Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pot roast: Comfort food and reflections on eating meat

Last night I made pot roast for the first time in my life. How can any omnivore get to middle age and never make pot roast?

About half my friends are vegetarian, and most of the rest of them are flexitarians. Very few of us eat meat as the centerpiece of every meal. I'm sure there are many reasons for this: health, cost, taste, environmental concerns, or simply because so many around us are vegetarian. (While looking for a good definition of flexitarian, I came across this article about economic flexitarians in the soon to be defunct Gourmet Magazine.)

I never got in the habit of cooking meat at my house, and mostly eat meat as an ingredient on dishes, like a pasta sauce, stir fry, Mexican dish, or sandwich. The exception to this is when we are cooking out in the yard, when burgers and brats just seem to be the way to go. Meat indoors is greasy and hard to clean up. It goes bad faster than veggies in the fridge, and sometimes I don't get around to cooking what and when I planned.

Besides, meat is not environmentally friendly. Most of the meat we eat in the US is produced in conditions that would appall the average meat-eater. A recent report found 60% of chicken is contaminated by salmonella. Producing meat generally means feeding the animals grains, a poor use of many resources. Living lighter on the land means eating less meat. It's right up there with driving less, adjusting the thermostat, and recycling.

Finally, I have found that big chunks of meat make me feel slow. I eat so many veggies and legumes (beans, lentils, humus, etc.) that my digestive system has adjusted to that. People who don't eat beans on a regular basis have a fear of them. They have an undeserved reputation for giving you gas. But when you eat beans, or any food, all the time, your system adjusts, so when you eat a big hunk of meat, your digestive system just doesn't process it well.

So all this explains why I don't eat much meat. But I do eat meat, and last night I indulged in one of the time-honored rituals of the omnivore: cooking a pot roast. Like so many other recipes, it happened almost by accident, except I had to make a special trip to the store to buy meat.

Sunday, I had thrown a bunch of veggies into the crock pot to make soup. Normally this turns out pretty well, but when it was all done, it just had no taste. The potatoes, onions, squash, garlic, carrots and herbs had failed to coalesce into a tasty soup.

Something was missing. I stared at the broth, veggies, and herbs and pondered what to do. Although it wasn't my initial goal, what was now in my crock pot looked like a perfect base for making a pot roast.

I had been to see a friend who was cooking a pot roast last week, and he invited me to partake. It was delicious, and I was determined to give it a shot. Now was the time. I stashed the uninspired crock pot results in several containers, freezing some for later use, and reserving the last one in the fridge for my pot roast experiment.

Yesterday, I went to the store to get the one thing I didn't have at home: meat. As I walked up and down the aisle, peering at the packages of beef, I realized I had no idea what to buy. I know what pot roast looks like when it's done, but what does it look like before you cook it? None of the packages said "pot roast," and none looked like the loose meat that comes out of the pot after hours of cooking.

I stopped an older lady nearby; surely she would know the secret of a pot roast. At least she was buying meat. You can never be sure in Madison. Even the middle class ladies with the frumpy coats and white hair are likely to be vegetarians.

"Excuse me. I know this sounds like a stupid questions, but I've never made pot roast, and I don't know what cut of meat to buy."

Although she looked a bit startled at being asked for advice by a random person, she smiled slightly and said she usually got chuck. We turned to the selection behind us, and I pointed to a few packages. "Like this?" I asked. She nodded. With a few more moments to contemplate the size and shape of the options, I pulled out a smallish chuck roast and was on my way.

Back home, I checked a few web sites to make sure I wasn't missing any essential step in making my meat investment both edible and tasty. Although some suggested browning the meat first, most assured me that wasn't necessary. But most also suggested that pot roast in the crock pot would take 10 hours. No wonder this is the ultimate crock pot dish. That's a whole work day plus commuting time! It was already after 2 PM, and I wanted to eat this tonight.

Fortunately, most crock pots have a high setting, and my roast was pretty small. If I got this thing going by 3 PM, I should be able to eat by 8 PM, right? A snack to tide me over seemed appropriate, so after plopping all the ingredients in the crock pot, I fixed a humus sandwich, ate some fruit, and went about the rest of the afternoon. (Yes, I have a strange eating schedule. I rarely eat lunch or dinner when others do, and breakfast is usually a giant mug of strong coffee with lots of milk and sugar.)

As the evening wore on, I couldn't resist peeking into the pot to check the progress. Is it important for the meat to be totally covered by liquid? Is it OK that one side looks brown, while the other still looks pink? Should I shovel veggies on top to make sure it doesn't dry out? Is it cooking all the way through?

I knew that when it was done, the meat would be soft and would fall apart when poked. During one of my trips to see how things were going, the meat suddenly broke apart when I pushed at it with a spoon. I broke off a piece and examined it. It still looked a bit pink, but definitely looked more like pot roast than the stuff I brought home from the store. I tasted it. Not bad. But maybe I should wait a it longer. It was only 7 PM, after all.

Finally at eight, I opened the lid, stuck a spoon in, and found a piece of meat that looked, smelled, and tasted like a real pot roast. I scooped out some veggies and meat and sat down to test my newest experiment.

Wow, it was really good. Hard to believe this was a pretty cheap cut of meat. No wonder families everywhere love this stuff. If you really want to eat meat, and are low on cash, this is a great option. Even the fat, which I normally would cut off and throw away, was not only edible, but tasty.

I know this is what happens to meat when it is cooked slowly: it becomes very tender, and the fat becomes like jelly. The flavors of all the ingredients meld together, seep into the meat, and the meat becomes a completely different substance. This is why slow-cooked bar-b-ques are so popular. Smoke and heat will do the same thing as liquid: turn a tough, cheap piece of meat into a mouth watering dish.

Although meat is still going to be a small portion of my diet, pot roast is definitely going to show up on my table again. There are times when comfort food is just the way to go.

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