As I have written before, we had lots of pot roasts when I was a kid. Mom usually used beef chuck for her pot roasts and almost always called them chuck roasts. Though I did not understand then why she cooked so many chuck roasts for supper, the explanation is obvious to me today. Beef chuck was tough but cheap. Cooking it with beer over a low fire for an afternoon resulted in a tender roast that was wonderful with vegetables from our garden.
The fact that you could cook the vegetables with the meat during the last hour of roasting might have also been a factor, since that meant fewer pans to wash. When I was growing up, only the finest restaurants had dishwashers, and they were usually high school students like my cousin Teeny who started off as a dishwasher at the Turk’s Inn a mile from our home north of Hayward. Housewives washed their own dishes, at least until their children were old enough to take over the job.
I started washing dishes several years after I had begun helping Mom cook. She could watch her six-year-old son sifting flour, salt and various other things into a bowl or stirring milk and eggs into the flour mixture without making a mess and know that I was following instructions. Quality control of a six- or seven-year-old dishwasher is more challenging. It requires visual inspection of the glasses, plates and silverware, particularly the forks, to make certain that no food remains between the tines. Mothers training children for a career at the kitchen sink also learned to pay extra attention for traces of egg yolk on the breakfast plates or dried oatmeal in the cereal bowls.
Mom may have served chuck roasts to reduce the number of pots she had to wash, but I’m pretty sure that the main reason was the low price of the meat. In 1955, for instance, grocers were selling chuck roast for about twenty cents a pound. That would be under two dollars a pound in today’s dollars. Alas, chuck roast, like oxtails, has become a gourmet cut of beef, with prices often near seven dollars a pound. It is a flavorful cut of meat, however, so it’s worth taking the time to scan the flyers. I have found it occasionally priced under four dollars a pound.
Once you have the meat, making this roast is a snap.
3 to 4 lb. beef chuck roast
1 beef bouillon cube
1 bay leaf
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup dry red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot
1/2 cup water
1/2 medium onion (2 1/2 – 3 inches)
1/2 cup chopped shallots
1 large or 2 medium parsnips
8 to 10 crimini mushrooms
4 to 5 medium carrots
3 to 4 medium potatoes
1 1/2 T cornstarch dissolved in a quarter cup of cold water
Trim excess fat from the meat. Put the trimmings in a skillet with a tight-fitting lid and render the fat scraps until you have coated the bottom and sides of skillet with the rendered fat. Discard the trimmings. Turn the heat up and brown the roast on all sides in the hot pan. Drain any excess fat after the meat is browned.
Turn down the heat, sprinkle the salt and grind the pepper over the meat. Add the wine and water along with the bay leaf, cloves and bouillon cube. Cover and simmer for about one and a half or two hours until the meat is nearly tender. Check once or twice to make certain that the liquid does not boil away. Add a small amount of wine or water if necessary.
Peel and cut the onion into thick slices and place them on top of the meat. Peel and chop the shallot into a quarter-inch dice. Peel and quarter the potatoes and clean and cut the carrots into two-inch pieces. Peel and cut the parsnip into half-inch pieces. Clean and slice the mushrooms. Arrange the shallots, potatoes, carrots and parsnips around the meat in the skillet and salt them lightly. Cook these vegetables for fifteen minutes then add the mushrooms and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender. Remove the meat and vegetables and keep them warm.
To make the gravy add water or a combination of water and wine to make about one and one-half cups of liquid. Dissolve the cornstarch in a quarter cup of cold water, stir it into the pan and cook until the gravy is clear. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Slice the meat and pass it with the vegetables and gravy. Serve with glasses of the wine used to cook the roast accompanied by a green salad and fresh bread.
VARIATIONS: Use red port wine and about a quarter teaspoon of basil instead of the burgundy and bay leaf. Or substitute beer for the burgundy. If you want a little more zip, add a couple of dashes of cayenne or hot sauce.
As natives of northern Wisconsin, my mother and father preferred beer to wine. When Mom bought a bottle of wine, it was a sweet red wine like Mogen David. When she cooked a chuck roast, she sometimes added some beer to the cooking liquid.
If you don’t have shallots available, use a larger onion and a clove of minced garlic. You can substitute ordinary white button mushrooms for crimini or “baby bella” mushrooms. You don’t need to peel thin-skinned new potatoes. Just wash them thoroughly.