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Pot luck

(article, Kelly Myers)

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When I was a starving teenager, little disappointed me more than coming home from school to my father’s pot roast. We lived in a big farmhouse, but our household had recently shrunk to just the two of us, and for the first time in his life, Dad was responsible for dinner. But his desire for hot, home-cooked meals that would nourish and warm us was not matched by an ability to provide them. Not by a long shot.

For pot roast, that classic of hearth and home, my father’s preparations took place matter-of-factly in the dark winter mornings before he went to work. He set a hunk of beef in the Crock-Pot with peeled carrots and potatoes and some water. That was it. No salt. No wine, no mushrooms, no tomatoes. 

Hours later, we were silent as we dutifully ate the watery carrots and potatoes and the stringy, gray meat, too new in our one-on-one family configuration and too Upper Midwestern to brush off a domestic disaster with jokes. 

Once I left for college, I mentally banished pot roast to a faraway land, to the distant corner of my emotional landscape where food aversions went and clung, rolling around lightly but stubbornly like sagebrush.

[%image slab float=left width=350 credit="Photo courtesy Kelly Myers" caption="It's easier (and tastier) to sear a large piece of meat than many small ones."]

Decades later, I re-entered the realm of practical braised-meat dinners. I was chef for a retirement community where the average resident was 84 years old and frail. We oven-braised 30 to 50 pounds of brisket, sauerbraten, corned beef, and pork shoulder at a time. Braised meats remained moist even in the drying heat of the steam table and were easy to chew and swallow. And the lesser cuts that need a long, slow braise to tenderize them were the only fresh meats we could afford.

It was my job to buy and manage all of that meat. Sometimes it got to be a bit much. Once, when I complained to my boss about not knowing what to make for dinner at home, he suggested roasting a piece of meat as the basis for a week’s worth of meals. I secretly shuddered. 

Yet I confess that for years my special party dish was boeuf bourguignon, the classic French dish of beef stewed in Burgundy wine. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, Julia Child provided a four-page recipe for this dish — and I followed her every step of the way. I peeled and caramelized pearl onions, I chose appropriate French wines, I fussily browned each cube of beef. 

The results were about as spectacular as a homey dish can be. But boeuf bourguignon required too much of me and my studio-apartment kitchen. I could never make enough to have leftovers.

I am now a working parent who stews a pot roast with plenty of good red wine. And I let it sit in its cooking broth for three days before enjoying its deep flavor in a series of meals. 

[%image promo-image float=right width=450 credit="Photo courtesy Kelly Myers" caption="A side of chopped bacon and the ingredients for a mirepoix (chopped onion, carrots, and celery)."]

My aversion is long gone. I had always known that it’s better to let a braised meat rest overnight before serving; the meat gets a chance to absorb more of the cooking liquid, and the flavors lengthen. But going for three days is another kind of alchemy. Given even longer to mingle, the beef and wine continue their savory exchange. My teenaged self could not have imagined a pot roast like this. 

My conversion happened last winter, when a recipe for beef braised in Barolo caught my eye. It looked sort of like an Italian version of boeuf bourguignon, minus the labor-intensive pearl onions and mushrooms. There were no mystery ingredients, only Barolo wine, mirepoix (the classic sauté base of onions, celery, and carrots), pancetta, herbs, and tomatoes. It required no meat broth.

Why had I always cut up chuck for stews, I asked myself in a “duh” moment, instead of leaving the meat in one piece, as in this recipe? 

It seemed so much easier to brown just one piece of meat, not the 12 or 20 pieces you would need for a stew. And my kitchen wouldn’t be quite so speckled with grease splatters. One large piece of meat was less likely to dry out as it braised, too. 

I have now made Beef Braised in Red Wine several times, except that I have yet to splurge for Barolo, the robust red wine from the Piedmont region of northern Italy. I intend to, though. My substitutions of Côtes du Rhône and a hearty tempranillo have yielded a rich sauce with enough acid to keep things interesting.

From a single pot roast, I have served four adults and two small children for Saturday-night dinner with crème fraîche-mashed red potatoes and salad. We ate leftover meat and potatoes the next day. For Monday lunch, one of us took a pot-roast sandwich to work, while the other one jazzed up some fading lentil soup with the shreddy pot-roast bits and juices. 

I didn’t have to dress up or magically transform the leftovers, because they were delicious.

Another time I served leftovers from a pot roast I had simmered with smoky bacon, along with pinto beans, coleslaw, and cornbread. (Quick coleslaw: Shred green cabbage. Steep cabbage and some thinly sliced red-bell pepper in red-wine vinegar while you prepare the rest of dinner. Then drain the cabbage and toss the slaw with extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper.) 

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I will also turn the roast into a pasta sauce. I’ll break apart the meat and gently heat it in its liquid, add sautéed button mushrooms, reduce the sauce if it needs thickening, then swirl in a tablespoon or so of butter and spoon the sauce over buttered egg noodles. Grated Parmesan over the pasta and steamed broccoli will complete the meal. 

There has been a request for a potato-pot-roast hash, but that may have to wait until our next batch of leftovers. I can already see it with a dollop of cultured sour cream and some chives.

I like being able to eat so well from a more affordable cut of beef. Even though I buy range-raised, antibiotic-free beef, my boneless chuck roast is less than $5 a pound. I call that eminently practical.

p(bio). Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon.


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