I am declaring this day the first day of the new year. January 2012 was supposed to offer fresh starts, new beginnings, and soaring levels of motivation and productivity. Instead, I found myself kicking off the year hugging friends as they dealt with loss and illness. I spent weekends in funeral homes and emergency rooms, supporting my close knit community as best I could. Young people- fathers, coaches, and husbands- were memorialized in incredible ways. Outpourings of love softened the edges of the unthinkable.
Finally, it seems the Universe has granted us a little breather. And with an immense sense of gratitude and a heightened respect for life, I am embracing this moment of normalcy. Cooking always soothes my soul, and I think I’ve been infusing my food with extra love lately.
Of course, I’ve been making a billion soups- but this winter I am most proud of mastering the art of the vegetable chicken soup. Time consuming and cathartic, I appreciate the process and variations of this dish. Loaded white beans or barley, swiss chard or kale, any kind of peppers I can get my hands on, a pulled rotisserie chicken or chicken thighs and breasts that I’ve roasted myself,
I’ve been blown away by the intensity of flavors.
My clients have been pushing my boundaries in the soup department too, requesting pots of bone-warming treats like Chicken Florentine Soup, Charros Bean Soup, and Hot and Sour soup.
In my earlier days of cooking, I was intimidated by the ingredients quintessential to making this soup just right. Dried lily buds?? Dried black trumpet mushrooms? Ahh, scary! But not these days. Now I know that I can roll on into my local First Oriental Market and find those items with ease- or at least with the assistance of the helpful employees there. And so can you! I used this recipe as my template, and wowed myself with the most wonderful pot of goodness. It was so delicious, I almost kept it for myself instead of packing it up for my client. I finally have a solution for living beyond the delivery zone of the only worthy Chinese restaurant in-town. Chin Chin 2, of course.
In addition to soups, I’ve been cooking up risottos,
sheet pans full of roasted winter vegetables like parsnips and rutabagas, veggie-loaded pastas
and calzones bursting with savory meats, cheeses, and vegetables.
Stretching out a store-bought whole wheat dough takes just a few minutes and sets the stage for you to customize a yummy dinner. Adam likes to spread corn meal on the mat to give the dough a little more texture. You can even stop by your local pizza shop and pick up some marinara sauce, if you don’t have any homemade sauce or pretty tomatoes on hand.
In addition to easy week night meals and big pots of soup, I have been workin’ my slow cooker lately. It’s the perfect weather for doing a little bit of assembly in the morning, and wait impatiently for the next seven or eight hours, while the tantalizing smells fill your home, promising contentment and warmth at supper time. The meal I want to share with you on this super freezing, actual February-feeling kind of a day is, according to one client, the best pot roast ever!!!!!!!!
This recipe is simple and guaranteed to fog up your windows on a cold winter’s day.
It starts with a cut of boneless chuck roast. Right around 3 pounds of it. Bring your meat to room temperature, so it won’t be shocked in the cooking process. Pat the beef dry with paper towels, and then season it generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet, big enough to safely accommodate your meat, with a layer of canola oil in the bottom to medium high heat, and sling that apron over your head. When the pan is nice and hot, (you want the oil shimmering, but not smoking) carefully place your meat in the skillet and don’t move it. Let the meat brown, creating a dark brown crust on the outside.
This will take about 4- 6 minutes per side, depending upon how large the roast is. Use tongs to hold the meat on its sides, so you can brown the thinner edges too. If the oil is splattering, turn down your heat. Don’t hurt yourself!
While your meat sears, you can make quick work of your veggies. Peel 5 carrots and 4 parsnips and simply cut off their tops and bottoms. Place the root vegetables in your slow cooker to lay the foundation for your roast.
Leaving the carrots and parsnips whole, as opposed to cutting them into bite-sized pieces at this stage, produces tender veggies at the end of 8 hours. Mushy veggies are not my favorite.
Next, cut 4 or 5 ribs of celery into thirds or quarters, and add them to the mix. Top that with 6 cloves of minced or sliced garlic and the leaves from several sprigs of flat leaf parsley, basil, oregano or any combination of herbs you have on hand.
As you are chopping, throw the tops and bottoms, skins, and papers of your vegetables into a plastic bin or a tall pot.
All you have to do is cover them with water, season with salt and pepper, bring to a boil and then simmer for a couple of hours. After reducing the liquid a while, pour it through a strainer, and you’ll have a rich, homemade vegetable broth to use when making soup, rice, couscous, sauce or gravy. If you have chicken bones on hand, add them to the pot too. Building your own broth is an excellent way to control your ingredients- especially your sodium levels- and layer homemade flavors into all of your meals.
Once your meat is beautifully browned, place it on top of your vegetables.
Next, you want to slice one yellow onion into strips.
I like to cut mine in half, and then place the flat side of the onion on the cutting board to make it safe and easy.
Then, turn the heat down to medium on your pan and carefully pour out any excess oil (into a safe container). If you have more than a thin layer of oil in the pan, and you add that to your crock pot, you’ll have an oily mess in the end. Next, add your onions to the pan.
Stir them around in the pan, and don’t be scared of the black bits that will coat them. Black stuff = good stuff. Allow the onions to cook for about 2 – 3 minutes, just to soften them a bit. Then, add one can of diced or chopped tomatoes with their juices, (**You can easily just use a small can of tomatoes here, or opt for about half a small can of tomato paste plus 3/4 Cup of chicken broth.)
a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce (optional), and a good pinch of sugar, salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir and allow your tomatoes to simmer for about 3 – 5 minutes, thickening up a bit. Then, pour your onions and thickened tomato sauce over your meat,
close the lid, turn your slow cooker to low, and walk away. That’s it, honestly. Wait 7.5 – 8 hours, resisting the urge to open the lid and dig in before time has worked its magic. I’d say 7.5 hours will suffice for a cut of meat that is lighter than 3 pounds. If your meat is 3.2 pounds or higher, I’d give it that full 8 hours. The goal is this:
when you reach into the slow cooker with a pair of tongs and nudge that meat, you want it to separate easily. Tender enough to just fall apart.
What I like to do next, is to remove the meat to a bowl. Then, you can use a knife (a butter knife works) to cut your carrots and parsnips into bite-sized chunks. Use a slotted spoon to pull out your vegetables and place them in a bowl to serve or in a container to store. Then, top the veggies with the meat. You’ll find you have a fair amount of juice leftover. You can opt to turn this juice into a gravy, thickening it up with flour or cornstarch. Or you can reserve the juice, and just pour some over your bowl of pot roast just before you eat.
The rest is totally up to you. Serve this pot roast as is, or brown up a few fingerling potatoes and serve those alongside the meat. Another option is to cook egg noodles, rice, couscous, or another starch of your choice to cradle the beef, veggies, and sauce. This dish will provide you and your family a go-to, bone-warming meal for the entire week.
I do hope that your 2012 is off to a peaceful, positive start. Maybe you are a lover of cold weather and feel like you can finally settle into winter. Maybe you are bundled up and cringing from the cold like I am. Either way, this is a time of year in which very few vegetables are fresh and local. So, break out that slow cooker and treat yourself to an old classic. I think you will be more than pleasantly surprised.
Happy cooking and eating to you.