Cabin Pot Roast

This is the story of a pot roast cooked over thirty years ago by two men in a primitive cabin along the English River in Ontario, Canada.

I had persuaded four friends that it would be fun to spend a week catching lots of fish in a remote area that would remind them of their childhood. We would fish lakes with shorelines of trees and grassy meadows instead of cabins and docks. We would be the only boats in sight on lakes filled with fish that had never seen a Rappala and didn’t realize that those curved thingies above those juicy minnows were really nasty hooks.

We could hold the costs down by buying most of the food at our local supermarkets and use the savings to buy a couple of cases of Labatt Blue and some Crown Royal in Fort Frances after we crossed the border from International Falls, Minnesota, into Canada. I would cook breakfast and make sandwiches for lunch, and we would take turns cooking supper. I promised them that they would never forget the trip.

I was right. My fishing predictions proved accurate, but there was another event that left us with an indelible impression. I call it the incident of the broken butcher knife.

We had two boats. Doug, Ed and I shared one while Dick and Bud manned the other. On the second or third day of our adventure, Dick was scheduled to cook a pot roast for supper. I had bought a big roast from the butcher in New Richmond and frozen it to help keep things cold in a cooler on our way north. I checked the roast in the gas refrigerator before we headed out that morning and told Dick it would be thawed for him that afternoon.

About three o’clock, Dick and Bud headed back to the cabin to get supper started. The walleyes were hitting well, and the three of us not on dinner detail relaxed in a breeze over the lake that kept the flies and mosquitoes away from us as we caught and released enough nice fish to make a Wisconsin angler give thanks and go to church three Sundays in a row rather than tempt luck again.

About six o’clock, we motored leisurely back to the cabin, ready for the evening Crown Royal and water. The wonderful fragrance of pot roast greeted us as we came into the cabin. Dick and Bud scowled at us as we came in. We thought it was just because they had to quit fishing when the walleyes were hitting so well, but the problem was worse than that. They were sitting at the table, and the Crown Royal bottle looked less full than it had when we corked it the night before.??“Smells good,” I offered, “everything okay?”

“Well, not really,” answered Bud, who gestured toward the little counter and sink. On the counter in plain sight were two pieces of butcher knife.

“What happened,” I asked.

Dick’s answer didn’t make any sense at first. “Too big,” he said, “too damn big.”

Dave or Ed chimed in, “The knife was too big?”

“The roast,” answered Dick.

“It wouldn’t fit in the pot,” explained Bud, “so I got a rock to pound the knife through the damn bone.”

Once they had broken the knife in half, they used the rock to hammer the stub of the knife through the bone in the roast to make the meat fit in the Dutch oven.

“Why did you chop the bone in half?” I asked.

“It was too big to fit,” said Dick. “What would you have done?”

“Cut the bone out of the meat,” I replied.

“Oh,” said Dick, and had another swallow of Crown Royal.

The roast was delicious, but we were charged twelve dollars for the broken knife.

“I’m not surprised,” said Dick, who as a banker was appointed our treasurer, “they charged us twenty-five cents apiece for the minnows.”

But it was worth it. We caught a lot of fish and had a vacation to remember.

Here is how to make a really simple beef pot roast, the sort of dish you put together in a kitchen that has only the basics.


4 or 5 lb. beef chuck roast
3 – 4 slices bacon
1 – 1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup water + more as needed
1/2 – 3/4 tsp. black pepper
1 large yellow onion
4 – 5 russet potatoes
5 – 6 large carrots
5 T all-purpose flour


Cut the bacon into half inch pieces and cook them in a Dutch oven or stew pot over moderate heat until much of the fat has been rendered from the meat, but the bacon is not crisp. Remove the bacon from the grease and brown the roast on all sides until it is good and dark. If there is much more than four tablespoons of fat in the pan, spoon out and discard the extra.

Sprinkle a teaspoon of salt on a three and a half or four pound roast or a teaspoon and half on a five pounder along with the black pepper. Return the bacon to the pan, pour a cup of beer and a half cup of water around the meat, and bring the pan up to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for about two hours. Check occasionally and add more beer or water if necessary.

While the meat is cooking, clean and slice the onion and peel and chop the potatoes into inch and a half pieces. Scrape or peel the carrots and cut them into inch and a half pieces. If they are big carrots, I like to split the thick ends lengthwise before cutting them into pieces.

Arrange the vegetables around the meat after about two hours. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the vegetables and raise the heat to return the pot to boiling. Cover, reduce the heat and cook until the vegetables are tender, thirty to forty-five minutes.

Remove the meat and vegetables. Add more beer or water so there is about three cups of broth in the pan. Use a fork to whisk the flour into a quarter cup of cold water, then stir the mixture into the liquid. Bring the pan back to a boil and cook for about four minutes to make a smooth gravy. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Serve with bread and beer or water or whatever.

NOTES: You can use water as the cooking liquid, but beer gives a much better flavor. Don’t worry about the alcohol. All of it will have disappeared before the roast is done. The alcohol will help tenderize the meat, but what you really want is the flavor. If you brought any beef bouillon cubes with you to the cabin, adding one would improve the flavor as well.

Braised Top Round Beef Roast

To paraphrase Juliet in Shakespeare’s wonderful love story, “A braised beef roast by any other name would taste as good.”

Call it a pot roast if you like. Brown the beef well, add some vegetables and a cooking liquid in which to simmer the meat, and you will have a braised beef roast. Braising is a cooking method for turning a tougher cut of meat into a tender main course for dinner. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word comes from a French word, “braiser,” which means hot charcoal.

In the eighteenth century, “braise” came into English to describe a method of cooking a la braise, which the O.E.D. describes as “to stew in a tightly-closed pan (properly with a charcoal fire above and below), the meat being surrounded with slices of bacon, herbs, etc.” Neither the French nor we use charcoal fires to braise beef or cook pot roasts today, but we all enjoy a good roast.

The source of the heat is not really important. Electric, gas or wood ranges work equally well. However, you cannot make a true pot roast or braised beef roast in a slow cooker, since you need to sear the meat in a hot pan or Dutch oven before adding the other ingredients.

The recipe below creates a rich flavorful roast. The bacon and parsnip add a complexity of flavor lacking in conventional pot roasts, hence my naming it Braised Top Round Beef Roast. You could use bottom round roast if you prefer. A chuck roast has more fat, so it might not work as well. I would suggest making an Easy Beef Pot Roast with it instead.


2 to 3 lb. beef top round roast
3 or 4 slices bacon
1/4 tsp. salt plus a little on the carrots and potatoes
1/8 tsp. black pepper plus a little on the carrots and potatoes
1 medium onion (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter)
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/2 cup water
1 beef bouillon cube
1 small parsnip
1 bay leaf
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
4 to 5 carrots
2 to 3 medium potatoes
1 1/2 T all-purpose flour
1 1/2 T softened butter
A little brown gravy sauce (optional)


Though round roast is very lean, there may be a layer of fat left on the meat on one edge, most of which you should trim away. You do not need to trim all of it off, and be careful not to cut away any of the lean meat. Cut the bacon slices into pieces about two inches long. Put the bacon along with the fat trimmings into a covered skillet over moderate heat and cook it for three or four minutes. Do not overcook the bacon. It should not be crisp. Discard the fat trimmings and set aside the bacon.

You should have about a tablespoon of grease in the skillet. Increase the heat to high and brown the roast on all sides. There should be dark brown areas on the roast. Drain the pan to leave no more than a teaspoonful of grease. Reduce the heat to low. Sprinkle salt and grind pepper over the roast.

Layer the bacon on top of the roast. The bacon adds flavor and bastes the meat as it cooks. Clean and cut the onion into quarter-inch slices and layer them on the bacon. Don’t worry if some pieces of onion fall off the roast. Pour the water and wine around the meat.

Peel and mince or grate the parsnip. You should have about a quarter cup. Sprinkle the parsnip into the liquid around the meat along with bouillon cube, the bay leaf and cloves. Cover and simmer very slowly for two hours. Check occasionally and add liquid if necessary.

If you are using thin-skinned red or yellow potatoes, just wash them thoroughly and cut them into quarters or sixths, depending on the size of the potatoes. Thicker-skinned potatoes such as russets should be peeled before you quarter them. Peel or scrape the carrots and cut them into two inch pieces. I like to split larger carrots in half lengthwise before cutting them into pieces.

Arrange the vegetables around the meat, sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper, cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, thirty-five to forty-five minutes.

In a small bowl mix the butter and flour together to make a paste. This paste is what the French call beurre manié (roughly burr-mun-yay). Literally, it means kneaded butter. Think of it as a soft dough that thickens a broth and makes it taste even better.

When the vegetables are tender, remove the meat and vegetables from the pan and keep them warm while you make the gravy. If necessary, add equal amounts of water and wine to the liquid in the pan so you have about a cup and three-quarters of liquid.

Drop the beurre manié paste you made earlier by small amounts into the hot liquid, using a whisk or fork to blend away the lumps. Keep stirring and raise the heat slightly if necessary to bring the gravy to a simmer. Cook the gravy for three or four minutes. Add a few drops of brown gravy sauce if you want a darker gravy. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

Serve with a salad or relishes and bread.

NOTES: You can make beurre manié in quantity and store it to use later. Knead equal amounts of flour and butter together until you have a firm paste. Roll marble-sized balls and store them in a closed container in the freezer. When you need to thicken a sauce or gravy, stir two balls into the hot broth for each cup of liquid. Add more balls for a thicker sauce or gravy.

I keep encountering people who say that they don’t like parsnips. When we have time to visit about this vegetable, I often find that they don’t even know what a parsnip looks like and have never eaten one. Trust me, you will not taste anything odd in the sauce. The sweetness and pungency of that little root works wonders in beef sauces. However, you may have to tell the cashier at the checkout that the little white root is a parsnip, so he or she can key the right code into the scanner.