When spring-like weather hits in the end of March in Chicago, everyone talks about it with a kind of blissful hopefulness that the winter is finally over. Wrong. It always ends up getting cold again and there always seems to be at least a fleeting possibility of snow well into the first few weeks of April. A warm weather tease is typical for this part of the country, but infuriating, nonetheless. In an effort to ease the misery of cold, cold winds and grey skies that will inevitably fall up on us again (on a weekend, no doubt), I offer up a suggestion: Pot Roast.
With any luck there will not be many more opportunities to battle the weather with comfort food, so I highly suggest digging into this one at some point soon. Like any braised meat, it is a product of time, patience, and a little technique. Keep in mind the following for this: sear, saute, season, simmer, (sup). The fifth “s” is a given, but I believe in the powers of odd numbers. Because this is mostly a bringing together of ingredients, I’ll just relay what I do in prose, as opposed to a recipe form.
Searing is important to setting the foundation of flavor for any pot roast. You want the beef, after all, to taste like beef, and in order to do that, browning is absolutely key. Try using a high-heat oil like peanut or vegetable oil for this, instead of olive oil, which will smoke.
Sear your roast over medium-high to high heat in a large dutch oven and make sure that you get a good crust on it. Some browned bits will stick to the bottom of your pot, but that is a good thing; it is called the fond and it is going to flavor the liquid you use for your braise. I try to leave the roast (as a whole piece) to brown for at least 5 minutes per side, or longer if needed, for a good brown crust. Because I am impatient, I simply have to set a timer for each side of the beef and tell myself that I am not permitted to touch it until the timer goes off. Once you have all the sides of your beef browned, remove it to a large platter and let it rest. Note: I almost always choose a roast from the supermarket that is marked for pot roast, and choose the leanest one I can find.
Once the meat is browned, saute your vegetables in the remaining fat for a bit. I usually use one large onion, a few ribs of celery, and a few carrots and parsnips. I like a toothsome mix, so I leave the chunks of vegetables on the large side – just about bite-sized.
After the onions begin to soften, season with a few smashed cloves of garlic and a bundle of fresh herbs tied up with some twine; this is optional. I like thyme, rosemary, and sage, and you should feel free to use a few shakes of these herbs in dried form if you don’t have them fresh. Toss a bay leaf in there, as well, and make sure that everything has a good dose of salt and pepper.
At this point, you can return the beef to the pot and add a braising liquid to at least half-way up the side of the meat. As far as what to use, I am all for beef stock, chicken stock, red wine, or a mix of these. Bear in mind that an all-wine braise will make for a heavier end result, but one that is very delicious. Bring the liquid to a simmer and then transfer to the oven, without a cover, for anywhere between 2.5 to 4 hours. Keep the temperature low (250 – 300) and keep an eye on it every half hour or so to make sure that there is some liquid in the pot.
For the end result, you want the beef to almost fall apart. Serve with mashed potatoes (riced in a food mill, with milk and butter) and a salad with a lemon vinaigrette to finish.