Beef pot roast is a wonderful thing. With little more than time, you transform a relatively inexpensive hunk of meat and a handful of ingredients into a meltingly tender, satisfying dish. But why limit yourself to thinking of pot roast as an end? Instead, approach it as a beginning to a series of improvisational riffs. You can make a large volume of pot roast (my slow cooker holds up to a 9 pound roast), portion the meat and sauce out separately into multiple quart-zipper bags and freeze them lying flat. Now Sunday dinner or a nice Saturday lunch is less than an hour away.
Here's my basic slow cooker pot roast approach (calling it a recipe feels too formal) followed by variations. I keep the pot roast itself pretty simple because what I'm really after is the tender beef and a basic beefy broth, so I can then flavor them to suit the variations. If you do a little prep work the night before (prepare the soffritto and pre-measure the other ingredients), you can throw it all in the slow cooker as you rush out the door in the morning and be rewarded with an amazing smelling kitchen on your return. Please see my recipe for "Soffritto From the Freezer" here on Food52 to make the prep even easier.
Opinions vary about the best cut of beef, but don't overthink this, just get something with plenty of fat and connective tissue. If you're intimidated by ordering from the butcher, confidently walk up to the window and say "5 pounds of chuck roast, tied, please." It doesn't really need to be tied but you definitely sound like you know what you're doing now. —Mark A. Denner
- Serves 8+
beef chuck roast (see above)
red wine, preferably left over from last night
chicken stock, preferably made from the roast chicken carcass from last night, but whatever works for you
medium carrots, peeled and chopped roughly
stalks of celery, chopped roughly
medium onions, chopped roughly
cloves of garlic, minced
Minute tapioca (for thickening)
sprig fresh thyme
- Prepare soffritto by sauteeing the carrot, celery and onion in 2 tablespoons of oil or butter until beginning to color, 10 minutes over medium low. Add garlic and saute a minute longer. Combine all ingredients in slow cooker. Cook for 10 hours at the slow cooker's Low setting or 6 hours at High, maybe longer for a larger roast.
- Variation #1 - Pot roast: you're obviously 90% of the way there and can credibly serve the above recipe over egg noodles or mashed potatoes directly from the slow cooker. However, proper American pot roast can be made by combining 3 cups of the sauce, 2 cups of chopped canned tomatoes (no juice), 1T of Minute tapioca (for thickening), 1T of tomato paste and 1t of dried thyme in a large pan and simmer for an hour. If you like a saucier sauce, substitute 1 cup of tomato sauce for the 2 cups of chopped tomatoes. Shred or chop enough roast to total 5-6 cups and combine with the sauce and heat through. Serve over starch of your choice (rice is nice).
- Variation #2 - Pot roast ragu: shred three cups of roast with a fork. Make a simple soffritto of a peeled carrot, a stalk of celery and half an onion, roughly chopped together and sauteed in olive oil in a Dutch oven until soft, 7 minutes. While this is cooking, chop a large (29oz) can of whole tomatoes by hand or briefly grind in the food processor, reserving the juice. Mince three cloves of garlic. Add the garlic to the soffritto to cook briefly until aromatic (2 minutes) and then add the tomatoes and shredded pot roast. Add a cup of red wine and about half the remaining tomato juice and reduce the heat to low. Cook uncovered, simmering lightly, for about 45 minutes, adding more tomato juice to get the texture right. If you like a saucier ragu, substitute 2 cups of tomato sauce for the whole tomatoes. If you like a more rustic, traditional ragu, you can add a cup of the pot roast sauce at the beginning of the preparation with just a bit of chopped tomato. Prepare a suitable pasta (tubular would be nice) and when just al dente, add the pasta directly to the ragu, and cook together for a few minutes. Serve with shredded parmesan. Stirring in frozen peas along with the pasta is also quite nice and solves the nightly vegetable problem.
- Variation #3 - Beef barley soup: This one works particularly well if your roast came out a little tough and doesn't shred easily. Chop or shred enough beef for 2 cups. Dice one onion, cut two peeled carrots into 1/4" coins and mince one clove of garlic. Saute the onion in 1T of olive oil in a Dutch oven for 5 minutes over medium heat until very soft . Add 1/2 cup barley and saute with onion over low heat to slightly toast the barley. Add carrots and cover, allowing to sweat for 5 minutes. Add pot roast beef and 6c of pot roast sauce. Cover and cook for 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning and serve.
- Variation #4 - Borscht: You don't have a lot of control over the size of the beets you buy so approach this one as a ratio recipe. You need 6:2:2:2:2 for broth/meat/beets/cabbage/onion so let's say 6 cups of broth, 2 cups of chopped meat, 2 cups of chopped beets, 2 cups of shredded cabbage and 2 cups of sliced onions. Cook whole beets with 1 cup of water in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes (or roast them or buy them pre-cooked, whatever you like). Allow to cool, rub peel off with paper towels and roughly chop. Combine all ingredients and simmer for an hour, adding water if it starts to dry out. Yields an intensely flavored, sweet/savory and dense soup. You could probably live on this indefinitely and be perfectly happy.
- Variation #5 - Beef stew: the distinction between beef stew and pot roast is pretty fine, but I'm shooting for 8 variations here so bear with me. Saute 1 onion, chopped, in 1T olive oil for 7 minutes until soft over medium heat, add 1 minced clove garlic and saute momentarily until fragrant. Add 3 peeled carrots sliced into 1/4" coins, 3 stalks of celery sliced into 1/4" pieces and 4-6 small white potatoes, diced medium. Cover and sweat for 5 minutes over low heat. Combine 2 cups of chopped beef, 1 cup of tomato sauce and 5 cups pot roast sauce, simmer until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Season and serve. If you have fresh parsley, add a handful of it, chopped, right after you turn off the heat.
- Variation #6 - Shepherd's pie: Prepare the beef stew above, substituting 2T tomato paste for the 1 cup of tomato sauce and use only 2 cups of pot roast sauce to create a _very_ thick stew. Remember, you can always add more liquid but you cannot add less, so go slow. Peel and dice coarsely 5 large baking potatoes and simmer until tender in very salty water to cover. Drain, mash and add in a large handful of shredded cheddar cheese, salt, pepper plus dairy of choice (cream, butter or whole milk) to taste with the goal of a fairly loose mashed potato mix. Make sure these potatoes are well seasoned otherwise the dish will be bland. Allow mashed potatoes to cool. In an oversized pie pan or casserole dish, smear butter and coat interior of pan in breadcrumbs with some chopped fresh rosemary or thyme if it's handy (I usually just lightly toast some bread and leave it to crisp in the residual heat of the toaster oven, then chop finely with a knife but feel free to use commercial crumbs), then line the entire inside of the pan with about 1/2 of the mashed potato mix. The best way to do this is with clean, wet hands. Don't overthink this. Top the mashed potato with the beef stew, and then cover the stew with remaining mashed potato again using your wet hands. The goal here is basically a double-crust pie made with mashed potatoes, OK? Lavish the top of the pie with butter and parmesan and bake at 425' until hot and brown (twenty minutes?). The crumbs on the bottom give you a wonderful crunchy contrast to the smooth potato and savory stew. Don't allow the diners to burn their mouths in their eagerness to eat this. This variation may have been stolen from Jamie Oliver. My wife thinks it's better with a pie crust instead of mashed potatoes. Whatever works for you.
- Variation #7: Beef udon soup: Frozen udon noodles are available in most Asian markets and are great. For four diners, bring 6 cups of sauce to a simmer. Slice unpeeled ginger into 3 or 4 1/4" coins and smash with knife blade. Smash 3-4 garlic cloves with knife blade. Add ginger, garlic, and 3 tablespoons of soy sauce to simmering sauce. If you have instant dashi, add a teaspoon. Simmer for 10 minutes and adjust seasonings to taste. Carefully remove the ginger and garlic with tongs. While simmering, finely julienne carrots, snow peas and mushrooms of your choice - this is really more of a garnish. Add 1 cup of shredded beef and return to simmer. Add frozen udon noodles to soup (I find three bundles of noodles is more than enough for four diners) and return to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir to separate noodles, add julienned vegetables and simmer for a minute to blanch the vegetables. Add two to three scallions, chopped (you really need this, trust me) and serve. Serving can be tricky - it's easiest to pour the broth into bowls and then serve the noodles into the bowls using tongs. Fun to eat with chopsticks. Garnish with sesame seeds, sichimi togarashi and pieces of dried seaweed. This is in no way traditional, but it's good fun and it's an excuse for an outing to the Asian food store (assuming you don't go there as a matter of course).
- Variation #8: Sunday lasagna: prepare 4 cups of ragu (above). Buy some prepared fresh lasagna noodles (or use the no bake dried ones, which aren't dreadful) and one pound of frozen spinach (I really like the "leaf" style frozen spinach which isn't frozen in a block). Mince some garlic, add it to 2T of olive oil and saute briefly. Add the frozen spinach to the garlic, cover and allow to defrost and heat through until just cooked and set mixture aside. Prepare a bechamel with a stick of butter, a cup of flour, 4 cups of hot milk, a handful of shredded cheddar and a generous amount of some other cheese, shredded (fontina, taleggio, parmesan - you can't go too wrong). Use the Internet if you don't know how to make bechamel, I have nothing to add here. Make sure it's well seasoned, no one likes bland bechamel. To assemble the lasagna, start with a thin layer of spinach, cover with bechamel and ragu, some parmesan and a sheet of lasagna. Alternate, making sure you leave enough bechamel to cover the top. Sprinkle with parmesan and bake at 350' until golden and bubbling, about 40 minutes, and allow to cool for 20 minutes.