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Today: A feel-good pot roast from two genius women.
Last month, I got an email from my mom titled "Thinking of you" -- it was a picture of the inside of her slow-cooker.
"There's a lovely pot roast under there perfectly seared like a giant chicken fried steak," she wrote.
She must have been remembering my pot roast phase, or protracted slump, after I graduated from college. I'd just started a job I hated (analyzing car lease portfolios, if you must know) and I was weathering a breakup badly. The only thing I liked doing was planning what I would cook for dinner.
But I wasn't in possession of anything as nice as a Crock-Pot, and certainly there was no Le Creuset braiser on the shelf next to my roommate's George Foreman Grill. My specialty was zucchini tacos with blue cheese.
So what I longed for was pot roast -- in a loud, primal aching for comfort food -- and it's what I asked for when I went home to the people who could feed me better.
I suspect that my mom turns to pot roast for the same reasons, and maybe we all do. When life isn't great, pot roast is there, and it doesn't ask for much.
All you need is an unruly hunk of beef, stacked in a pot with vegetables (pot roast begs you not to chop them evenly, or at all), and some liquid -- water, wine, stock, whatever.
It bubbles along for a few hours, fills the house with happy smells, and at the end you get a pot full of meat that melts and falls to pieces, vegetables that have replaced their water content with meat content, and gravy. It makes its own gravy! The only thing it doesn't do is rub your back.
The recipe my mom uses follows this pared-down formula (plus four variations -- I have not included the one that calls for canned fruit syrup), but adds one more cathartic step: you beat flour, salt, and pepper into the meat with the side of a plate. I'm not sure why. It seems to create a thicker crust (adding to that crisp chicken fried steak factor), and a more lustrous gravy in the end.
The recipe comes from an extraordinary woman named Betty Wason, a wartime journalist for CBS who found herself jobless after the war and had to turn to writing cookbooks.
My mom has adapted Wason's recipe for the slow-cooker -- something that Betty Wason didn't have in 1963 when her recipe was published in House & Garden magazine, but surely would have approved. By removing it from the realm of the stove and oven, you're that much freer to have pot roast at any time of year, whenever you need it.
At the end of my mom's email, she asked, "Is there a Genius Pot Roast for Mother's Day?" I think she was just making conversation. But, because she's my mother and I'm all grown up, I listened.
Betty Wason's Basic Pot Roast
Adapted slightly from House & Garden magazine (January, 1963) via Epicurious
Serves 6 to 8
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
5 pounds rump of beef (or other roast suitable for slow-cooking, such as chuck)
2 to 3 tablespoons fat or oil
2 onions, sliced, or 10 to 12 small onions, peeled
1 to 2 carrots, scraped and cubed
Herbs and seasonings, as desired (we used bay leaf and thyme)
1 cup liquid (wine, bouillon, tomatoes, vegetable broth, etc.)
Other vegetables, as desired (we used baby red potatoes)
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom