What could be more American than a pot roast, right? In fact, the idea of slow roasting a beef roast until it is tender has a long, hearty and international history. As is so often the case, when the wolf is at the door, economy leads to innovation; some cuts of beef, like a chuck roast or rump roast, are just tough, and cooking them on the grill can render miserable results. The tougher cuts tend to be less expensive, so the cook with few coins in his purse turns to braising in order to feed his family well.
In fact, the term to braise comes to us from the French, braiser and they borrowed it from the Spanish word, dobar. Whatever the origins of the word it describes a technique for roasting at a low temperature for long periods of time. This technique is certainly specific to the less tender cuts and would ruin a filet or porterhouse steak. There is even a pot especially designed for braising. It is low sided and squat and always has a lid, but any heavy pot will do. A Dutch oven or the now so popular cast iron pot coated with ceramic would be perfect, but it does need to be pretty heavy duty to evenly disperse and hold the heat.
Good recipes for braising beef come to us from the Germans, with what amounts to a national dish known as sauerbraten. This recipe calls for the beef to be marinated for several days in a mixture of vinegar, wine, herbs and spices and then slow cooked. The recipe is also used to cook pork, venison and lamb.
The Italians might offer up Stracotto Alla Fiorentina, or Florentine beef stew. This method cooks a rump roast in a tomato sauce with vegetables and then purees the sauce and vegetables to form a thick sauce.
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The French have a double handful of recipes for slow cooking beef and perhaps the most famous, popularized in the United States by none other than Julia Child, is Boeuf Bourguignon. The French also give us the braising technique known as en daube, or braising in a red wine stock.
Our clash of local cultures produced a wonderful recipe in the Italian/French combination of daube spaghetti. This Creole specialty slow cooks beef in tomato sauce, shreds it and tosses it with pasta.
In fact, the real question that begs to be ad
dressed might be what to serve braised beef with. The Germans might prefer boiled potatoes or potato dumplings, kartoffelkloesse, knödel or the wonderful egg noodles called spätzle. Tender beef and pan gravy topped with crispy French fries is about as decadent as you can get, and another local favorite, a roast beef po-boy, has got to be at the top of the list. But perhaps first place should go to creamy mashed potatoes, with a tab of good butter and topped with falling apart roast beef and gravy.
On the technical side, there is the question of whether the meat should be cooked whole or cubed and cooked. Let's leave this question to personal choice, as there is no clear evidence that one approach is better than the other. One variable does remain that everyone agrees on: The meat must be seared aggressively. Perhaps the most common mistake is to rush this process and come away with a light browning and not the serious sear that is best. Take no shortcuts here.
ANTHONY BOURDAIN'S BOEUF BOURGUIGNON
2 pounds beef roast
4 sliced onions
6 thick sliced carrots
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup red wine (pinot noir would be best)
1 clove garlic
1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay and parsley)
Salt and pepper
Cube the roast, season with salt and pepper and sear a little at a time in a hot, oiled Dutch oven or other heavy pot. When nicely browned, add the onions and carrots and cook for about 10 minutes, then add the red wine and reduce by half. Add the cubed beef back to the pot, add the bouquet garni and add water to cover by 1-2 inches. Simmer for about 2 hours or until fork tender.
Bourdain suggests the use of demi-glace, if you have it use it; otherwise, you might consider the use of a good homemade beef stock mixed with half water. Demi-glace is a time consuming sauce to make but it freezes well and last a long time. It is a weekend project you should consider.
GULF COAST ROAST BEEF
1 sirloin tip roast, 2-3 pounds
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
2/3 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup thick sliced carrot
4-6 toes garlic, finely chopped
1/2 bottle pinot noir (use the good stuff)
Salt and pepper
1-2 pinches red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon herbs de Provence
Season the roast with salt and pepper and sear in a well-oiled heavy pot. Take your time and do it right. When well browned and crusty, remove the roast and add all of the vegetables, minus only the garlic, season liberally and sauté for 12 minutes, making sure to stir up the crusty bits that have adhered to the bottom of the pot. Add the garlic and cook until tender, just 2-3 minutes, but be sure not to burn the garlic, as that would ruin the dish. Add the beef and the wine and then reduce by half. Next add water to cover and simmer slowly with the lid on for at least 2 hours. Remove the lid, taste and season as necessary and continue cooking until fork tender. Remove the beef and, using an emersion blender, blend the gravy until thick and almost smooth. Return the beef and serve.
Herbs de Provence is not always available, but you can substitute fresh herbs. A few stems of thyme and a bay leaf can be added about halfway through the cooking process. If you add them too soon they will cook apart and lose some of their pungency.
If you want to add a decidedly Asian twist to your roast, add 2 star anise and 1 stick of Vietnamese cinnamon to the stock and vegetables and serve with fat Udon noodles. Make sure to remove the dried herbs before serving.
Serve this roast with the same good quality pinot noir you used for cooking, or you might like to try the great Italian bargain Col Di Sasso. This dish is so hearty you might like it best with nothing more than a good crusty French baguette and a green salad with a simple vinaigrette.