Chuck it

Ever since we started getting some really cold days (well, cold for this thin-blooded North Carolina girl) I’ve been wanting to make an old-fashioned pot roast.  I’m hankering for the kind of thing that weighs as much as a toy poodle, and cooks at 250 for 6 or 7 hours.   A big hunk of meat that comes out of the Dutch oven or roasting pan falling-apart tender.

But there are two built-in complications in my longing for slow-cooked cow meat.  And they both spring from the same source.

And have you ever noticed a cow?  Those guys are big.  I found a couple of bones in the woods near my house.   Now I’m no cow physiologist, but I think it was a femur, and a tibia.  They were insanely big—heck I don’t know, I might have stumbled upon a dinosaur graveyard.  They sure looked like something Fred Flintstone would order at the Neanderthal Bullocks. So…it’s very difficult to get a roast of a size that would make sense for just Petey and me.  And the prices of these cuts have risen along with their popularity.  An 8 lb. chuck roast can easily come to 60 bucks.

I’ve always braised a roast; that’s cooking low, slow, covered and partially submerged in broth.   But the past few times, I’ve dry roasted the roast.

Braising is great for some dishes, like stew, and chili.  But the flavor and texture that come from dry roasting is unique and unparalleled.  You get crispy bits, and that lip-smacking unctuousness that makes you keep eating long after you’re full.  A brisket cooked this way can make a strong carnivore weep.So I was in Lowes the other day checking out the meat that had been marked down.  There was a package of two steaks that were heavily marbled.  They were about five dollars.  I checked the label to see what the cut was, and it informed me I was holding a pack of chicken thighs.

What the what?

I asked the butcher and he told me when they mark down the meat, sometimes they just put in another type of meat into the computer because it’s the price they want to charge.  It was beef, and they were chuck steaks.

The only way to cook chuck steak quickly is to grind it up.  There’s lots of connective tissue that, no matter what you may want, takes time to cook down.My plan was to dry roast the meat.  When you do that, you use a rack so it’s not sitting in any juices and fat that drip off.  The rack I’d use would become part of our dinner.

Into a deep sided casserole dish, I threw in quartered red-skin spuds, a couple handfuls of mushroom caps, and some onion.  I drizzled the veg with a little canola oil, and some salt and pepper, then tossed to coat.  It’s also a really good idea to have either a liquid or a large quantity of salt on the bottom of the roasting pan, so when there are drips they don’t create a bunch of smoke.Salt wasn’t really an option, because there was food we wanted to eat down there.  So, I needed liquid.  Since the veggies would be cooking in said liquid, I wanted it to bring more than just moisture to the party.

I added a few bay leaves, fresh rosemary, and some dry thyme.  I spooned in a little umami paste from Trader Joe’s, a spoon of chicken base, and a couple teaspoons of Worcestershire.  Then I poured in a couple healthy glugs of sherry, laid the steaks on top, and slid the whole thing into the oven, set to 250.I can’t tell you exactly how long it will take.  My steak took five hours, flipping the meat, and tossing the veg every hour.  But yours could take six or eight, or three.  It all depends on how thick they’re sliced.  All I can tell you for sure is; cook it until it’s falling apart tender, and that takes some time.  But it is definitely worth it.

If you want slow-cooked deliciousness, try a chuck steak.  If you want something quick, open a can of tuna.

You really need to open the can…

Thanks for your time.


It’s A Dry Heat

I’ve done it with two different kinds of meat from two different animals, and I’m telling you that I’m sold.  This is how I will do it from now on.

For years I would prepare large, tough cuts that require a long cooking time in one way only—I’d braise them.  The meat is cooked through, and usually quite tasty.  But there was a lacking dimension I didn’t even realize what was absent.  The missing element was texture.

The Japanese are all about the texture.  They will eat something which tastes so-so just because it is a celebration of an unusual mouth feel.  They even enjoy textures that most Americans might find off-putting, such as sticky, spongy, or slimy.  But slow roasted meat has a whole variety of textures that are nothing but welcome to a dedicated carnivore.

We’ll start with the gorgeous, golden crust.  The fat cap has rendered slowly, leaving it crispy and caramelized.  The rest of the crust has become slightly crispy-edged and golden brown.

When sliced, the meat is falling apart tender and juicy.  When you bite into it, it has a richness that coats your mouth (and probably your chin) in the best possible way.  Braised meats just never really achieve this sensation.

I was in Food Lion the other day and in the meat case was a small, boneless piece of pork butt. So I took it home, planning on braising it in a day or so.  I unwrapped it, and rubbed it with a mixture garlic powder, thyme, salt, pepper, and ground caraway seed.

Then I remembered how good a brisket had been that I had roasted a while back.  A pork shoulder has tons of fat and connective tissue, so I decided to break out my roasting pan, and go for it.

The day of cooking, I started it around 10:00 in the morning, with a goal of eating dinner at 8PM.  I set the oven for 225 degrees.  I heated my large Dutch oven, poured in a couple tablespoons of vegetable oil, and when it was really hot, I seared the meat to golden brown on every side.  Then I placed it on the rack in my roasting pan, poured some water in the bottom to eliminate any smoking.

All the sinew and connective tissue, which make it such misery when undercooked, is what makes the eating of the same meat when well-cooked such joy.

Every serious cook needs one.  This is the type America’s Test Kitchen reccomends.

The melting point for connective tissue is 210 degrees.  And ask any pit master; get there slowly.  Think of it like cooking bacon.  If you put it a very hot skillet, the bacon will burn before the fat has had a chance to render.  So you end up with charcoal-flavored limp and floppy sadness.

I inserted my probe thermometer and popped the roasting pan in the oven.  I checked it every couple hours and watched it slowly turn golden.  It took about 8 hours, but I cooked it really slowly.  If you had a bigger piece you could turn the oven up to 275 without any real detriment to flavor and texture.When the breathtaking pork came out of the oven, the liquid in the bottom of the pan had cooked off, so I poured in 1 ½ cups of water and used a silicone spatula to get all the bits off the pan.  This made clean-up a breeze.

But it got better.  I poured the resulting liquid into a jar and stuck it in the fridge.  When it got cold, a miraculous transformation took place.  The fat rose to the top and solidified.  This got discarded.

When all that melted connective tissue was chilled it thickened a bit.  What was left in the jar was basically roasted pork jelly.  While it wouldn’t be my first choice for a PBJ, this intensely flavored piggy jam is pretty much straight umami, that fifth taste discovered by the Japanese.  It’s savory-ness, the taste that makes you want to go back for another bite.The pork jelly (or demi glace, its technical name) is so potent it should only be used in small doses, and under close supervision.  With a bucket of this stuff you could take over the world.

Thanks for your time.