Monday, April 18, 2011

Pot Roast with Gravy - using leftover tomato sauce.

Who likes Pot Roast? I do! If you make it in a slow cooker, it's a simple "set and forget" meal that packs a ton of flavor. If your slow cooker is big enough, you can even turn it into a one-pot meal.

Simple beef pot roast with gravy made from the braising liquid

A pot roast is a great dish to put together if you have the time to set it up early in the day. It's also a great way to use up some of your leftovers. The basic idea is to take a somewhat tough, fatty cut of beef, and cook it slowly over four or more hours in a braising liquid with a few aromatic vegetables. The long cooking time breaks down the fats in the meat, and infuses everything with all of the flavors you put in your pot.

For my pot roast, I'm starting with a package of small beef chuck steaks- each is just about a single portion. For my braising liquid I'll start with the leftover tomato sauce (pizza sauce actually) I've been saving in the freezer. We'll add some potatoes, garlic, onion, and celery, season it, and let the slow cooker do it's thing for at least four hours. The remaining braising liquid will then become a base for a simple gravy.

Fist we'll start by cutting up about 3 or 4 potatoes into bite-sized chunks. I prefer to leave the skin on so they need a quick rinse first. The potatoes will absorb the flavors of our liquid and out beef, and add a little starch to our liquid which will make it a little easier to bring our gravy together later.

Potato chopped into bite sized chunks

We'll also want about 1 medium onion sliced into half-moons.

Sliced onions are one of the "aromatic" vegetables we'll use

We'll also want another aromatic vegetable - celery. On e large rib of celery sliced into small pieces should do the trick.

Celery is an essential aromatic for pot roasts and most soups

You can really add almost any vegetable you like to the mix- carrots or bell pepper are good choices as well.

Garlic is also a great aromatic to add, it goes well with beef, and well, I just like it a lot. I'll use about 3-4 cloves of garlic chopped fairly small.

Garlic is just good in my book, nothing a breath mint can't fix.

We'll need to consider our seasonings next. Since we're going to use a leftover tomato sauce as the base for our braise, we won't need to season too heavily. We'll need salt and black pepper for starters. Since the tomato sauce already contains a good amount of herbs and seasonings, we really only need probably one other herb. Thyme goes well with beef, and has a flavor that holds it's own in slow cooking, so I'll also add a little thyme. About a tablespoon to a tablespoon and a half of each should do the trick, and we can always adjust later.

A little salt, black pepper, and thyme is all you need to round out the dish

Load all our ingredients into the crock pot, and add about 1-2 cups of tomato sauce. My tomato sauce is frozen leftover pizza sauce from "pizza night" where my wife convinces the kids to help her make home-made pizzas- so I don't have an exact measurement, and it's frozen into a block. This is a great way to use up some of those leftovers. It's always easier to make tomato sauces (what we Italian-Americans often call gravy) in mass quantities, so there's almost always some extra lying around waiting to be used.

Leftover frozen tomato sauce is an excellent base for a braising liquid

I just put everything in the crock pot, and start the heat to help melt the tomato ice-cubes while I get the meat ready.

The key to a great tasting pot roast is to give the beef a nice dark-brown hard sear before you put it into the pot. If you're using a standard pot over a low flame rather than a slow-cooker, you should ignore my instructions to load up the veggies first and you should brown the meat right in the pot, and leave all the nice brown stuff in there too- unfortunately, you can't do that with a slow-cooker, but since I have other chores to work on that mean I can't monitor and open flame all day, I'll settle for searing the meat on the flat-top.

Get your pan or flat-top hot, add a little oil or cooking spray. You'll want to season the meat on both sides with a little salt and pepper (the salt will bring moisture to the surface and help for the crust we're looking for). You're going for a dark brown crust on both sides of the meat, and don't worry about cooking the beef all the way through- it has a long hot bath coming that will finish the job. Try not to move or fuss with the meat- turn it once. If your pan/grill is nice and hot, it should do the job in a couple of minutes per side.

A hard sear is the key to flavor for slow-cooked beef
When your meat had that nice dark crust we're looking for, you can load it into the slow-cooker.

Everything is in the pot and ready to go

Our small amount of tomato sauce is probably not enough liquid to get the job done. Add about 2 cups of water (or beef broth if you have some!)- you want the meat to be sitting in the liquid. Give everything a stir, and put the lid on. Let everything cook for at least four hours, and give it a quick stir a few times to make sure everything is mixed together.

Let out beef pot roast take at least a four-hour bath in the slow-cooker

When you've finished cooking, the meat should be tender, and the potatoes should be basically soaked through with flavor. Most of the vegetables will have almost disintegrated- which is a good thing. Grab a slotted spoon, and fish out the meat, potatoes, and vegetables. You should be left with a dark liquid containing a lot of flavor and rendered beef fat. You can use the liquid as-is to top off your meat and add a little moisture, or you can turn some of it into a rich, flavorful gravy.

Gravy is actually a simple thing to make- we'll apply the same process I showed in my simple chicken gravy article. We'll start with a roux of olive oil and flour. You'll need another pan or small pot- add in about two tablespoons each of olive oil and flour over medium heat. Whisk the oil and flour together until it makes a paste, and cook it until it reaches a nice golden brown color. Don't let the roux sit for more than a few seconds without whisking, or you risk burning it.

Gravy starts with a simple roux of olive oil and flour

Add about a cup or more of our leftover cooking liquid- and immediately whisk. Add enough cooking liquid to make the gravy watery at first, let it continue to cook and reduce until you like how thick it is. Don't forget to taste and adjust seasonings if needed. The braising liquid should be very flavor-filled, so you probably will not need much adjustment.

Leftover braising liquid makes a rich, flavorful gravy

Serve your pot roast with your favorite vegetable, and the slow-cooked potatoes as sides. If you really like a lot of gravy, serve your pot roast on top of a bed of rice as well.

Simple comforting pot-roast makes a great family meal

Pot roasts are a staple of family cooking- it is simple to do, and can be set up in the morning, or around lunchtime, then needs minimal attention until its time to serve. Like most slow cooked dishes, it is rich and filling in that special way that only comfort foods can achieve. You can use up some of those leftovers too, basically anything that tasted good the first time around can potentially be another component to add to the slow cooker.

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