Admission: Until recently I had never cooked a pot roast. I’m sure I’ve only tasted it once or twice in my lifetime, but I can’t remember the occasions.



 

 


Admission: Until recently I had never cooked a pot roast. I’m sure I’ve only tasted it once or twice in my lifetime, but I can’t remember the occasions.


Intellectually I know the method — sear until brown on the outside; braise until fork-tender. I’ve just never tried it. But in the last few weeks I keep running into pot roast references. On TV shows (and not just on food-related shows), in movies, and in glossy food magazines and electronic newsletters.


An American classic, pot roast is plain, family fare. Cooked right, the tough cut of beef turns meltingly tender and deeply flavored. But sometimes it turns out slightly lumpy looking, like a family member hanging out in front of the TV in a sweatsuit.


So no one hurries to post its picture on Instagram and tweet out to friends. And no one invites friends for pot roast. But in these pocket-pinching times, when steak and shrimp are less affordable, pot roast, like a Broadway musical, is in revival. And packing the house.


I needed to make my own, finally. I turned to experts from the parts of the country where it’s done best — the Heartland, New England, and the South. The basic ingredients never change — a 3- to 5-pound chuck or bottom round, carrots, onions and beef stock. Basic techniques remain the same. And the recipes work especially well if the cook owns an ovenproof, heavy, enamel-coated cast iron casserole.


So what did the experts say? Fanny Farmer, who owned a cooking school in Boston at the turn of the 20th century, sprinkled her roast with flour, salt and pepper before browning in shortening. She seasoned with thyme, tomato juice and Tabasco.


By mid-century, James Beard switched from shortening to butter and oil, but still used flour. He seasoned with a whole onion stuck with cloves, bay leaf and thyme. He added carrots and turnips to the pot. Both described the end point as “fork-tender.”


By the 1970s, pot roast had definitely declined. Some big-city caterers tried to slice and toss it with pasta. They gussied it up adding canned tomatoes, red wine and parsley, a stomach-churning conglomeration. On Nantucket, another caterer outdid them adding anchovies, garlic, red and green olives and dried fruits to make it palatable for Saturday-night company.


Meanwhile, Heartland cooks held to the code: beef, fat, thyme, bay leaf, beef stock, vegetables. But the red wine and a bit of tomato puree caught on. It deepened the flavor of the sauce. A few had the temerity to add potatoes and kale to the vegetables.


By the 1990s, professor Mark Sohn, researching Appalachian Mountain home cooking, skipped the browning entirely, simmering the beef, stock, carrots, potatoes, onions together for several hours on one day. Then cooled, stored, and finished cooking a day later. Sour cream, stirred into the sauce, was optional.


A hundred years after Fanny Farmer, another New England cook, Brook Dojny, wrote about a Yankee pot roast with the original ingredients. She applied some sophisticated French technique, chopping onions and garlic to flavor the roast. And simmered her vegetables, parsnips and frozen pearl onions, separately.


Below is my pot roast, an amalgam of all the recipes above. It tastes best with creamy mashed potatoes.


OLD-FASHIONED POT ROAST


Makes 6 servings


3 tablespoons neutral oil, e.g. vegetable, canola


4 pound boneless chuck roast, trimmed


1/4 cup all-purpose flour


2 tablespoons tomato paste


1/2 cup dry red wine (optional)


1-1/2 cups beef stock, homemade or favorite pre-packaged


1 large yellow onion, sliced


1 large whole clove garlic, peeled


6 medium carrots, peeled, cut into 3-inch pieces


3 large ribs celery, cut into 3-inch pieces


4 large sprigs fresh thyme


2 bay leaves


1. Heat oven to 300 degrees.


2. Warm the oil in a large, heavy, ovenproof casserole. Add the roast and sear all over, 10 minutes.


3. Stir flour into the pot; cook, stirring 1 minute until flour is lightly golden. Add tomato paste and cook 1 minute longer.


4. Add wine and the stock. Bring the liquid up to a simmer, and cook stirring and scraping up the caramelized bits of beef from the bottom until the liquid reduces slightly.


5. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves.


6. Transfer to the preheated oven. Cover and cook until meat is fork-tender, 2 to 2-1/2 hours. Remove and discard garlic, thyme, and bay leaves. Tent with aluminum foil until ready to serve.


7. Bring the cooking juices in the casserole to a simmer on top of the stove over medium heat. Cook, stirring, until reduced and slightly thickened. Slice the roast and transfer to a warm serving platter with the vegetables all around it. Pour the sauce over the roast to serve.


Linda Bassett is the author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai: Neighborhood Cooking North of Boston.” Reach her by email at KitchenCall@aol.com. Read Linda’s blog at LindABCooks.wordpress.com. Follow Linda for quick recipes on Twitter at @Kitchencall.