Living the life of a regular person—teetering indefinitely on the edge of total destitution, that is to say—you get familiar with the tension between the limits of your financial wherewithal and the ugh like totally selfish desire to not just eat pasta and plain rice and cereal all the time and get scurvy.
Compared to cheap starch, things like fresh red meat and vegetables—y’know, actual foods—are pretty expensive. Worse, their prices tend to go up in direct proportion to how quickly they can be turned into a meal: A filet mignon is like 99-percent ready to eat the first time the cow to which it’s attached goes outside on a hot day, and costs roughly as much per ounce as uranium. By contrast, the beef shank is cheap as hell, because the process of rendering it edible takes longer than you have left to live, and your great-great-great-great-great-grandkids probably won’t even like it or live on Earth.
A happy, reasonably affordable medium between these two extremes is the chuck roast, a big beefy wad of, uh, beef, from the shoulder area of the cow; it’s tougher than the steaks you sear and serve and so requires a slower application of lower heat, but it’s friendlier by far than the shank, fattier and juicier to start with, so its cooking time is measured in hours and not galactic years. And it’s (typically) pretty friggin’ huge: For roughly the price of a single swanky ribeye that’ll serve one person, you usually can score a three-pound chuck roast that, with judicious application of accompanying cheap-ass stuff, will stuff four adults.
Of course, there’s stuffing four adults, and then there’s stuffing four adults with food that tastes good. The chuck roast is a lovely cut of beef and full of flavor, but it’s also a tough working muscle. Turning it into delicious food—rich, hearty, wonderfully autumn-y food—is gonna take some time. It’s a traditional pot roast cut, and what we’re gonna do with it isn’t so different from making pot roast, only more tomato-y and saucy and Italianlike. Almost like a Neapolitan ragù, only we will passive-aggressively decline to call it that, so as to skirt the question of authenticity and the food weenies who wield it like a dipshitty truncheon.
Let’s start right away.
So of course the first thing to do is to acquire a big chuck roast. We discussed this when you made pork tenderloin, but again: If you can get ahold of a cut from a cow that was well and humanely treated, and not from some horrible mechanized industrial farm-hell, it’ll taste better and you’ll like it more. Get a nice big one: The chuck roast has a bit more intramuscular fat than some other roast-type cuts, so it’ll shrink a bit as that fat renders. As it says up there a few paragraphs ago, a three-pound roast will produce a hearty helping of meat for four adults; scale appropriately.
So you’ve got your chuck roast and you’ve brought it home. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Set the oven rack on its bottommost rung; if you have a second rack above it, remove that altogether and set it aside. You’re gonna need a lot of room in the oven, in a bit.
Now, unwrap your beef and pat it dry with a paper towel (on a cutting board or some other easy-to-clean surface, so that you don’t turn your kitchen into a large E. coli colony); then, season your chuck roast generously with kosher salt and black pepper. It’s a big-ass hunk of beef, so really, don’t hold back, here: A genuinely big pinch of salt on both big flat sides of the thing, then another big pinch of black pepper, and then kinda gently press that stuff into the meat a little with your fingertips so it’ll stick.
Now, heat a large heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or stockpot over high heat on your stovetop. You know what’s coming next, don’t you? Yes, you do. A lecture!
Listen. If you are a regular reader of this internet food column, then probably you are tired of being harangued about the importance of using genuine by-God high heat to achieve a genuine by-God sear in the hunks of meat you’re constantly being told to cook. It’s very important! A real, crispy sear makes such a difference in the flavor (and, less importantly, the appearance) of meat. Please do it. Turn on the ventilation fan above your stove, crack some windows, and give that goddamn chuck roast what for. Add a small glug of vegetable oil to the bottom of the hot pot, then sear the meat for at least 90 seconds on each side, over really high heat.
Yes, there will be smoke. It will dissipate, and when it does, it will leave behind a world that is better for the addition of a beautifully seared chuck roast.
Once the chuck roast is seared all over, remove it from the pot and set it aside on a plate with a raised rim (so that its juices won’t run all over the place). Now, lower the heat to medium and cook some other stuff in the oil and rendered fat leftover in the pot. A generous pinch of crushed red pepper flakes; a huge yellow onion, chopped as finely as you can tolerate chopping it; two cloves of minced garlic; and, yes, dammit, a bunch of anchovy fillets.
Cook this stuff, moving it around now and then with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, until the onion turns translucent and the anchovies have dissolved, then scoop a can’s worth of tomato paste into the pot. Stir the pot’s contents around so the tomato paste can mix with everything else and begin cooking; likely some of it will begin to stick to the bottom of the pot, and that’s OK, because it will impart a nice caramelized flavor to the finished product.
Once the tomato paste has had a couple of minutes to get hot and start cooking and, good God, the aroma, tomato and anchovy and onion and garlic and beef fat, are you sure I can’t just scoop this stuff into a bowl and bury my face in it, turn the heat back up and immediately pour in, oh, like two-thirds of a bottle of cheap-shit red wine. This will loosen the beef drippings and tomato paste that are stuck to the bottom of the pot; scrape and scrape and scrape with your wooden spoon or rubber spatula and it’ll come right up.
When the wine-y liquid reaches a boil, dump in a couple big cans of whole peeled tomatoes, San Marzano or regular plum tomatoes or whatever, and smash ‘em and break ‘em up with whatever handheld implement you’re using. Now, return the chuck roast to the pot, along with whatever juices it deposited on the plate while it rested. Toss a fresh or dried bay leaf in there, too. Push the roast down so that it submerges completely in the liquid.
Now, stick a lid on that pot, sock it in the oven, and go find something to do for a while. At least—at least!—three hours. After three hours, the chuck roast will be cooked and tender and delicious, and (or but, depending on your feelings about it) it’ll retain enough toughness in places to make you pay attention to chewing. After four or five hours, it’ll slide apart when you try to lift it out of the pot. After 423 hours, it won’t be food anymore, and anyway you’ll be in jail for burning your house down.
So you waited patiently for some number of hours, and resisted the urge to open the oven and check on your roast every few minutes, and your home filled gradually with the rich, mouthwatering scent of beef and braising tomatoes and wine, and all of a sudden everybody in the neighborhood wants to be your friend, the hypocrites, where were they last week when you were eating Cap’n Crunch in a hot-dog bun because you had neither milk nor any clean bowls, huh? Your chuck roast is done.
Haul that pot out of the oven (with oven mitts! dear God it’s hotter than hell!) and (again, using an oven mitt!) yank the lid off. Wouldja get a load of that yummy meat right there. If it’s in your nature to do such a thing, you can remove the meat and the bay leaf from the pot and render the tomatoes and wine and stuff into a smooth sauce via blender or immersion blender or food processor or Tasmanian devil or whatever. Otherwise, uh, don’t. It doesn’t really need that step.
Time to eat.
That rich red tomato-and-wine stuff, maybe sprinkled with the grated hard cheese of your choice, will go wonderfully with some rigatoni or another pasta of your choosing, if padding it out with some of that familiar starch is your speed. More pleasingly, dredge a big torn-off hunk of crusty, crunchy bread through it. Heap some of that dark, sexy, tender beef onto that red-drenched bread utensil and ferry it to your face. Trumpets and angelic choirs and salivary glands that fairly hum with frenzied activity, a beefy red intensity that rolls right over and scatters your other senses as irresistibly and implacably as an ocean liner dispersing a school of herring. Real food! Real and hearty and satisfying! This was worth a few extra bucks (especially when you bill it to your health insurance provider as scurvy prevention).
(That’s probably illegal as hell.)
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.