Welcome to my kitchen

A while ago, I realized I was serious enough about bread baking to stop diddling around with the 3-packs of yeast from the grocery store, or even the small jars for a small fortune. So I pulled up my big girl pants, and ordered "A Pound Of Yeast". It's in my freezer, and I use it regularly, and I guess that makes me "A Baker". Even though I always said "I can't bake". So, join me on my journey, and let's see what that pound of yeast makes, and where we go next....

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Of Pot Roasts And Physics

A week or so back, the weather in Lotus Land was conducive to a pot roast.  (Remind me to expound at some point about how completely whacked the Southern California weather has been this year….or not.)  At any rate, it felt “Fall-ish” and I was in the mood for big-time comfort food, which of course, pot roast exemplifies.

Now.  When I was a snot-nosed kid, I *hated* pot roast.  Just loathed it…….dunno what the heck my problem was.

Well, actually, I think it was an overload of “good, solid, Midwestern meat and potatoes” meals when I was growing up.  God knows, my mother tried, tried, to inject some variety and some *gasp* SPICE into her cooking, but Daddy, well, Daddy didn’t like much of anything that didn’t sit on his plate and declare itself in a loud voice as being “BEEF” and “POTATOES”.  OK, pork was allowed (if it was in chop/ham/bacon form) and chicken made the cut (breasts only, please, never a whole and roasted bird).  And rice and noodles were OK.  Noodles only, please.  Pasta?  Come on, them there’s foreign.  Spaghetti and meatballs (and very, very occasionally, when we were livin’ on the edge, spaghetti and Italian sausage and peppers) were OK.  Tacos were most absolutely NOT OK.  Nor was lasagna.  Chili was acceptable, so long as it was ground beef, canned kidney beans and canned tomatoes.  Light on the onions and garlic.  NO fresh chiles.  A dusting of chile powder (mild) would pass muster.  I hated that stuff too.

My poor mother.  She was open to experimentation, and loved to cook.  Finally, when I got to be a snot-nosed young adult, she took to making two meals.  She’d cook a roast or stew or a pot of spice-less chili for Daddy, and then she and I would have tacos or manicotti or enchiladas or whatever.  Trust me, for us, in the day, THAT was exotic !  It actually worked out fine, especially once I started cooking and would take over making dinner for Mom and me.  Compromise, baby.  It’s what it’s all about.

But back to pot roast.  I actually used to tell my Mom when she cooked it, that I couldn’t understand how pot roast could smell so good when it was cooking, but taste so blah when it was done.  Maybe my snot-nosed palate couldn’t appreciate the beauty that braised meat becomes when cooked properly.  Maybe my Mom’s recipes sucked (onion soup mix anyone?).  Who knows?  But in my advancing dotage, I’ve certainly come to not only appreciate the delights of a pot of braised, succulent meat in a silky, savory sauce (braised beef short ribs are my absolute favorite, death-bed type meal), but to respect it and anticipate it.

Marry that with some (yes) potatoes, creamy and smashed, and well, it’s pretty much Nirvana (not to mention comfort and warmth) on a plate.

And…as an extra added bonus (insert wild applause here), we learn a lesson in physics !  YAY us, especially considering again, I never actually, technically *passed* a college-level math class.  Nor a college-level (ok, fine, even a HIGH-SCHOOL level) physical science class.  But I rocked in the biological sciences……does that count?  I think it does.

Luckily for me, when we hit the downswing of the weather pendulum last week, I had half of a chuck roast stashed away in the freezer from last winter for just such an occasion. Again, as a consequence of cooking for just one, and hating leftovers, sometimes you just gots to get creative. Last winter, I wanted a pot roast, chuck roasts went on sale at the MegaMart and off I went. But the smallest chunk ‘o’ cow I could find weighed almost four pounds.

That’s a damn lot of pot roast for one person and two small dogs (even if one could be considered “portly”….Lulu…..).

So, before I cooked the initial version last year (from Ina Garten, it was good), I split the hunk ‘o’ beefy goodness into two equal pieces.  One I cooked (thanks Ina) and one I put into a pseudo-vacuum sealie bag, labeled (yay me !  LABEL !!), inventory listed (yay me !  INVENTORY  !!) and shoe-horned into the freezer.  Now was the time to dig it out and cross it off the inventory list.  PLUS, I had a new recipe (and we all know what a new recipe ho’ I am) to try out for pot roast.

So let’s get cracking, shall we?

First of all you take your pot roast, season it really well with salt and pepper on all sides, drop it into a zippie-bag and pour some dry red wine into the bag.  Seal that bad boy up and stash it in the fridge for at least 8 hours, or up to overnight.

Now.  Here’s where the physics lesson begins.  I had *assumed* that if I was using half the amount of meat and veggies (which I was, the recipe as originally written serves 6 to 8, um, not what I got in my house), I would use HALF the amount of liquid, too.  The recipe as written called for a bottle of wine, and a four-pound roast.  Since I had about a two-pound roast, I should use half a bottle of wine, right?  Bonus, that leaves me half a bottle to swig….savor.

Not so much, as we’ll see in a bit.  That’s me.  Sharing even the faux pas so all y’all can learn from my mistakes.  That’s the kind of giving person I am……

But I digress.

I *do*, however, give myself some major props for figuring out where I mucked up, and why.

Let’s carry on, I’m getting on the digression trail yet again.

Here’s Mr. Meat after his overnight bath in lovely red wine.

This is why I think this method has so much potential.  Look at the color of that meat.  You can see how much the wine and spices have penetrated deep into the fibers of the roast.  That used to be my major beef (sorry…..bad pun) with pot roast.  The outer 1/32 of an inch tasted great.  The rest tasted like wet flannel.

So, you pull the beef out of the marinade (saving the wine) and brown it hard on all sides in some oil in a Dutch oven.  Before it goes into the pot, dry it really, really, and I mean REALLY well with some paper towels.  Wet meat will never, ever brown right.  It will steam, and you’ll be sad.  Dry it well, and it will crust and you’ll be ecstatic.

Take some onions and carrots and slice them up.  No need to worry about technique, this veg is eventually going to be strained out, so no one will see it.  Toss in some smushed (technical culinary term alert….) garlic as well.

Then take some celery, and some parsley and a clove.  Cut the celery in half, and cut the stems off the parsley.  THIS time, the stems are what you want.

I found that keeping the twistie-tie on the bunch of parsley made it easier to trim the stems cleanly.

Then take the stems

and a bay leaf and sandwich that into one of the celery pieces.

Take the other celery piece, and put it, curved side down, on top of the first celery piece and the “filling”.

Then wrap a piece of kitchen twine around the little bundle ‘o’ numminess, and tie it off.  See that little brownish thingie sticking up in the top left of the bundle?  That’s the single clove.  You need that too, and it won’t get lost and cause someone tsuris when they bite into it if you jam it into the celery package.  Clever, no?

After the meat has browned really well, pull it out and remove all but about a tablespoon of the drippings.

Toss in the carrots and onions, and let them soften.  Then toss in the celery package and this…

That’s the reserved wine that Mr. Biffy marinated in overnight.  That’s actually the pseudo-vacuum zippie baggie that Mr. Biffy resided in during his time in cold storage.  Why use another piece of non-recyclable plastic when you already got one dirty???  Just plunk it in a bowl or a baking dish to contain anything that might leak….

Simmer the veg and the wine for a bit, and reintroduce Mr. Biffy to the pot.

You can see how brown the exterior of the meat got during step one.  Trust me.  This will make your mouth happy.  Take the time to really, really sear off that meat.  Also note, if your piece of roast is sort of a “chunkish” shape like this one is, brown ALL of the sides, not just the “top” and the “bottom”.  You’ll be happy you did.  It’s all about the flavah, baby.  This is time well spent.

There’s some red wine vinegar in there as well.  Then cover the whole gamish with a sheet of parchment.  The OR (original recipe, I like it, let’s keep that for future use, shall we?) said to use aluminum foil, and that, to me, seemed wrong.  I was afraid of the acid in the wine/vinegar interacting with the foil, especially since I was cooking in an anodized aluminum pot, and I’ve had issues with acid/al foil/anodized before.  So I used parchment.  Seemed safer.  Anyways, you want the cover (called a cartouche, which is a real, honest-to-goodness technical culinary term !) to be fairly loose over the meat.

Then you slap the lid on the Dutch oven, and toss that pot into a 450° oven for two-and-a-half hours.

No.  You didn’t misread that.  I actually thought I had when I went back to review the recipe before I made it.  Heck, I’d harvested the recipe from the Interwebs months ago…..or from a library book, and I think I actually transcribed it, or edited it to make it print more cleanly.  I was sure, sure, dead-bang positive sure that the time/temp were errors I’d made in transcription/editing.

It wasn’t.  I traced the recipe back to the original source, and found that temp and that time are both correct.

I know.

I know.

It totally flies in the face of the traditional logic of cooking a tough, sinewy, chewy cut of beef like a chuck roast “looooooooowwwwww and sllllloooowwwwww” to get it tender.  So, I was prepared to be disappointed at best, and royally miffed at worst, that I’d spent all that time, and wine, and meat, and wine, and effort, and wine, and energy, and did I mention wine for a result that would suck.

It didn’t suck.  Not by a long shot.  Now.  Where I DID have a problem was that, at such a high temperature, and such a prolonged cooking time, the liquid reduces drastically.  DRASTICALLY.  This is not a simmer, folks, it’s mostly a hard boil.  Here comes that pesky physics lesson.  *I* used half the amount of wine and vinegar for half amount of meat and veg.  Seems logical, right….

Yeah.  Wrong.

See, the heat and volume of liquid were constants.  So they were going to reduce at the same rate no matter how much meat and veg I had in the pot.  As a result, my sauce way over-reduced.  Now, the OR did say that you might need to add water during the cooking time when you checked the pot and turned the meat, in order to prevent scorching.  But I had to add so much to keep the liquid volume up, I ended up with a rather insipid, watery sauce with not much flavor.  The meat rocked.  Just rocked.  But the sauce was meh at best.  Even after I tried boosting the flavor with some beef bouillon base and some (ahem) “gravy enhancer” (not naming Kitchen Bouquet, just sorta throwin’ it out there…..).  Next time, full volume on the wine.  And the vinegar.  And possibly on the veg....

So, to finish this sucker off, you pull the meat and tent it.  Take some butter, melt it down in a sauté pan and sauté some garlic and quartered mushrooms until the ‘shrooms get nice and browned.  Like these….

Drain the veg out of the sauce, letting the fat rise so you can skim it.  Shout out to the genius that is a fat-separator cup.  Pour the skimmed liquid back into the Dutch oven, add back in the meat (it will probably shred when you look at it) and the mushrooms and simmer a bit to bring everything together.  Toss in some chopped parsley….

…and serve over these….

….to get this !

Yeah babe.  Now THAT’S a pot roast to write home about.

Leftovers?  Hmmmmmm.  Funny you should ask, considering how I feel about them…..I thickened up the sauce into a gravy (with another added boost of “gravy enhancer”) with a flour/water slurry and served the shredded beef in the gravy on egg noodles.  That was pretty damned soothing as well.

Here’s the recipe

Mushroom Pot Roast
Adapted from Russ Parsons (from I believe How To Read A French Fry)
Serves 6-8

3&1/2-4 pound chuck roast (bone in would be best, like a 7-bone or round-bone roast, but boneless will work)
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper
1 (750 mL) bottle dry red wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound yellow onions, sliced
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and sliced
6 garlic cloves, smashed (divided use)
1 stalk celery
1 bay leaf
Stems from 1 bunch parsley, plus 1/4 cup finely chopped leaves
1 whole clove
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound button mushrooms, cleaned and quartered

Sprinkle roast on all sides with salt and pepper, and place in a 1-gallon zippie-bag.  Pour wine over, seal, and put in a deep bowl or baking dish.  Refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or overnight.  Turn occasionally to make sure all the meat is covered with the wine.

Preheat the oven to 450°.  Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Remove the roast from the bag, reserving wine.  Pat dry thoroughly with paper towels.  Place roast in pan and brown deeply on all sides.  Remove the roast to a plate, and drain off all but about 1 tablespoon of the drippings.  Reduce heat to medium.  Add in the onions, carrots and 4 of the smushed garlic cloves.  Cut the celery in half, stuff one of the halves with the parsley stems, and top with the bay leaf.  Cover with the other half stalk, and tie the two pieces together with a piece of kitchen twine.  Stick the clove into one of the stalks.

Add the celery bundle and the reserved wine and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Return the meat to the pot, and add the wine vinegar.  Cover loosely with a piece of parchment paper, and then the lid of the Dutch oven.  Place in the oven and cook until the meat is easily pierced with a sharp fork and is falling from the bone, about 2 to 2&1/2 hours.  Turn the meat over every 30 minutes, and stir up the liquid and the vegetables.  Add water as needed, up to a cup total, a little at a time, to keep the meat and vegetables from scorching.

Transfer the meat to a plate and tent with foil to keep warm.  Pour the sauce and the veg through a strainer, over a bowl, pressing on the veg to extract as much liquid as possible.  Set liquid aside for fat to rise, discard the vegetables.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  When butter has foamed and subsided, add the mushrooms and the remaining 2 cloves of smushed garlic, and cook, tossing, until the ‘shrooms are lightly browned and have given up their liquid, about 5 minutes.

Skim the fat from the juices and return the meat and sauce to the Dutch oven.  Bring liquid back to a boil.  Add the mushrooms and cook for about 15 minutes, over a low heat, to marry the flavors.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and garnish with the chopped parsley leaves.  Serve over mashed potatoes.

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