Some readers may remember last winter’s post on brasato al vino rosso, the wonderful red wine pot roast from northern Italy. Well, today we turn our attention to central Italy to present Tuscan Pot Roast. This dish, more specifically from Florence, is called ‘stracotto’, which literally means ‘overcooked’. Like a brasato, red wine goes in, but in the red wine plays its more usual back up role, while tomato sauce takes the lead.
For preparing the roast:
- One eye round roast (about 1-1.5 kilos/2-3 lbs.)
- A carrot (young and thin if possible)
- A small chunk of pancetta (cut into four thin strips)
For browning and braising:
- Olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 stick of celery, chopped
- Salt and pepper, q.b.
- Red wine
- 1 large can of tomatoes (500g or 1 lb.)
- A spoonful of tomato paste (optional)
- Water or broth
Eye round is a nice cut for company since it keeps its shape, but it can be a bit dry and tasteless as compared with chuck, so it needs a little help. This comes in the form of ‘larding’ the roast with a carrot and some strips of pancetta. If you have a larding needle, that’s the best tool for the task, but if not, you can simply take a paring knife and force it through the middle of the roast like so, creating a small ‘tunnel’ for your carrot:
As you can see, the knife should come out the other side. It should then be a fairly simple matter of shoving the carrot through the roast, trimming off any part of the carrot that sticks out on either side.
You do the same now with the strips of pancetta, making a tunnel on each side of the carrot, except that, being soft, you cannot simply push the pancetta through the meat. (Here’s where a larding needle would really come in handy!)
Use your finger to open the ‘tunnel’ up a bit, then guide the pancetta through, again with your finger playing the part of the larding needle. Rather than trying to pass a two long strips of pancetta all the way through the roast, I take four shorter pieces and guide them halfway through from each side.
Now tie the roast up with kitchen string to help it keep its shape. (These days, roasts often come pre-tied in the store, in which case you simply need to be careful not to break the strings as you lard the roast.) Salt and pepper the roast generously.
Now that this chore is done, you’re on Easy Street for the rest of the recipe: Make a soffritto by sautéing onion, carrot and celery in some olive oil in a Dutch oven (preferably oval) and when they have wilted, raise the heat a bit and add the roast, browning it lightly all over.
Pour over a bit of red wine and turn the roast so it is covered all over with the wine. Let the wine evaporate completely, as you scrape any brown bits from the bottom of the pot.
Now pass the tomatoes through a food mill into the pot. Turn the roast again. Add the tomato paste, if using, and enough water or broth to come up at least 2/3 of the way up the roast, if need be.
Allow the pot to come to a simmer, lower the heat and cover the pot. Let the roast braise until it is quite tender, turning every 15 minutes or so and adjusting the heat so that the tomato sauce simmers very gently (what the French call ‘mijoter‘). Most recipes call for a cooking time of 2 hours, but it may well take longer, up to 3 hours, depending on the meat and the size of the roast. Add water or broth if the sauce gets too thick, and adjust for seasoning at the end of cooking.
Serve your Tuscan Pot Roast, sliced, on a warmed platter with boiled potatoes. Pour some of the tomato sauce over the roast slices and serve the rest in a gravy boat for guest to add more, which they are very likely to do.
Notes on Tuscan Pot Roast
Usually I like chuck (shoulder or spalla) for pot roast, as it is very juicy and turns very tender after a slow braise like this. Exquisite eating, but not the prettiest cut—it has an irregular shape and tends to fall apart when cooked. So when cooking for company, a bottom or eye round, from the hind quarter is probably a better choice. They are also roughly equivalent the cuts that most Italians would use for a brasato or stracotto: the scamone, girello or noce, although in Italy, too, the shoulder cuts like girello di spalla are popular for slow cooking These cuts are leaner than chuck and tend to have less flavor, however, hence the larding, which takes a bit of work. Of course, larding is not strictly necessary, but it makes an incredible difference in the final flavor. The carrot sweetens the meat and the fat from the pancetta keeps it nice and juicy.
If you like, you can add some herbs to the sauce as it cooks for an extra layer of flavor: bay leaves, a sprig of fresh rosemary or fresh thyme, or a bouquet garni of all three, would all be nice. Some recipes call for adding a clove of garlic to the soffritto.
You will probably have extra tomato sauce from making Tuscan Pot Roast, which is delicious over pasta—perhaps better than the meat itself! The taste, if I may say so, is very reminiscent of a good Neapolitan ragù.