There’s nothing like a good pot roast on a cold winter’s day! Though it may come as a surprise to some, Italians also make pot roast, which is known variously as brasato or stracotto, but with a ‘continental’ twist: the favorite cooking medium for Italian pot roast is red wine.
Although it is not absolutely necessary, I find that the roast has extra depth of flavor if it is allowed to marinate. You place a beef roast into a ceramic bowl or pot into which it will fit snugly, then add the ‘holy trinity’ of onion, carrots and celery, each cut up into wedges or large chunks, a whole garlic clove or two, some whole peppercorns, a few cloves and a bay leaf or two. Pour over ample robust red wine—usually you’ll need a whole bottle. Leave the roast to marinate in its red wine bath overnight or even longer in the fridge. If the liquid does not entirely cover the roast, turn it every so often to ensure even marination. Let the roast come back to room temperature before cooking. (NB: Even if you don’t have 24 hours to spare, you can marinate the meat for a few hours, or from the morning to the evening, in which case I’d leave it out of the fridge.
Remove the roast from the marinade and pat dry. Then, in a round or oval Dutch oven, melt about two spoonfuls of lard, add a sprig of rosemary and a garlic clove and brown the roast well on all sides., seasoning well with salt and pepper as you go. (Remove the garlic if it browns too much.) Then straining the marinade liquid through a sieve, pour it slowly over the roast. The liquid should come about 2/3 of the way up the roast. Lower the heat, cover the pot and allow it to simmer slowly until tender, about 2 or 3 hours (depending on the size of the roast), turning the roast every half hour or so to ensure even cooking. (Add some broth or water if it dried out too much, but normally there should be ample liquid without adding more.)
When the roast is done, remove it from the pot to a carving board to cool off a bit. (This will make it easier to slice.) While it is cooling, bind the remaining liquid a bit in the pot either with some beurre manié or with a cornstarch slurry (see below). The resulting sauce should have a nice liaison without actually being thick. Slice the roast on a serving platter and pour over a bit of the sauce. Serve with the remaining sauce in a sauceboat.
NOTES: The cut of beef I like best for pot roast is chuck, but rump roast or the bottom round are also good cuts. Avoid lean cuts, including top or center round, which are ‘prettier’ but tend to dry out. What you want is a good, rather tough piece of meat with plenty of fat and sinew that will break down during the long simmering, enriching the meat as it cooks. (I have seen some recipes that call for a sirloin pot roast to be served medium rare, but I have never tried it.) The roast should be tied so it does not fall apart during the braising.
The red wine, as mentioned, should be full-bodied. In Piemonte, the traditional choice is Barolo, but at today’s prices you may want to opt for something a bit more modest…
Of course, there are numerous variations, mostly having to do with the aromatics or herbs to be included in the marinade or braising liquid. The addition of pancetta to the braising pot along with the garlic and rosemary is a common addition (and one I usually follow, but not today—as we were snowed in!) Some recipes (including many of the most traditional ones) call for larding the roast with pancetta. Some recipes call for chopping up the marinade vegetables and sautéing them as a soffritto. And some also call adding a bit of chopped tomato to the braising liquid. In some versions, you add just a bit of braising liquid at a time, in the manner of an arrosto morto, rather than all at once at the beginning of the braising. Another variation mentioned In Alessandro Molinari Pradelli’s La cucina lombarda is the addition of lots of thinly sliced onion to melt into the braising liquid, a variation called brasato alle cipolle.
Brasato is the usual word for pot roast in Lombardy and Piemonte. I understand that stracotto is the more common name in Tuscany. This recipe is more typical of a brasato. A stracotto alla fiorentina usually includes only a cup or so of red wine, which is allowed to evaporate in the usual Italian way, after which a goodly amount of tomato purée is added in which the roast braises, making it somewhat similar to the southern Italian ragù.
By the way, if you don’t use the marinade vegetables as a soffritto, you might want to try glazing them and serving with as a rustic contorno, which is what I did: pick out as many of the cloves and peppercorns as you can find. No need to be too fussy about—it does no harm to leave a few behind.) Then place them in a skillet with water enough to come about halfway up their height, along with a few spoonfuls of sugar, a pinch of salt and a nice clump of butter. Turn the heat up to medium-high and let the water boil down until it has completely evaporated. As the water evaporates, the vegetables will begin to caramelize in the butter and melted sugar. Allow them to take on a nice golden color, without burning of course, and you’re done. Serving the glazed vegetables around the sliced roast makes for an attractive presentation.
The braising liquid can be served as is, especially if it’s already reduced enough to have reached a ‘sauce’ consistency. Otherwise, as mentioned you can bind the liquid either with a beurre manié, which is simply flour blended with softened butter, or with a cornstarch blended with cold water to make a slurry. The beurre manié will lighten the color of the liquid and render it opaque, while the cornstarch slurry will thicken it without changing its color or transparency. If you’ve used the marinade vegetables as a soffritto, then you can simply blend the liquid and vegetables together, or pass them through the finest mesh of a food mill, which will emulsify and thicken it ‘naturally’.
Lard is not a necessity—you can use olive oil, of course, or a combination of oil and butter if you prefer. But there is nothing like lard for browing meat and, since we were out of pancetta, I thought that it would add a bit more depth of flavor.
Brasato aka stracotto is often served with mashed potatoes, which make a wonderful foil for that rich, unctuous sauce. If so, I would go a bit more lightly on the butter content of the mashed potatoes, as the sauce is already quite rich. Polenta is also a popular choice. Cipolline all’agrodolce or glazed carrots are also great accompaniments, especially if you want to precede the roast with pasta as a first course.
For the fans of French cooking out there, you will no doubt have noticed how similar this recipe for brasato is the beouf à la mode (see also the Larousse Gastronomique, under “Beef” and Escoffier, Le Guide Culinaire, under Piece de Beouf
à la Mode, dite aussi
à la Bourgeoise”). I am not sure of the exact relationships, but seeing as Piemonte borders on France and Lombardy borders on Piemonte, the resemblance should not surprise us.
Leftover brasato is wonderful as a stuffing for pasta, known as either agnolotti or ravioli al brasato. (Since I have leftovers, I may blog on that dish soon.) And, finally, you can prepare beef cut into large cubes in exactly the same way, in which case your brasato becomes a stufato (similar to a daube in French cuisine).