Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Pursuit of the Perfect Pot Roast

So I've learned the secret of making a killer pot roast - steam. Braising is a technique where tough meat is cooked with moist heat until the connective tissue literally melts away, leaving you with velvety meat that's so tender you can pull it apart with a fork.

I'll be honest from the start: this is a monster recipe. It takes a good 5-6 hours from start to finish, which is why I almost always fix this on a Sunday. But I love it because there's just something so...homey...about puttering around the kitchen all day, and the results are amazing.

And so what makes this recipe "countrypolitan" instead of just a "traditional" roast? I use pancetta instead of bacon, and amp up the flavor with cardamom pods and juniper berries. They add just enough of a twist to make this a bit unusual, while still staying true to recipe's roots.

I know lots of people who swear by their crock pot (and I used to be one) but really, once you try this roast you'll never go back. I promise!

1/4lb pancetta, thick sliced and cubed
3-4lb beef roast, top or bottom round are my favorites
1 large red onion, chopped
1lb bag of carrots, chopped and separated
4 potatoes, chopped and separated
2 parsnips, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup Maker's Mark, or other bourbon/whiskey
1 cup dry red wine
2 cans beef broth
4 green cardamom seeds, crushed
4 juniper berries
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp cornstarch or flour

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Using paper towels, remove as much moisture as possible from roast. Season all sides of the roast with salt and pepper. Tip: Drying the roast is important because removing the moisture will allow the meat to sear, giving a really nice browned crust.

Brown pancetta in large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Brown roast, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove to plate and tent with foil.

Pour off all but 2 Tbsp. of the drippings in the pot. Add onion, half of the carrots, half of the potatoes, and 1 of the parsnips to the pot and cook until onion is golden and vegetables are slightly softened, about 8 minutes. Add Maker's Mark to deglaze, scraping up browned bits at the bottom of the pot. Let alcohol cook off, about 1 minute.

Return roast to pot. Add red wine and enough beef broth to cover half of the roast. Add cardamom, juniper berries, and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer. Cover with aluminum foil and a tight-fitting lid. Tip: This is the really important part. You've got to cover the pot with foil and a lid to keep in the steam, so that it can break down the connective tissues.

Cook in oven for 1 hour per pound of meat. Turn roast every 30 minutes, adding more broth or water if needed to keep the roast half-covered in liquid during cooking. The roast is done when it's fork tender.

Remove roast to a plate and cover with foil. Using a strainer and bowl, drain off cooking liquid and discard vegetables. Return broth to dutch oven, add roast and remaining vegetables, and bring to a boil on stovetop. Simmer, covered, over low heat until vegetables are tender, approximately 30 minutes.

This may seem confusing - why discard vegetables and then add in new ones? The ones cooked with the roast have fulfilled their culinary destiny (to flavor the broth) and after 3+ hours of braising will have turned to mush. Adding the second batch of vegetables will ensure that you have perfect, tender veggies to serve with your perfect, tender pot roast.

Plate the roast. Strain off vegetables and plate with roast, covering with foil. To make gravy, pass liquid through strainer covered in cheesecloth to remove all solids (and a good amount of fat) from the broth. Pour liquid into large saucepan and boil until reduced by 1/3. Turn heat to low and skim off any additional fat that has accumulated on the surface. Ladle out a serving of the liquid into a glass or mug, and add the cornstarch (or flour - I use cornstarch because my friend Mikey has celiac disease and has to eat gluten-free). Mix with a fork to make a slurry, then stir back into the rest of the liquid. Do this again if you need to thicken the gravy more. If you thicken too much, stir in some beef broth or water. Season gravy with salt and pepper to taste. Serve alongside roast and vegetables.

Chris Freeland
cfreeland27 (at) gmail.com

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Story of Cinco

Cinco is a piñata that has become our neighborhood mascot. Chris, Tagert and I got it for Sharon at the Latin grocery stores down on Cherokee Street as a decoration for her Cinco de Mayo party 3 years ago. We filled it with candy and thought it'd be great fun to beat open after a cocktail. We also thought that Sharon would volunteer to go first and whack out a neighbor or two while under the guise of being "blindfolded". But no! Sharon thought it was so pretty that she wouldn't let us break him open. So we left that night expecting to never see him again.

I had a Memorial Day BBQ a couple of weeks later and guess what Sharon brought - that damn piñata! She informed us it would be our party idol and we'd pass him from house to house as people had gatherings. I passed him to Tagert for his birthday party a few weeks after that, and then he started moving all around the neighborhood. Richard and Karen, after having him for St. Patrick's Day, came up with the idea of adding a new piece of flair from each party before passing him on, so he's quite decorated now.

Cinco's Migration:
Sharon's Cinco de Mayo party, 2005
Chris & Chris' Memorial Day party, 2005
Tagert's Summer party, 2005
Karen's St. Patrick's Day party, 2006
Sharon's Holiday party, 2006
Chris & Chris' New Year's Eve party, 2006-2007
Brinker's Skyline Chili party, 2007
Sharon's Cinco de Mayo party, 2007
Shane & Tom's Halloween Party, 2007
Brinker's Skyline Chili party, 2008

Brinker's Skyline Chili Party

David Brinker is from Cincinnati, and apparently people in "Cinci" (that's sin-see) have a thing for Skyline Chili. It's really not chili, not at least the kind I grew up with in the country; it's more of a spicy brown gravy to put on spaghetti or hot dogs with a distinctive, cinnamon-based flavor. It's good stuff, and now the residents of St. Louis have come to know all about 3-ways (spaghetti with Skyline Chili and cheese), 4-ways (beans or onions added), and 5-ways (beans and onions both).

I made Ina's Lemon Yogurt Cake, which was so easy to make and turned out awesome, and Tagert brought some delicious mini-cupcake-muffins.

In other happy news, Brinker got Cinco!

Spiced Chocolate Sheet Cake

I have a no-fail Chocolate Sheet Cake recipe that came to me from my Aunt Kay, who had an over-the-top personality and could make a mean Texas Sheet Cake. I took her recipe and added in cardamom and cinnamon to warm it up a bit. This cake can be made several days in advance and continues to get better each day. It freezes well, too. It really is the best chocolate cake recipe ever, I think.

Spiced Chocolate Sheet Cake
1 stick butter
1/2 cup shortening
4 T Dutch-processed cocoa (regular is fine if you're in a pinch)
1 cup water
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (Use a strongly spiced one like Vietnamese Cassia)
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat over to 400 degrees. Butter and flour a sheet pan.

Melt butter, shortening, cocoa and water in saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until smooth. Cool slightly off heat. Sift remaining dry ingredients in a bowl. In a large bowl, beat eggs, milk and vanilla. Stir in cooled chocolate mixture, then dry ingredients until just combined. Batter will be thin. Pour into prepared sheet pan and bake 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. While cake is warm ice with:

Chocolate icing
4 T Dutch-process cocoa
1/4 cup cream
1 stick butter
1 tsp vanilla
1 box powdered sugar

Sift powdered sugar into a large bowl. Melt cocoa, cream and butter in saucepan, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Pour over sugar and beat to smooth consistency. Let cool slightly and beat again. Pour over cake with both are still warm.

Chris Freeland
cfreeland27 (at) gmail.com

Almost Tandoori Chicken

I don't have a tandoor, the clay oven traditionally used to make this dish. But, I've found a way to roast the chicken at high heat in the oven then finish it off over a grill that comes close to producing the same smoky flavor and creamy texture found in the traditional recipe.

Almost Tandoori Chicken
2 cups plain whole yogurt
3 T tandoori seasoning
8 chicken breasts, thawed
1 each juice and zest of lime

Pound chicken between two pieces of wax paper to slightly flatten. Cut into strips. Mix yogurt and tandoori seasoning in large bowl. Add chicken and combine. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours or overnight. If preparing ahead, omit the juice and zest of lime until 1 hour before continuing. Beware - anything that touches this sauce will turn pink, including your hands!

Preheat oven to 500 degrees (yes, it's hot!). Skewer the chicken into an S shape with metal skewers. Prop one end of the the skewers onto the side of a 9x13 pan or baking sheet, so that the yogurt drips off the chicken as it cooks. Roast for 10 minutes. Remove chicken and grill over high heat for 5 minutes, or until done. The oven roasting makes the meat tender and the grilling gives it a nice smoky flavor. If you want to simplify you can just roast the chicken for 15-20 minutes in the oven.

Serve with a cucumber cilantro salad and raita.


Raita is a delicious yogurt sauce used to cool and refresh the mouth while eating spicy dishes. It's a wonderful accompaniment to meats and fresh vegetables. The fenugreek leaves (also known as methi) are the only ingredient you might have trouble finding, and can be omitted, although they do give an interesting maple flavor to the sauce. Pinch and grind the fenugreek leaves in the palm of your hand before adding.

1 each juice and zest of a lemon
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1/2 english cucumber, deseeded and diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1 T cilantro, chopped
Fenugreek leaves (methi), pinch
2 cups plain yogurt

Mix ingredients and serve.

Lamb Shami Ka-meatball with Bombay BBQ Sauce

I mashed up 2 different recipes to pull this together. I used a traditional meatball recipe but swapped in components from Lamb Shami Kabobs - lamb and seasonings like cumin, mint, and garam masala give this dish a distinctly Indian flavor. The Bombay BBQ Sauce can be as difficult or easy as you want to make it (and when you're crunched for time, I vote for easy).

Lamb Shami Kabobmeatball
2 eggs
2 cups oatmeal
12 oz can evaporated milk
1.5 lb ground beef
1.5 lb ground lamb
1 cup chopped red onion
5 T mint, chopped
2 tsp salt (I prefer kosher in this dish)
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
2 green chilies, minced and deseeded
4 T almonds
1 each zest & juice of lemon
2 T poppy seeds
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
1 T garam masala
1/2 cup plain yogurt

In large bowl, beat eggs, then add oatmeal and evaporated milk. Stir to combine. Add ground beef and ground lamb and mix until oatmeal is well distributed throughout all the ground meat. Add remaining ingredients and fold over evenly. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours. Can be made a day in advance; omit the lemon juice and zest until 1 hour before continuing preparation if you're going to marinate this overnight. The acid in the lemon juice will cook the meat and give it a gray appearance and flavor.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Shape mixture into balls using a small scoop and line up without touching in a large baking dish (probably will need 2 or more). Bake each pan uncovered for 30 minutes (you will know if your oven can do more than one at a time). Drain and combine into a single pan. Stir in Bombay BBQ Sauce and bake uncovered 20-25 minutes, until sauce is thick and bubbly.

I serve this in a crock pot on low heat. Set out toothpicks for people who want to spear a single one and a spoon for those who want a couple.

Bombay BBQ Sauce
There are 2 ways to make this, and your good judgment will tell you which version to prepare. Both are good.

Version 1: Time Crunch
2 bottles honey BBQ sauce, or other tangy variety
2 jars mango chutney

Mix together in large saucepan. Bring to boil while stirring, combining completely.

Version 2: Time to Prepare
4 cups ketchup
3 cups brown sugar
1 red onion, chopped
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp cumin
1 jar mango chutney

Mix together in large saucepan. Bring to boil while stirring, combining completely.

Break out the Bolly(wood)

New Year's Eve 2007 - 2008

I have always loved New Year's Eve (NYE) parties, especially ones held in someone's home. I have a really vivid memory of being at a big NYE house party with my parents and their friends; the crowd were raucous and as they belted out the countdown I remember it being so loud I had to cover my ears. It was delirious fun, capped by a big guy running around kissing everyone, slurring, "I can't believe it's 19 f*'n 82, man." This party defined NYE for me. I was 6 years old.

So since NYE 2002-03 my partner Chris and I have thrown a party. We started doing it because:

  1. We hate being out on NYE. Too many crazy people (see above).
  2. Our neighbors with kids weren't going out either.
We've done themes before, but this year I wanted to challenge myself with a new cuisine - Indian. I've taken an Indian cooking class and have been practicing with recipes from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni for more than a year, which is woefully inadequate training and preparation to pull off authentic dishes. I was really nervous that I was going to muck it up big time, and while the food is not the feature of a NYE party (it's the champagne!), it should at least be edible!

So in the true spirit of "Countrypolitan Cooking" I pulled together some tried-and-true recipes from parties past, many of which are southern or country party staples, and updated them with Indian flavors, spices, and cooking techniques. The results turned out great and everyone had a smashing time, so I would definitely recommend these for your next cocktail party or small gathering.

Indochine Chaat Mix
Lamb Shami Ka-meatballs with Bombay BBQ sauce
Almost Tandoori Chicken with Raita
Curried Chicken Salad with Butterflake Rolls
Crudites with Curried Dip
Cheese plate
Spiced Chocolate Sheet Cake
Ginger Donuts - from Bon Appétit | January 2002