It's been a typical frosty January here in Petersburg, with just enough snow to be pretty and fun without getting tedious, and just enough frost in the air to make a fire on the hearth welcome but not absolutely necessary.
In other words, it's perfect pot roast weather.
After years of watching my mother and maternal grandparents assemble dozens of this Sunday dinner staple, and almost half a century of making it on my own, I never even glance at a recipe. Yet, except when I'm really homesick, it but rarely comes out exactly like the pot roasts of my childhood—by design.
The lovely thing about dishes like this is that once we've mastered the basic technique and keep in mind which flavors work well together, we're free to be in the moment and just cook. We're also free to let the influence of other cooks who've touched our lives through the years inform what we do with confidence that the end result will still take us home.
I joked to a friend that the pot roast on our plates tonight was "part my mother, part my grandfather, part Julia Child, part Marcella Hazan, and part me." But it wasn't really a joke: all the people who touch our lives inform the way we cook. And a Sunday pot roast is one of the best ways I can think of to remember them all.
Sunday Pot Roast
My nearly ninety-year-old mother's frail body is wearing out and has been failing this winter. We're not likely to ever cook together again. But trying to reproduce her pot roast exactly would not have made me feel as close to her in the kitchen as did cooking the way she did: allowing the time of year, her mood, and her thoughtfulness about those who would be sitting down to the meal to take her where they would.
2½ pounds beef chuck, sirloin, or rump roast
1 tablespoon bacon drippings or olive oil
Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
About 1 teaspoon crumbled dried or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and thinly sliced
1 large or 2 medium cloves garlic, peeled and chopped fine
4 medium or 3 large ribs celery, scrubbed, strung, and sliced into 1-inch chunks
4-5 medium or 3 large carrots, scrubbed, peeled, trimmed, and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 small bay leaves or 1 large broken in half
1 cup pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, or merlot
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups beef broth
6 medium potatoes, scrubbed and quartered
2 tablespoons all-purpose or instant-blending flour
1. Wrap the beef in several layers of paper towels and gently press it and let it sit for at least 15 minutes. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 300° F., then put the fat into a heavy-bottomed 5-quart Dutch oven and warm it over medium heat. When it's quite hot but not smoking, unwrap the beef and carefully put it in the pot. Brown it well on the bottom (about 3-4 minutes), turn, and sprinkle the browned side lightly with salt, pepper, and thyme. When the second side is well-browned (about 3-4 minutes longer), remove the beef from the pot to a plate, seasoned-side-down, and lightly sprinkle the unseasoned side with salt, pepper, and thyme.
2. Spread half the onion over the bottom of the pot and sprinkle half the garlic over it. Lay the beef over the onion, and then scatter the remaining onion and garlic over its top. Scatter the celery and then the carrots around the edges of the meat, season lightly with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, and add the bay leaves. Pour in the wine around the edges.
3. Dissolve the tomato paste in the broth, then pour it around the edges of the meat. It should mostly cover it. If it doesn't add a little water as needed. Add the potatoes around the edges and lightly season them with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire. Cover the pot, turn off the heat, and transfer it to the center of the oven. Bake, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid isn't boiling hard but gently simmering, until the meat is fork-tender, about 2½ to 3 hours.
4. Remove the meat and vegetables to a platter and cover them with foil. Let the pan juices settle, then tip the pot and spoon off the excess fat from the surface. Put the pot over direct medium heat and bring the pan juices back to a simmer. Dissolve the flour in ¼ cup cold water and whisk it into the simmering liquid. Cook, stirring constantly, until it's thickened, then let it simmer 3-4 minutes, or until the flour has lost its raw, pasty taste. Slice or cut the meat into small pieces (some beef cuts like chuck don't slice as well as others, and are easier to cut into chunks). Drizzle it with some of the gravy, and serve with the remaining gravy passed separately.