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