Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Gardener's Reward

One of the nicest things to do for yourself as you spend a few hours gardening on a cold winter or spring day, is to have something nice and toasty in the house to look forward to when the gardening work is completed. A bubbling stew in the crockpot, perhaps, or a homebaked smackerel to accompany your afternoon tea. If you have help, it's especially considerate to put a roast in the crockpot or oven and serve it after a hard day's work.

I learned this well the spring I was pregnant with my first daughter, when my nesting urge manifested itself in a vegetable garden. This was in those glorious pre-drought days when rain was abundant and so I went a little nuts buying tomato and pepper seedlings, to the tune of 60 tomato plants and 30 peppers. There were also hills of cucumbers, beans, sqash and zucchini. And two rows of corn. This was April and my due date was mid-July, and truly, what was I thinking? That I could harvest a garden and care for a newborn at the same time?

My neighbor Diane, good as gold, agreed to help me plant the seedlings on a windy April day. I promised her all the tomatoes and peppers she could eat when the harvest rolled in, plus a supper of pot roast following the planting. This was a few years ago, and my standard pot roast recipe required a can of Campbell's Golden Mushroom soup and a crockpot. I've since decided that a crockpot takes up too much space on either my kitchen counter or pantry and that the convection oven essentially accomplishes the same task without clutter. My tastes have evolved as well. The canned soup, as convenient as it is, just doesn't deliver the flavor and texture that I want in my pot roast, so through the years, I've changed the recipe using, as the chefs say, real ingredients.

Here's how I make my pot roast, using shiitake mushrooms from the last bag of the CSA season. Cremini or button shrooms will work, too. You could also leave them out, but the preachy part of me will look over my glasses with a disapproving gaze, and tell you that you're missing the very best part.

Pot Roast with Shiitakes

1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 (1 lb. or so) beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into wedges
4 carrots, peeled, trimmed, split lengthwise and then into 2-inch sections
2 stalks celery, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch pieces
4 medium red potatoes, peeled and sliced into 2-inch chunks
1, possibly 2 small containers of shrooms, rinsed, dried, trimmed and sliced (for shiitakes) or halved (for buttons)
4 small bay leaves, or 2 large
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup or more, red wine, or perhaps beef broth, or just water, to deglaze the pan
1 (28 oz.) can whole organic tomatoes
salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350 or find your crockpot and plug it in. Get a good-sized Dutch oven and place on burner set over medium. Fry bacon, until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Make the most of this time to multi-task by chopping the vegetables.

2. Remove the bacon from the pot and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but a couple tablespoons of the bacon fat and discard in an appropriate manner (translation: not in the sink drain). Season the roast with salt and pepper and brown in bacon fat. This is a crucial step and will take at least 20 minutes and possibly longer, depending on the size of the roast. Do not skimp on time here. Your goal is to have a crusty piece of meat to roast to perfection. The key to brownness is for the meat to release, if you're using a regular, not nonstick pan. Do not tear the meat, in an impatient attempt to hurry up the process. Like a stubborn toddler, the meat will release when it is ready, and not a moment sooner. When meat is completely browned, place either in a crockpot (if using) or on a plate, if oven-braising is your method.

3. Still over medium heat, in the Dutch oven, with the roast removed, brown the tomato paste for a couple minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine, broth, or water, and scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Pour in the can of tomatoes and heat through. This is a good time to taste for seasoning. Return the meat to the pan, top with vegetables, bacon, bay leaves, additional salt and pepper if needed. If you like a little heat, toss in a dried chile pepper. If using the crockpot, place all ingredients in the crock, cover, and cook for a couple of hours at high, or at least four hours on low. If using an oven, place all ingredients in an oven-safe Dutch oven or casserole, top with a lid or foil and bake for at least 2 hours at 350, or longer at a lower temperature. I know that's kind of imprecise and Zen and sounds like how Miles Davis would quote a recipe, but that's how you learn what works. Trust me, each time I make this, I do something different, and it's always delicious. The roast is done when it's fall apart tender and the vegetables, especially the mushrooms, have soaked up the yummy sauce.

4. Serve to your hungry garden helpers, making sure they wash up first. If you need a go-with, try buttered noodles, creamy polenta (the baked polenta recipe from Fine Cooking magazine is especially tasty and easy), or cheesy grits for the starch. You could serve some warm bread, and maybe a salad, but that's beginning to sound like a lot of work. If you need something sweet at the end of this meal, I'd say go for brownies, but that's another story...

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