Everything old is new again
When I host a dinner party, my first impulse is usually to do something special, or at least a little beyond the mundane. Maybe salmon en papillote, cassoulet, beer-braised carnitas, chicken or creole shrimp—something my guests probably don’t have every day.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about everyday meals that aren’t everyday anymore — at least, not for me. When I think back to the family meals my mother 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 which 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 mother served roast beef or pot roast for dinner once or twice a month, if not more. But I can’t remember the last time I had it either. I’ve been so eager to embrace new foods and cuisines, I’ve left behind so much of the food I grew up on.
It’s not too hard to do, especially in New York City, where there’s a great Thai restaurant around the corner and an Ethiopian, Himalayan, Bengali, or Uzbek restaurant about to open the next block. The resurgence of comfort foods during the pandemic wasn’t just nostalgia — for many of us, it was also a change of pace.
I was tickled by the thought of having a home-cooked roast dinner and hoped Marilee would feel the same way. Since I didn’t know how to make one, I researched and picked a recipe from Toni Lydecker’s “Piatto Unico,” published by Lake Isle Press, that sounded delicious: Pot Roast with Porcini and Root Vegetables.
THE POT RÔTI IS AN ECONOMICAL MEAL. AN INEXPENSIVE, TOUGH CUT OF MEAT IS SLOWLY SLOWED IN LIQUID UNTIL IT BECOMES TENDER. NOT AN ELEGANT DISH, BUT A HUMBLE DISH THAT REFLECTS THE TIME AND CARE THE COOK PUT INTO IT.
Try a few variations – add red wine or not, cook it alone or with vegetables, use tomatoes or mushrooms or spices like nutmeg or rosemary or leave them out, serve with noodles or without – but ultimately pot roast is pot roast. It remains essentially the same.
The “Piatto Unico” recipe calls for a beef chuck roast (or chuck top blade or eye). Since I don’t cook with red meat very often, I did a quick search online to find out more about alternative cuts I could substitute, just in case. My search paid off when my local grocer didn’t have a chuck roast or the like (the joys of food shopping in NYC), so I got a round of the bottom instead.
Otherwise, I followed the recipe as written – with the exception of adding Porcini, as I hate the taste and texture of all mushrooms I’ve ever tried. It seemed like the recipe would have a lot of flavor without them, so I wasn’t discouraged. I opted to braise the meat a day ahead as the notes suggested, then skim off the solidified fat before finishing it off with vegetables the next day. I added a mixture of potatoes and turnips.
The result was perhaps a little different from what I grew up on – a bit deeper in flavor – but very good indeed, and close enough to the roast of our childhoods to hint at home. I enjoyed the whole slow ember process. It’s not a lot of work, but because it takes time, it requires patience and dedication. You have to commit to roasting.
My mum was a basic cook and she made a basic roast, just a round eye (which she also used for her roast beef), beef broth, onion, salt and a bit of plain flour. I remember she was cooking it on the stove in a dutch oven that had belonged to her mother. 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 large pot. At the time I found it weird and very ugly. At one point she had dropped the lid and part of its handle had broken off; I have no idea how she was able to lift it from the pot yet, but somehow she was able to.
Making this pot roast brought back childhood memories and visions of my mom being the cook tending to that Dutch oven. I don’t know what happened to that pot when she died; either we gave it away or we threw it away because of the broken handle. I wish one of my sisters or I would keep it as a culinary heirloom. And I wish my mom was still around to show us how she made her very basic roast – and how she managed to get that lid off.
Makes 6 servings| Preparation: 20 minutes | Cooking: about 3 hours
3 pounds well-marbled beef blade roast, tied with twine (see note)
Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, 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 puree
2 sprigs of rosemary or sage
½ to 1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes or other boiling potatoes, or turnips, or a mixture of the two, peeled and cut into chunks
4 medium carrots, cut into chunks
1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Sprinkle the beef with plenty of salt and a more sparing amount of pepper. Over medium-high heat, heat an ovenproof Dutch oven or large saucepan large enough to hold the beef with room for the vegetables around the edges. Add just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan, tilting it to reach the corners. Sear the beef, turning it with tongs until it is nicely browned on all sides and ends. Transfer to a plate.
2. The roast will have released some of its own fat, but if that doesn’t seem like enough, add a little olive oil to the pan before cooking the onion, stirring until browned. is golden, about 10 minutes. Add garlic, cook until fragrant. Sprinkle flour over top and cook, stirring constantly, for 1-2 minutes. Add the wine, tomatoes, rosemary and enough water to come up to one-third up the sides of the roast. Bring the liquid to a boil.
3. Remove from heat and return beef to skillet; pour some of the liquid on it; cover. Place the skillet 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 boiling and brush the roast with the braising liquid; halfway through cooking, turn the roast.
4. While the beef is in the oven, place the porcini mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with warm water. Leave to rest for about 15 minutes. Remove the porcini pieces from the bowl, rinse them and roughly chop them. Line a small colander with a double layer of paper towel or cheesecloth and strain the liquid from the porcini mushrooms into another small bowl.
5. Using a serving spoon or small ladle, skim off some of the fat floating on the surface of the braising liquid from the beef. Add the porcini mushrooms and the filtered liquid. Surround beef with potatoes and carrots, pouring liquid over; they don’t need to be completely submerged. Bake about 1 hour longer, partially covered, basting often, until beef and vegetables are tender and sauce is dense (see note). Remove the sprigs of rosemary. Transfer the beef to a cutting board. Slice against the grain into thick slices and arrange with the vegetables on a platter or in wide, shallow bowls. Pour the sauce over and around the meat and vegetables.
Choose a “first cut” roast beef with visible marbling and connective tissue. Pot roast and chuck-eye roast are other cuts that will perform well when cooked this way.
If you’re making the pot roast a day ahead, don’t bother skimming off the surface fat when the roast is tender. Instead, cool and refrigerate the meat. When ready to continue, remove and discard the solidified fat. Reheat in the oven at 300°F before adding the porcini mushrooms and vegetables and finish cooking.
If the sauce does not seem thick enough at the end of cooking, reduce it 1 to 2 minutes after removing the beef. Too thick? Dilute with a little hot water.
Recipe for “Piatto Unico” by Toni Lydecker, Lake Isle Press 2011