Somewhere along the way, it got common to treat Christmas dinner like Thanksgiving II: This Time Without Turkey—like a big showpiece meal for which amateur cooks are meant to serve up some impressive exotic culinary masterpiece far outside the bounds of their humble repertoire of comfort foods. Take a walk through the butcher section of your local supermarket during the week before the holiday, and you can see the evidence of this phenomenon: geese, ducks, whole beef tenderloins, sea scallops the size of your fist, 15-pound prime rib roasts, entire goddamn wild Alaskan halibuts with their friggin' heads sawed off—all of this where there used to be Jumbo Family Packs of ground chuck, chicken thighs, and meatloaf mix.
Fuck all that. It's a busy goddamn day, what with visiting relations and opening gifts and getting transported to an alternate dimension in which you followed your dreams or whatever; if your idea of a swell way to wind it down is to spend the evening in white-knuckle terror over the fate of your $300 prime rib, that's your business, but I'll be over here with the sane people, being sane, eating pot roast, and doing other sane things you wouldn't understand. (Prolly scratch myself some, too.)
Don't fall into the trap. Make pot roast. You won't need to shop for anything exotic; you won't need to use a stupid instant-read digital thermometer; you won't need to pawn your dog to make payments against a measly pound of goddamn stone crab claws. You'll need an enormous hunk of cheap beef (of the variety typically including the word "roast"—usually paired with the word "rump" or "chuck"—on its label at your butcher or supermarket), a couple of bottles of cheap red wine, and some other (also cheap) stuff. You'll need to get started at some point early in the day. And it's none of my business, but you'll probably want to brush your teeth at some point, too. Ready? Good.
So you've got this big ungainly mass of red meat on your cutting board, and you want to turn it into pot roast. To begin with, do not trim the excess fat off of it. Most pot roast recipes you'll find out there will require you to lop the fat off your roast, and these recipes are stupid and can be discarded, their authors pantsed and chased over the edge of a ravine. Sure! Yeah! Cut off the flavor! Everyone will like it better that way. Bullshit. You don't trim the icing off of a goddamn cake, do you?
Now, give the meat a generous seasoning of salt and black pepper on all sides. And, really, do be generous here. Get to a point where you think, OK, that's probably all the salt and pepper I need, and then add some more salt and pepper, and then add some more salt and pepper. With your fingertips, press the seasoning into the surface of the meat.
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Haul your biggest heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven out, clear out any dust and/or cobwebs and/or woodland creatures that have accumulated in it in the 12 years since you used it last, stick it over high heat on your stove, and get it good and hot. Now, turn on the ventilation fan over your stove top, pour one glug of a high-smoke-point oil (like canola or vegetable oil) into the pot, then put the meat in there and brown the shit out of it. Don't be gentle, here: just brown the ever-loving crap-balls out of each side of that big wad of cow. It's big, it's tough, it probably used to have horns: It can handle the heat. All told, this should take maybe 10 to 15 minutes.
Eventually the meat will be a deep, dark, crispy, sizzling brown on all sides, and all the dogs in your neighborhood will have congregated slobberingly outside your door. Using tongs, remove the meat from the pot to a plate or tray. Reduce the heat on the stove, and add other stuff to the pot. A generous double-fistful of carrots, peeled and chopped into roughly finger-length pieces. (Please, no baby carrots here. I like baby carrots. They're sweet, they're cute, they're crunchy, they're fun to snack on. But they will dissolve to carrot mush in a pot roast. Use real carrots, here—the kind you'd use for the nose on a snowman or in a wicked-witch costume. They're tough enough to stand up to several hours of cooking.) Another double-fistful of finger-length cuts of celery. Several peeled and smashed cloves of garlic. You can hand-crush a few canned, skinless tomatoes and dump them in there, too, mostly for the fun of hand-crushing a tomato and pretending you are Satan, crushing Mitch Albom's tiny little heart.
Also, vitally: onions. There are a couple of ways to go, here. Either you can peel and halve two or three big Spanish onions, or you can peel eight or so whole shallots and just drop 'em in there. You choose. I like to go with a bunch of whole shallots, basically because I like to eat a bunch of braised whole shallots.
So the vegetables and aromatics are sizzling down there in the liquefied beef fat and oil. Let them do that for a couple of minutes, maybe even letting them get browned here and there. Now, return the meat (and any juices it discharged during its exile) to the pot, turn the heat back up, and pour an entire goddamn bottle of cheap red wine on top of the whole fucking mess. I see a lot of pot roast preparations out there that are all, "Use one cup of red wine and three cups of low sodium chicken broth, or, "Use one cup of red wine and three cups of water," to which I say: Fiddlesticks! Chicken broth? Water? What the fuck is the goal, here? Oh, well, we wouldn't want too much of that "flavor" business in our pot roast, so I guess we better add some water to it. Nonsense. Foolishness. Evil!
Look, goddamn it. The taste of well-cooked red meat can be roughly reduced to the combination of three things: the buttery richness of fat; the deep harmonizing caramelization you get from browning, searing, or grilling the meat; and the iron tang of red blood. Yes, that's right: Beef tastes good, in part, because blood tastes good, and one can acknowledge this truth and also cast a reflection. Well, when you slow-cook a piece of beef for so long that it not only cooks all the way through but begins to actually dissolve in the pot, guess what? No more of that bloody tang that electroshocks your salivary glands into spurting hyperactivity. You add red wine to replace that—to increase the beefiness of your beef. Well, why add only one cup of the stuff, diluted with three parts of wussy chicken broth or fucking water, when you can add an entire friggin' bottle and have a richer, beefier pot roast?
I'll tell you why: because of a deeply enculturated fear of things that are good. No more, friends! Use an entire bottle of wine. Apologize for nothing. Live, damn you!
Your beef and vegetables are now swimming in a big purple and brown lake of red wine and beef fat. Time to chuck some herbs in there. A sprig or two of fresh rosemary, a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, and a bay leaf or two. It's a very good idea to tie the rosemary and thyme together with some twine so that you won't have to fish twigs out of the pot later, but don't worry too much if you don't have any twine around or don't feel very sure that you know what twine is or don't know how to read.
Now, heat the liquid to a low boil, bring it down to a very low simmer, clamp a lid on there, and go away for a very long time. At the very, very least, two-and-a-half hours, but it's perfectly fine, advisable even, to go get lost for five or six or seven or more hours. I mean, don't hop in your VW bus and go exploring your poetry in San Francisco or whatever the fuck, but if you want to go pay your family a holiday visit, that's cool. While you're off explaining your hopelessly abstract office job to elderly relations who will first require a recap of every technological advancement of the past half-century, the vegetables in your pot are releasing rich, smooth flavor into the cooking liquid; the tough collagen in your large section of cow is slowly dissolving; the fat is rendering; the meat is getting softer and softer; it and the liquid are imparting beefiness to each other in a glorious feedback loop of deliciousness. Can you imagine the aroma? Of course you can. Are you dying to get home, pull the pot roast apart with your fingers, and rub it on yourself? Of course you are. But you mustn't.
Eventually you're gonna come back home; you're gonna open your door and step inside and your nose is going to wrench itself from your face and go wiggling across the floor to the kitchen, where it will hop eagerly up and down before the stove, wagging itself happily. That there pot roast is cooked, fella. Cooked and almost—almost—ready to eat. Using those tongs again, and taking great care not to mangle it more than absolutely necessary, remove the now incredibly moist and tender meat from the pot to a platter or other serving dish. Now, fish a slotted spoon out of the deep shadows at the back of your cutlery drawer and use it to remove the vegetables to the serving dish, too. The idea here is to get the solid stuff out of the pot and leave the liquid behind, so that you can do dark, wonderful things to the liquid; if you don't have a slotted spoon, you can still do this, so long as you can figure out a way to remove the solid stuff from the pot without also removing all the liquid, which would defeat the purpose. (It's best not to use a fork for this. The vegetables may well be too soft to be speared without falling apart at this point, and anyway even if they're not, they won't look as nice with a bunch of stab-holes all over them.) In any case, get your meat and veggies onto some kind of dish that is large enough to contain all of them, and then slap some kind of cover on top of that dish so that its contents do not cool down or dry out too much in the next few minutes.
So now you've got a big pot with a bunch of braising liquid in the bottom of it. There are a few different ways you can go here. You can use this stuff as it is, pouring a little bit of it over each serving of pot roast, and this will taste just fine, even if there might be something ever so slightly unappealing about the thin liquid sloshing around the bottom of your plate or the patina of liquid fat that will cover your meal. That's one option. You can also, if you're reading some other food column altogether, skim the fat off the top of what's in the pot, bring what's left to a simmer, and reduce it to an attractive jus that might make you feel like some kind of sophisticated chef for a few minutes before your heart breaks for the glorious rendered beef fat you just needlessly discarded. That's certainly another way to go.
Or, you can make some quick gravy because you know what is good, and this is what you are going to do because—would you look at that!—you know what is good. There are of course different ways to make gravy, designed to satisfy various standards of fancypantsness. The one we're going to employ today is designed to get gravy onto meat, and thereby into your head, very quickly. To begin with, raise the heat in your pot to bring the liquid to a steady simmer.
In a small dish or mug, mix a little bit of cornstarch (oh, right: get some cornstarch) with a little bit of water until you have a paste that is smooth and juuuuust thin enough to be poured. Take a few moments to enjoy its weirdo non-Newtonian fluid state—Ooh, honey, look, it's a solid when I poke it, and a liquid when I slowly ease my finger into it! Right, but, look again! Hey wait, where are you going?—and then slowly drizzle some of it into your pot of liquid, whisking all the while. Whisk and whisk and whisk, and drizzle and drizzle, until, hey presto! Gravy! Time to eat.
It's customary to serve pot roast with a thick starchy side, typically mashed or roasted potatoes, for the simple reason that, generally speaking, noisily sucking up a lake of gravy and beef grease, and then frantically licking one's plate clean, and then rolling around on top of the plate like a dog on a sunny patch of grass, is discouraged. And, truly, mashed or roasted potatoes are just grand alongside or beneath a serving of pot roast, especially mashed potatoes with a bit of garlic or horseradish in them.
However, I'm going to recommend that you use a loaf of crusty bread as your starch this time, tearing off hunks with your bare hands to dredge through the gravy as you go, and then a final hunk to mop your plate clean at the end. Not only because the crunch of the bread's crust adds some welcome texture to what's otherwise a pretty soft meal, but because, damn, it's just fucking satisfying as all hell to eat that way. Really.
Here is what your pot roast tastes like: BEEF. Beef and wine and winter and your first bite magically turns your shirt into thick fleece-lined flannel and grows you a hearty beard, even if you are a woman, so maybe you should consider this when making your dinner invitations. Anyway it tastes good and it makes you feel good and you are glad you made it.
Accompany your pot roast with several large glasses of that other bottle of cheap red wine, and give somebody you love a big, sloppy, beardy, beef-scented hug and kiss when you're done.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image by Jim Cooke. Source photo via travellight/Shutterstock.