I gaze upon the roast, that is sliced and laid out on my plate, and over it I spoon the juices of carrot and onion. And for once I do not regret the passage of time …
These days when there is little to love or to praise one could do worse than yield to the power of food.
‘Pot Roast’ by Mark Strand
When the leaves fall and the temperature cools, there is nothing better than the aroma generated by a slow-cooking pot roast of beef. It is one of the ultimate comfort foods.
The basic recipe for braising beef has been around for centuries. Less tender cuts of meat, usually from the shoulder (or chuck) are browned in oil to induce color and flavor (this is called the maillard reaction) and then placed in a covered pot with vegetables, herbs and liquid to slowly cook until tender. The famous New England version of this dish is called Yankee pot roast and dates back to colonial times; the Germans like to marinate their beef in a vinegar solution for a few days before making their sauerbraten; and the French use red wine as the braising liquid when making their classic boeuf à la mode.
In the following recipes I have departed from tradition by cutting the pot roast into individual portions before cooking. This method produces a very attractive plate, cooks in much less time and doesn’t require awkward carving. The individual portions resemble a filet mignon when served, but have the tantalizing flavor and sauce of a pot roast.
Preparing the meat: Purchase boneless chuck, often labeled “pot roast,” that is at least 2 inches thick and weighs about 2 pounds. Cut the meat into 4 pieces so they resemble filet mignon steaks and tie a piece of string around each one. Then proceed with one of the following traditional recipes:
YANKEE POT ROAST
Sprinkle 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper on the steaks and let them come to room temperature.
Heat a Dutch oven and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. When very hot, place the 4 individual chuck steaks into the pan and brown on each side for about 5 minutes. Remove the steaks, pour off any excess fat and reduce the heat to low.
Add 2 tablespoons butter to the pan along with 1 cup chopped onion, 1 diced carrot and 1 diced stalk of celery. Let the vegetables soften and add 4 cloves of garlic, sliced. After 2 minutes stir in 1/4 cup flour and let cook for another 3 minutes before adding 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 1 cup chicken stock and 1 cup water. Bring this mixture to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon to loosen the beef drippings on the bottom. The liquid should be smooth and lightly thickened.
Place the meat back in the Dutch oven and season with 2 bay leaves, 3 sprigs of thyme and 4 leaves of sage, chopped. Cover the pan and place it in a 325-degree oven.
While this is cooking, prepare the vegetables: peel and cut 3 carrots, 2 parsnips and 1 white turnip into large chunks, about 2 inches thick. Peel 8 new potatoes and cut in half if they are large. Peel 8 white pearl onions and cut the stems off of 1 package of cremini mushrooms.
After the meat has cooked for 45 minutes, remove it from the oven and add all of the vegetables. Cover, place the pan back in the oven and continue cooking for another 1 1/4 hours. Skim any fat off of the surface, check the meat for tenderness and the sauce for seasoning. Serve with a garnish of chopped flat-leaf parsley.
Prepare a marinade by combining in a small saucepan 1 cup water and 1 cup cider vinegar. Add to this 2 tablespoons sugar, 1 cup sliced onion, 1 tablespoon pickling spice, 6 whole peppercorns, 4 whole cloves and 2 bay leaves. Bring this marinade to a boil and remove from the heat. Place the meat in a casserole and pour the marinade over all. Cover with plastic film and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the meat from the marinade and dry with paper towels. Reserve the marinade. Heat a Dutch oven and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. When the oil is very hot, brown the meat on both sides and remove.
Reduce the heat, add 2 cups sliced onion and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. When the onion is soft, place the meat on top and pour the marinade over all. Bring it to a boil on top of the stove, then cover and place the pan in a 325-degree oven.
Cook for 2 hours, or until the meat becomes very tender. Remove the meat to a warm platter and strain the sauce into a small saucepan. Add the onions to the platter with the meat if desired.
Crush 8 gingersnap cookies in a food processor or with a rolling pin and add them to the strained sauce. Bring this mixture to a boil and spoon it over the meat. Serve with the traditional braised red cabbage and either boiled potatoes or spaetzle.
FRENCH BOEUF À LA MODE
For this recipe, wrap a piece of bacon around each steak before tying with the string. Prepare a marinade by combining 2 cups red wine, 1 tablespoon thyme, 2 bay leaves, 4 whole cloves and 1 tablespoon minced garlic. Mix 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon ground pepper together and rub them over the meat.
Chop 1 cup each of onion, celery and carrot and place them in the bottom of a casserole. Put the meat on top and pour the marinade over all. Refrigerate, turning once, for at least 6 hours. Remove the meat from the marinade and dry with paper towels. Strain the marinade, reserving both the liquid and the vegetables.
Heat a Dutch oven and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. When very hot, brown the meat on both sides and remove. Add the reserved vegetables to the pot along with 1 tablespoon butter and cook at low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup flour to make a roux, letting it cook for another 5 minutes. Pour in the reserved marinade and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom to loosen the drippings. Stir in 1 cup beef broth and continue cooking until it is lightly thickened.
Place the meat back in the pot. Prepare a bouquet garni by tying together 1 trimmed and split leek, 6 parsley stems, 3 sprigs of thyme and 2 bay leaves. Place this on top of the meat and cover. Put the pot in a 325-degree oven for 2 hours. Remove the meat and strain the sauce. Serve with pearl onions, mushroom caps and glazed carrots over noodles or roasted new potatoes.
John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years.