I frequently remind my mother that the boat I take into the afterlife will be filled with her pot roast. Like the ancient Egyptians, I’ll also take my favorite servants and pottery. But I’m not going anywhere without that tantalizing taste of beef thoroughly drenched in onion and wine gravy.
My mother knows about her dish’s popularity. When I was a child, she would allow us a few minutes of talking through stuffed mouthfuls before shushing us. “I want everyone to concentrate on how good this tastes,” she’d insist.
When I eat my mother’s pot roast it’s the only one that matters. But there are other good tastes to pot roast. As with music, my mood often dictates which recipe I use. A New England-style apple cider pot roast is like Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” Each bite has a consistently luscious, syrupy taste that’s as Americana as a 13-star flag. My mother’s Central European-influenced recipe might evoke Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” And the Western European-style classic hot pot is pure sea chantey.
At Black Forest Café and Bakery in Amherst, the upcoming menu includes pot roast. “It’s our fourth year with it back on the menu because it’s one of the top customer requests,” says Café co-owner Martha Walters. Served with a thick slice of crusty bread, hers is a “one-pot meal,” made of bottom round with beef stock gravy that includes celery, carrots, onions and garlic.
Pot roast is supposed to be unpretentious. It’s inexpensive and easy to cook in large quantities. But newer cookbooks feature it elaborately restyled with snazzy titles. Oven-Braised Beef with Tomato Sauce and Garlic appears in the massive new “Gourmet Cookbook.”
“Jasper White’s Cooking from New England” has a pot roast recipe three pages long if you include his call for batonnets — vegetable slivers — and veal juice made from scratch.
Others forgo pot roast all together. Many New England-style cookbooks with the words “New England,” “Country Cooking,” “Fall Harvest” and “Home Cooking” in their titles have no pot roast recipes at all. There’s Yankee coleslaw, Yankee raspberry tart and Yankee thrift listed in “Yankee Magazine Cookbook” but alas, no Yankee pot roast.
“If I were to take a guess, it’s that pot roast sounds too darn homely,” says Sandy Oliver, editor of “Food History News” (foodhistorynews.com), trying to fathom the trends. “Someone thinks of something brown and moist ... It doesn’t have pizzazz.”
Did the dish originally come through Ellis Island? Oliver warns against writing off the contributions of early Colonial cooking. Pot roast, a “relatively recent” term, is actually a contradiction, since a piece of meat can’t be both roasted and simmered in a pot.
“A genuine roast meant that you cooked it on a spit suspended in front of a fire,” Oliver says. Beef à la mode is one early example of what we would call a pot roast that appears in Amelia Simmons’ “The First American Cookbook,” published in 1796.
The worldwide pot roast family, however, is a large one.
“In India, it’s covered all over with spices. Somewhere else, it’s goat meat,” Oliver says. Sauerbraten is another relation, as is European hot pot.
The recipes have one thing in common. They take relatively inexpensive cuts of meat and not only flavor them but also make them tender enough to cut with a fork. What you save in cost you make up with two to four hours of cooking.
Is my mother’s wine gravy a more modern flourish? Wrong again.
“A lot of early recipes called for wine, but it disappeared from cupboards during the temperance movement,” Oliver says. “Now we think we’re so sophisticated, when cooking with wine was an ancient practice.”
Vegetables never play second fiddle. Either drenched or placed next to a tide of gravy, everything from dainty peas to red cabbage and, of course, the much-beloved mashed potatoes, share top billing. Yet from the looks and taste of it, Martha Walters’ sweet and red smashed potatoes with caramelized onions may be sliding into home plate. It certainly fits the Black Forest Café’s new logo: “Comfort food with a creative touch.” NH
ALICE’S POT ROAST
By Alice Ellner, Serves 6 to 8
2 tablespoons of canola oil
1 teaspoon dry rosemary
1 teaspoon dry sage
1 3- to 4-pound brisket
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 sliced carrot
1 celery stalk with leaves, chopped
5 mushrooms, sliced
1 cup red wine
1 cup chicken or beef stock
1 bay leaf
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes, crushed by hand
Heat canola in a Dutch oven or flameproof roasting pan over medium heat.
Sprinkle rosemary and sage on brisket and brown meat on each side, about 15 minutes; remove brisket from pan.
Lower heat and sauté onion, garlic, carrot, celery and mushrooms until onion begins to brown.
Add red wine, stock and bay leaf. Simmer for 10 minutes.
Return brisket to pan; add tomatoes. Keep at a low simmer for 3 1/2 hours or until tender.
Black Forest Café and Bakery’s
Sweet and Red Smashed Potatoes with Caramelized Onions
2 lbs. sweet potatoes, cut in chunks
2 lbs. red potatoes, cut in chunks
1 large yellow (Spanish) onion, sliced
4 tablespoons butter
4 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
Cook onion over medium heat with vegetable oil until softened. Add sugar and continue cooking until golden brown. Set aside. Boil all potatoes until tender, then strain.
Place potatoes in a large mixing bowl. Add butter, salt, pepper and onions. Then mash together by hand until ingredients are mixed, but leave potatoes somewhat chunky. Check for seasoning and adjust as needed. Serves 8 people.
This article appears in the February 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine