Comforting, hearty one-pot dishes for chilly winter days
This article first appeared in the Wine Spectator.
With the possible exception of bread baking, nothing fills up the house with welcoming aromas better than meat stews like beef bourguignonne gently simmering on the stove or lamb shanks with white beans bubbling contentedly in the oven. As the outside temperature plummets, these one-pot meals warm us to the core and comfort us as no stir-fry can. Meals such as these have another benefit: They cost less money, something that all of us are concerned about in these tough economic times.
Don’t discount one-pot meals for entertaining either. In fact, one-pot meals might be the perfect food for guests. The pot roast made from the recipe below was as good or better the second day. And while it warms in the oven, you can be in the living room with your guests instead of running around in the kitchen like hired help.
One-pot meals are cheaper because they use less expensive cuts of meat such as breasts and shanks of lamb and veal, stewing meat from the neck and shoulder, chuck roasts and briskets of beef. These more sinewy parts of the animal can’t be grilled like far pricier cuts of steak or sautéed like scallopini. They need long, slow cooking to soften. But the extra time will be well worth it because braised and stewed foods have greater depth of flavor.
Why? Meats such as veal cutlets and filet mignon are cooked with dry, intense heat over short periods because they are naturally tender, the result of coming from a part of the animal that gets little exercise. However, the shanks, necks, shoulders and breasts of the beasts get more of a workout. It’s that muscle tone that creates real flavor. And as these muscles break down into meltingly delicious morsels, they help to create wonderful sauces and gravies.
In some cases, recipes must be modified to make them into one-pot meals. For example, the traditional pot roast is basically the meat, some liquid and perhaps some onions and seasonings for flavor. In the pot roast recipe below (an adaptation from The Complete Meat Cookbook, by Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly), I’ve added celery, carrots, potatoes and turnips. Likewise, braised lamb shanks are traditionally cooked without vegetables (other than the finely chopped vegetables designed to season the sauce). To make the shanks a one-pot meal, I combined the lamb with white beans and Swiss chard (adapting a recipe from Cooks Illustrated magazine). All you need add to either dish is a loaf of crusty bread to sop up all those glorious juices.
Pot roast and lamb shanks, along with mainstays such as osso buco (veal shanks), are examples of braised dishes. In braised dishes the meat is browned on top of the stove–ideally in a large Dutch oven or similar pot, which will eventually be used for the slow cooking of all the meat, liquid and vegetables. Browning the meat well initially is important because it creates caramelization for color and flavor. My experience is that this step often takes longer than most recipes suggest. Sometimes the meat is dredged in flour before browning, to help thicken the sauce as it cooks. Or the sauce may be thickened at the end with a butter and flour mixture called a beurre manié, or kneaded butter.
When you combine the meat with seasonings and liquid (usually a combination of broth and wine), make sure the liquid comes no more than half the way up the meat. Too much liquid will give the effect of a soup or stew. Braising the dish in a 350° F oven gives more even cooking than the stove-top and doesn’t require periodic stirring. Halfway through the cooking, beans (in the case of lamb shanks) or hearty winter vegetables such as a combination of carrots, potatoes, turnips or rutabagas, may be added.
Many recipes will tell you that the meat is ready when it is falling off the bone. Wrong. The meat is done when it is easily pierced by a fork, no more. A lamb shank with meat falling every which way isn’t very attractive. Overcooked pot roast is unappetizingly stringy.
Stews are cooked similarly to braised dishes except that instead of large pieces of meat, like the three or four pound chuck roast in the pot roast recipe, the meat is cut into bite-size pieces. Also, more liquid is used. Stews are typically cooked on top of the stove, though there is no law that says you can’t cook them in the oven. Just be sure that the stew simmers and doesn’t boil, which can toughen the meat.
Meaty one-pot meals call for hearty, though not necessarily expensive, red wines. With beef bourguignonne, for example, a cru Beaujolais (one with some heft like Moulin-a-Vent) or a North Coast appellation California Pinot Noir makes a reasonably priced alternative (for cooking and drinking) to the traditional red Burgundy. For lamb shanks, I’d go with a simple, rough-hewn Cotes du Rhone or a Southern Italian red like Aglianico. Try a sturdy Zinfandel with that pot roast.
When it comes to saving money with one-pot meals, don’t forget that time is also money. So if you’re hankering to make cassoulet, it’s not really necessary to set aside an entire weekend to do it. One big time saver is using canned beans instead of soaking and cooking dried beans. Another is using cured sausages and leftover lamb, pork, duck or goose.
Finally, just because a recipe calls for specific ingredients doesn’t mean you can’t employ your own creativity. For example, try using wild mushrooms instead of the traditional button mushrooms for beef bourguignonne. Instead of celery, why not fennel in that pot roast? You could also give the stew or braised dish an Asian touch with star anise or ginger. After all, one-pot meals don’t have to be one-dimensional.
Pot Roast top
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
One 3 to 4 pound boneless chuck roast
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, sliced (about 3 cups)
6 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ (one-fourth) cup red wine
1 1/2 (one-and-one-half) cups beef broth
2 bay leaves
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 pound small potatoes, unpeeled but well scrubbed
1 pound turnips, halved or quartered, depending on size
6 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 tablespoon softened butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Combine the thyme, rosemary, paprika, salt and pepper and rub the meat thoroughly with the mixture. Marinate at room temperature for one hour or wrap and refrigerate overnight (bring to room temperature before cooking).
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Heat the oil in a casserole with a cover or in a Dutch oven and brown the meat well on all sides.
Remove the meat. Add the onion and garlic and cook just until lightly browned. Add the wine and stock. Bring to a boil over high heat, scraping any bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Return the meat to the pot. Add the bay leaves, cover and bake in the oven one hour.
Uncover, turn the meat over and add the carrots, potatoes, turnips and celery. Cover and cook another 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat can easily be pierced by a fork and the vegetables are tender. Meanwhile, make a beurre manié by using a fork to incorporate the flour into the butter in a small bowl.
Remove the meat and vegetables to a platter and cover with foil. Put the pot over medium heat. Whisk in the beurre manié and bring to a boil. While the sauce thickens, cut the meat into thick slices. Spoon the sauce over the meat and serve with the vegetables. Serves 6.