Exonerating the Pot Roast

I don’t like the term “comfort food.” I think it’s condescending and drips with unnecessary, misplaced nostalgia. When I was in high school, I walked to school. It wasn’t uphill both ways. Sometimes there was snow, but the sidewalks were generally plowed. It didn’t build character. It didn’t “make me who I am.” It was just how it was. There was a term for me walking to school. We called it “going to school.” The same is true for what we ate. We ate things like pork chops and shepherds pie and spaghetti and meatballs and pot roast. All the things that now fall under the label “comfort food.” We had a word for it then, too. We called it “supper.” Why it all now needs a new label to somehow make it worth revisiting is beyond me.

My memories of the food I ate as a child are all, for the most part, good ones. I still make my own renditions of most of those things now. My memories of pot roasts are not. The pot roasts of my childhood came in two varieties: There was the home kind. Usually dry. Still kind of tough. Sitting. Chewing. Complaining. And there was the school cafeteria kind: A salty soup of brown gravy supporting bits of unrecognizable meat chopped to hell and slopped over an ice cream scoop-shaped ball of mashed potatoes. 

Pot roast is one of those things a place like a school cafeteria frequently abused because they could take a relatively big, cheap piece of meat and with relatively little effort, stretch it in a way that it could serve 500 kids in a couple hours. Over time, that’s what you get to know as “pot roast.” And that’s not fair to pot roast, but it is what it is and when you leave school, you happily leave it behind, too.

Twenty-plus years passed, those gravy-drowned memories rarely revisited, I’m on a constant quest for food that is better, more local, more natural. With a growing family of my own, I found a deal that gets me a half of a beef steer every year. That, as you might imagine, results in a lot of beef. It’s an interesting study in meat economics; calculating what’s good for grilling (relatively little) and what gets ground. A lot of it – most, it would seem – comes from parts of the animal that need slow, special treatment. I cure some. I smoke some. I stew some. But there was more. Oh, I knew what it was, but while I refused to admit it, those ghosts of pot roasts past were unchaining themselves from my deep inner psyche and clawing their way forward. And so I found myself reconciling and in doing so I realized that everything I’d thought about the pot roast wasn’t really the pot roast’s fault at all. It was just the misunderstood victim. It deserved another shot. Not for reasons of nostalgia or even pity. Not to patronize anyone with “comfort food.” It deserved another shot because at its base, pot roast is simply a kind of slow-cooked meat and slow-cooked meat is fucking delicious.

This recipe is a bit unorthodox in that it braises red meat in white wine. That’s ok. Take a breath. Forget what you know. Try it. There are enough other things in the pot that all come from in or close to the ground to tone it all down and swaddle the roast in a delicious blanket of deep, thick earthy gravy. If you’re that bent on red wine, drink some while you’re waiting for the roast to finish. And then more along with it.

(A few thoughts about ingredients: better ingredients make better food. If you use crap wine, once the alcoholly goodness boils off, all you’ll be left with is sour grape juice. The same is true with everything else. I happen to get a pretty good deal on local grass-fed meat. And I know they guy who farms my vegetables. Use what you have available to you, but think about making what’s available to you better. )

Pot Roast with Mushroom Gravy

3-4 pound shoulder roast
¼ cup of canola oil
2 cups of diced carrot
2 cups of chopped yellow onion
¼ cup flour
2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 head of garlic, the cloves peeled and left whole
1 bottle of dry white wine
2 quarts beef stock
2 T dried marjoram
2 T dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 300.

Heat the canola oil in a heavy cast iron or enameled dutch oven. While the oil is heating, rub the roast with salt and pepper.

When the oil is hot, put the roast in the pot and brown on each side, including the ends. When the roast has been seared all over, remove it to a plate. Lower the heat and add the carrots and onions to the pot. Cook, stirring so they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, garlic and flour to the pot and cook, stirring, for another 5 minutes. Keep scraping the bottom of the pot to get the good brown stuff up and into the mix.

Sprinkle in the marjoram and thyme and give it all one more quick stir then pile the vegetables to the sides of the pot to make room for the roast in the middle. With the roast nestled in the vegetable nest, pour in the wine and stock until the roast is submerged. Cover the pot and put it into the oven. Plan on about 45 minutes per pound.  After that time has passed, pull the pot out, remove the lid and test the meat. To do so, plant one fork firmly into the meat. Impale the meat with another fork as deep as you can and give it a twist. If the meat gives and lets you twist the fork, it’s done. If not, give it another half hour and try again.

When the meat is done, remove it to a plate and cover it with foil. Put the pot on a burner over high heat and bring the remaining gravy to a boil to thicken it. If you need additional help bringing it to the right consistency, mix a slurry of milk and flour in a bowl and whisk it into the boiling gravy a little at a time. Until you have the consistency you’re looking for. Taste it and at salt and pepper as needed. (side note about pepper – ounce for ounce, when I’m cooking I probably go through more ground white pepper than black. It adds a completely different dimension than black – warmer, less spicy – and it doesn’t leave lots of little black specks in my food. Give it a try.)

Slice that delicious, tender meat as best you can without it falling apart too much. Thicker is better. Serve each slice on an island of mashed potatoes floating in a moat of gravy. Mashed potatoes with goat cheese are good. Or cheddar. Or cheddar and horseradish. Or garlic. Or. . you get the idea.

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