Indian biryani curry paste gives an exotic twist to classic American pot roast. Recipe below.
It’s funny the things that stick in your brain. I routinely forget to pick up the dry cleaning or that we’re out of cottage cheese or that I was supposed to get the oil changed. But I still remember the day we talked about food in my grade school French class with Mademoiselle [okay, I forget her name too—something French, since she really was from France].
She, being from France and probably wondering exactly how she’d ended up teaching a bunch of squirmy American eleven-year-olds in St. Louis, Missouri, began to wax nostalgic about French food. We, being squirmy American eleven-year-olds from St. Louis, Missouri, were horrified. Sauces were involved. Shallots. Innards. Finally, one of the girls in the class cracked, saying something insightful, like, “Ewwwww.”
Mlle. [Je-ne-sais-quoi] rolled her eyes and said, “Ah, yes. For Americans, everything must taste like fried chicken.”
Despite the fact that, unlike all my other teachers, she was actually young and pretty and spoke with that wonderful accent, I was offended. What the hell was wrong with fried chicken? Being eleven, hell had entered my vocabulary, albeit under my breath unless I was around trusted fellow hell sayers like Carl Halford and Mike Prokopf.
Besides, didn’t we Americans have pizza? Okay, I had never tried it, but my brother Mike had eaten it at Little Charlie’s house and pronounced it good. And didn’t we have chop suey? This ersatz Chinese delicacy hadn’t yet been widely outed as an American invention, so it counted. Okay, I hadn’t personally tried that either—Mike and I always ordered hamburgers when our parents forced us to go to some sketchy Chinese dive downtown.
But that was then, this is now.
All the current heated political posturing about immigration aside, the United States is a pretty welcoming country—perhaps the most so. The invite is engraved right there on the Statue of Liberty: Come on in. Of course, when all these people show up here, they don’t just bring themselves, they bring their food and their ways of cooking it and eating it. And increasingly, Americans have gone from saying “Ewwwww” about exotic foods to saying, “Hey, that looks good—you gonna finish that?”
Instead of the mythical melting pot all these cultures were supposed to dissolve into, we’ve become—particularly in our urban centers—one humongous international buffet. You only have to travel along Chicago’s Devon Avenue to get a taste of it. Devon is probably best known for its Indian and Pakistani shops and restaurants around Western Avenue [more about this in at least one future post]. But travel further west on Devon and you’ll go block by block through culture after culture—Russians, Hassidic Jews and even Chinese Muslims have put their stamps on the street. Head east toward the Rogers Park neighborhood and you’ll find Thai, Bosnian and Croatian communities, to name a few.
So what does all this have to with that most American of meals, the pot roast? Well, when Americans find something good to eat, we often like to borrow it [some might say "co-opt" or "appropriate," but I think "borrow" sounds friendlier]. Our various visits to Devon for outstanding and cheap Indian dinners [again, a future post] often involve shopping in the many grocery stores there. Sometimes we’re shopping for an ingredient for a recipe we’ve found—other times, we’re just picking up things because they sound interesting.
I can’t recall which kind of purchase Patak’s Original Biryani Curry Paste was. But one day when I had a pot roast to cook and a desire to do something different with it, there it was in the fridge, right next to the Patak’s Original Tandoori Paste bought for a simple, delicious chicken dish that will be the subject of a future post [yeah, I know, I'm making lots of promises here—don't worry, I'll keep them].
So at that wonderful intersection of “I’m bored” and my occasional “let’s see what happens when you poke it with a stick” approach to culinary adventures, the Mysterious Pot Roast was created. The result is not a dish that tastes especially Indian, although when the Biryani paste first hits the pan, that’s exactly what you’ll think. But during the long cooking process, the sauce calms down and delivers mystery and complexity to this hearty but often unassuming meal—a vaguely exotic spiciness without heat. Roasts, by definition, are often roasted in the oven, but this one is braised on the stove top for about 2-1/2 hours, to tenderize this tough but flavorful cut of meat.
Terry’s Mysterious Pot Roast
2 tablespoons canola oil
2-1/2 to 3-pound boneless chuck roast (probably looks huge, but it will shrink as it cooks)
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 cups dry red wine
1 cup or so of water, divided
2 tablespoons Biryani Curry Paste
2 Turkish bay leaves [or 1 California bay leaf]
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1-1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into largish bite-sized chunks [about 4 to 5 potatoes]
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
Heat a heavy, deep skillet or dutch oven large enough to accommodate the roast over medium-high heat. Pat the roast dry with paper towels and salt and pepper it on both sides. When skillet is hot, add oil and brown roast on both sides, 4 to 5 minutes per side.
Transfer roast to a plate, reduce heat to low and add red wine to skillet. Pour it in all at once. It will sizzle and splatter like crazy, but adding the wine all at once actually overwhelms the pan’s heat and reduces the splattering; the wine merely boils angrily at you instead. Add 1/2 cup of water, further calming things down, then stir in the Biryani paste, scraping up any browned bits in the pan as you do.
Return roast to pan, along with any accumulated juices. Add more water as needed to bring the liquid level partway up the side of the roast without submerging it completely [see Kitchen Notes below]—you want to braise it, not boil it. Add bay leaves and minced garlic.
Cover and let simmer over a very low flame for two hours, checking occasionally and adding water if liquid boils down too much, but it probably won’t unless your lid doesn’t fit the pan well. You can also drizzle some of the liquid over the roast occasionally. About an hour into cooking, turn the roast over in the pan.
After the roast has cooked for 2 hours, add potatoes and onions to the pan, scattering around the roast. It doesn’t matter if the potatoes aren’t totally submerged—they probably won’t be, in fact—the steam will cook them through. Cover the pan and continue to cook for another 1/2 hour.
Transfer roast to plate, tent with foil and let it rest for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat under pan and leave covered. Slice roast across the grain into 1/2-inch [or so] slices. Even with your sharpest knife, the edges of the roast may shred a bit. Instead of fretting that things aren’t perfect, treat this as your reward for a roast well done. When no one’s looking, pinch a little mouthful and pop it in your gob. Good, isn’t it?
Fan a few slices of roast on each plate. Arrange potatoes next to the roast slices and spoon sauce over both. Serve with a salad or pretty much any green vegetable. This dish is big flavored enough to stand up to steamed broccoli, for instance.
Most supermarket chuck roasts are about 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick, so the liquid may come close to the top of the roast. If you’re lucky enough to find a butcher who cuts them closer to 3 inches thick, the liquid will probably only come about halfway up the side of the roast. Either situation is fine.
Finding Biryani paste. As I said, I found mine on Devon. I’ve also seen it in some Jewel stores. Outside Chicago, check your grocery store or ethnic markets. I tried to find a website with a store locater for the U.S., but only found a distributor in Canada. If you manage to find a source for their products, you’ll find some recipes on their site. I have an email into them to see if they can help—I’ll keep you posted.
If you can’t find Biryani paste anywhere, try adding a tablespoon each of cumin and coriander to the sauce; they’re two of the key ingredients in Biryani paste.