Everything Old is New Again
When I’m hosting a dinner party, my first impulse is usually to make something special, or at least a little beyond run-of-the-mill. Perhaps salmon en papillote, cassoulet, beer-braised carnitas, chicken or shrimp creole — something my guests probably don’t have every day.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about everyday meals that aren’t every day anymore — at least, not for me. When I look back on the family meals my mom used to make, like roast beef, meatloaf, roast chicken, or spaghetti and meatballs (not too spicy, in the best Irish tradition), about the only thing I still make regularly, or really at all, is roast chicken.
So, when I was planning a birthday dinner for my sister, Marilee, I decided to make a pot roast.
When we were kids our mom would serve roast beef or pot roast for dinner once or twice a month, if not more. But I can’t recall the last time I had either. I’ve been so eager to embrace new foods and cuisines, I’ve left much of the food I grew up with behind.
That’s not too hard to do, especially in New York, where there’s a great Thai restaurant around the corner and an Ethiopian, Himalayan, Bengali, or Uzbecki restaurant about to open up on the next block. The resurgence of comfort food during the pandemic wasn’t just nostalgia — for many of us, it was also a change of pace.
I was tickled by the idea of having a home-cooked pot roast dinner and hoped Marilee would feel the same. Since I had no idea how to make one, I searched around and chose a recipe from Toni Lydecker’s “Piatto Unico,” published by Lake Isle Press, that sounded yummy: Pot Roast with Porcini and Root Vegetables.
POT ROAST IS AN ECONOMIC MEAL. AN INEXPENSIVE AND TOUGH CUT OF MEAT IS SLOWLY SIMMERED IN LIQUID UNTIL IT BECOMES TENDER. NOT AN ELEGANT DISH, BUT A HUMBLE ONE THAT REFLECTS THE TIME AND CARES THE COOK PUTS INTO IT.
Try some variations — add red wine or don’t, cook it alone or with veggies, use tomatoes or mushrooms or spices like nutmeg or rosemary or leave them out, serve with noodles or without — but in the end, pot roast is pot roast . It stays essentially the same.
The “Piatto Unico” recipe calls for a beef chuck roast (or top blade or chuck eye). Since I don’t cook with red meat very often, I did a quick online search to learn about alternative cuts I could substitute, just in case. My search paid off when my local grocer did not have a chuck roast or the others (the joys of New York City food shopping), so I got a bottom round instead.
Otherwise, I followed the recipe as written — with the exception of adding Porcini, because I hate the taste and the texture of any mushroom I have ever tried. It seemed to me the recipe would have plenty of flavor without them, so I was undeterred. I chose to braise the meat a day ahead as the Notes suggested, then skimmed the solidified fat before finishing it with veggies the next day. I added a mixture of both potatoes and turnips.
The result was perhaps a little different than what I grew up on — a little deeper flavor — but very good indeed, and close enough to the pot roast of our childhood to hint of home. I enjoyed the whole process of the slow braise. It’s not a lot of work, but because it takes time it requires patience and dedication. You have to commit to pot roast.
My mom was a basic cook and she made a basic pot roast, just eye round (which she also used for her roast beef), beef broth, onion, salt, and a little flour. I remember her cooking it on the stovetop in a dutch oven that had been her mother’s. The pot had a greenish-gray exterior dotted with small textured circles, which I now realize was hammered cast iron, and it was probably a great pot. At the time I thought it was weird and very ugly. At some point, she had dropped the lid and part of its handle broke off; I have no idea how she was able to still lift it off the pot, but somehow she could.
Making this pot roast brought back memories of my childhood, and visions of my mother at the stove tending to that dutch oven. I don’t know what happened to that pot when she died; either we gave it away or tossed it because of the broken handle. I wish one of my sisters or I had held onto it as a culinary heirloom. And I wish my mom was still here to show us how she made her very basic pot roast — and how she managed to get that lid off.
Makes 6 servings| Prep: 20 minutes | Cook: about 3 hours
Click here to print recipe.
3 pounds well-marbled beef chuck roast, tied with string (see Note)
Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup Chianti or other red wine
1 cup chopped canned plum tomatoes with some of the purée
2 sprigs of rosemary or sage
½ to 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
4 medium Yukon Gold or other boiling potatoes, or turnips, or a mix of the two, peeled and cut into chunks
4 medium carrots, cut into chunks
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Sprinkle the beef all over with plenty of salt and a more frugal amount of pepper. Over medium-high heat, heat an ovenproof Dutch oven or broad saucepan large enough to hold the beef with room for vegetables around the edges. Add just enough olive oil to film the bottom of the pan, tilting it to reach the corners. Sear the beef, turning it with tongs, until well browned on all sides and ends. Transfer to a plate.
2. The roast will have given off a little of its own fat, but if it doesn’t seem adequate, add a little more olive oil to the skillet before cooking the onion, stirring, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, cooking just until fragrant. Sprinkle the flour over the top and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the wine, tomatoes, rosemary, and enough water to come one-third of the way up the sides of the roast. Bring the liquid to a boil.
3. Remove from heat and return the beef to the pan; spoon some of the liquid over it; cover. Place the pan on a rack in the lower third of the oven and cook until the beef is fairly tender but a fork plunged into it meets some resistance, about 2 hours. Check periodically to make sure the liquid remains at a bare simmer, and baste the roast with the raising liquid; about halfway through the cooking, turn the roast.
4. While the beef is in the oven, place the porcini in a small bowl and cover it with warm water. Let stand for about 15 minutes. Remove the porcini pieces from the bowl, rinse off any grit, and roughly chop. Line a small strainer with a double thickness of paper towel or cheesecloth, and strain the porcini liquid into another small bowl.
5. Using a serving spoon or small ladle, skim off some of the fat floating on the surface of the beef raising liquid. Add the porcini pieces and filtered liquid. Surround the beef with the potatoes and carrots, spooning the liquid over them; they need not be fully immersed. Cook in the oven about 1 hour longer, partially covered, basting often, until the beef and vegetables are fork-tender and the sauce is dense (see Note). Remove the rosemary sprigs. Transfer the beef to a cutting board. Slice across the grain in thick slabs and arrange with the vegetables on a platter or in broad shallow bowls. Spoon the sauce over and around the meat and vegetables.
Choose a “first-cut” chuck roast with visible marbling and connective tissue. Top-blade pot roast and chuck-eye roast are other cuts that will yield good results when cooked this way.
If you are making the pot roast a day in advance, don’t bother to skim the surface fat when the roast is tender. Instead, cool and refrigerate the meat. When ready to proceed, remove and discard the solidified fat. Reheat in a 300°F oven before adding the porcini and vegetables and completing the cooking.
If the sauce doesn’t seem thick enough at the end of cooking, boil it down for 1 to 2 minutes after removing the beef. too thick? Dilute with a little hot water.
Recipe from “Piatto Unico” by Toni Lydecker, Lake Isle Press 2011