About three years ago, I flew down to visit Carl in Texas for the first time. My primary cooking those days was fast and easy college food – eggs and bacon, a big pot of soup to last the week, a quiche or a crock pot dinner. Tasty, but not exactly skilled cookery. Suddenly there was a hungry man to cook for. One I liked. A lot. And wanted to impress. Enter my mother, and several surreptitious phone calls back to the Midwest as I navigated an unfamiliar Texas grocery store and a bachelor’s poorly stocked (but very clean) kitchen. Copious phone hints and double-checks later, I’d made my mother’s pot roast for the first time. That may have been the point when Carl decided he would eventually propose. It was that or the first batch of chocolate-chip cookies.
Good pot roast is good comfort food. Who knows where Mom’s original recipe came from, but she’s tweaked, reinvented, and perfected it for decades. I’ve made it many times since that first visit to Texas: as an engaged woman trekking down the hill from my apartment to his heavy-laden with carrots and beef, as a married woman savoring the kitchen aromas after a long work day, and, this week, in the kitchen of our own house for the first time. I’ve refined, added, and subtracted elements of the original recipe each time, and this last iteration beat all its predecessors.
What makes a good pot roast? Lots of things, but here are a few key points:
- Ditch the crock pot. Cook the meat in a low-heat oven for a very long time. The texture and flavor of good roasted meat just can’t be matched by a slow cooker (which tends to boil meat rather than roasting it).
- Ditch the potatoes. This one I discovered while cooking Atkins Diet-compliant meals for Carl. The difference in a potato-less pot roast was so dramatic I’ve never added them back in, although other menus long-since replaced the Atkins Diet. Potatoes soak up a lot of the juice, leaving the meat dry and less savory. Make mashed potatoes on the side instead so you still get all that good starchy flavor without compromising the roast.
- Use worcestershire sauce and mustard among your seasonings. Yes, mustard sounds a little weird. When Mom recited the original recipe I raised an eyebrow (actually both eyebrows – try as I might, I’ve never mastered the single-eyebrow lift), but these two add a lot of depth and richness to the dish’s flavor. If there’s a little red wine around the house pour some in as well.
- Use pearl onions instead of regular yellow onions. Yellow onions taste pretty good, but pearl onions soak up more flavor and come out of the oven tender and sweet.
The above hints could apply to any pot roast recipe you like, but here’s the way I make it these days. These are rough amounts since I never measure when making this dish.
NEW HOME POT ROAST
This recipe feeds about 6 people. You can halve the portions and cook in an 8×8 dish for a smaller household, but pot roast is even better the second day so making plenty and enjoying the leftovers doesn’t hurt. I adjust the vegetables up or down according to taste/what’s in the house.
– 2.5 – 3 Lb Chuck Roast (look for one with a good amount of marbling/fat lines running through the meat – they’ll keep it tender while roasting)
– 1.5 – 2 yellow onions cut into wedges OR 20 – 30 pearl onions. Yellow onions are easier for fast prep, but the pearl onions absorb more flavor.
– 4 – 6 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1 – 2 inch chunks
– 4 – 6 stalks of celery, cut into 1 – 2 inch chunks
– 28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
– 1 Tbsp. worcestershire sauce (adjust to taste)
– 1.5 Tbsp. brown mustard like a Dijon, or 1 Tbsp. mustard powder (adjust to taste)
– 1 tsp. garlic powder
– ½ – 1 tsp. pepper (adjust to taste)
– ¼ cup red wine (optional, but very nice if you’ve got some in the house)
– 2 tsp. dried parsley (optional)
– 1/2 tsp. fresh or dried thyme (optional)
Pre-heat oven to 325°. Put a small pot of water on to boil if using pearl onions.
Melt 2 – 4 tbsp. butter in a frying pan on medium-high heat (or in a stove top/oven-safe casserole). Pat the chuck roast dry with a paper towel. Rub generously with salt, pepper, and flour. Brown in the butter on all sides, including edges – this will probably take 30 seconds or a minute to a side, and helps seal in the juices while the meat roasts.
If using pearl onions, drop them in the boiling water for 1 minute, then drain in a colander and run cool water over them so you can handle them. Slice the fuzzy brown end off each. Roll each onion with your fingertips on the counter or a cutting board. The skin loosens and comes right off.
Place meat in a casserole or 13×9 glass pan, and arrange onions (pearl or yellow), carrots, and celery around the meat.
Empty diced tomatoes into a bowl. Stir in Worcestershire sauce, mustard, garlic salt, sprinkle of salt, pepper, red wine, parsley, and thyme. Pour over the meat and vegetables.
Put in the oven loosely covered by a lid or foil. The longer you cook it, the better, 2 – 3 hours. Remove the lid or foil about 45 minutes before the end of the cooking time so that the liquid has a chance to boil down and thicken.
Serve with mashed potatoes or thick-sliced bread to sop up all the juice.