it's got an extra day of just working its leftover magic, the flavor only deepening with that extra time.

You have to have something equally comforting to go with such a classic meal. One of my last batches of ice cream was making a peanut butter and jelly ice cream. Yes, it's totally possible, and it's as delicious as it sounds, especially if you make it with homemade jam. I made vanilla ice cream, mixed with plain peanut butter, and after it was churned, I swirled spoonfuls of blackberry jam between each finished layer of peanut butter ice cream. Mixing the jam with the ice cream would have just gotten me pink ice cream, but the layering helps for when the ice cream is set and you're scooping it out into a bowl, you get the swirls in each scoop. If you don't have an ice cream maker, you could probably do an ad hoc version of this, getting plain vanilla ice cream, letting it soften, and mixing in peanut butter with it. It won't be as integrated as making the ice cream from scratch, but you'd get the peanut butter flavor mixed in. Then when you serve the hardened ice cream, spoon some jam over it. Would make for great ice cream sandwich-making. The best way to have a real peanut butter and jelly dessert!

Peanut butter and jelly isn't just for sandwiches anymore! - Photo by Wasabi Prime


  1. Lizzie in Los AngelesDecember 28, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    Loved your comments about pre-packaged pot roast. There's enough sodium in one of those bad boys for at least 10 adults for at least 3 weeks. Plus who-knows-what else?

  2. Wow 2011! I'll try anyway. I like the thickness of the liquid. I'm used to the watery almost clear liquid. Please let me know how much wine and stock to add. Please help.

  3. Replies
    1. Ah, sorry for the late reply - I didn't see the pending comment ping from Blogger. I'd say two cups of wine and two cups of stock, so a quart total to add into the crock pot with the browned roast (average is usually 3 pounds or so?). To thicken the final sauce after the roast is fully cooked, you can separate the liquid and simmer in a pot on the stove to reduce. Since the roast will get shredded and mixed with the sauce, the consistency of that will be just thick/thin enough to spoon over noodles.


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