In my salad days, I ate far less salad than I do now.
Beef was the centerpiece of most meals. Reminiscing about those not-so-good old days, I recalled a very hearty but inexpensive dish we enjoyed often. It's a perfect family pleaser for cold winter days and lean economic times.
A large 3- to 4-pound bone-in chuck roast will feed a family of four for about $10 to 12, and probably yield leftovers for another time. Grill it or roast it as the package sometimes suggests and you might be disappointed.
However, with a little extra preparation and several hours in the oven, you'll have a meal fit for the coldest winter day.
There are dozens of ways to serve chuck roast. Two very traditional recipes are my favorites. You can cook it as a traditional pot roast, braised, with an assembly of winter root vegetables, or you can turn it into a celebration of caramelized onions serving it Swiss steak style. I prefer the latter.
To make chuck Swiss steak, you're going to need a 3- to 4-pound bone-in chuck roast , 2 or 3 large Spanish or yellow onions, a 12-ounce can of whole or chopped tomatoes in puree, 3 to 4 cloves of garlic, a few ounces of beef broth, red wine and salt and pepper.
Choose a chuck steak with the highest ratio of meat to bone. All chuck steak has bones and a lot of fat — that's why it tastes so good — but look for one which shows plenty of marbling with little gristle. Gristle will look like thick bands of off-color fat often running parallel to one another. Gristle is tendon and connective tissue and you can cook it until "the cows come home," no offense meant to cows, but you still can't chew it. Keep in mind that markets will always show you the best side of the cut in the package.
The most difficult part of preparing Swiss steak at home is finding a pan big enough to brown it in. I'm lucky because I can just run downstairs and grab one from my restaurant. If you're not fortunate enough to have a rec-room that seats 100 or so, you might have to cut the steak in two pieces to brown it.
Season both sides of the steak liberally with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper. Heat a little olive oil in a heavy brazier until it smokes. Brown the meat in the oil over the highest heat that won't set off your smoke detector. When the chuck is thoroughly caramelized, remove it from the pan and sautÃ© the julienne onions along with the whole garlic cloves in the beef drippings and oil until they are just as brown. Don't be impatient with the onions. All the liquid needs to evaporate before the sugar concentrates and the onions brown.
Season the onions a little as well. Add a generous pour of red wine and reduce it by at least half. The wine adds richness and depth of flavor. Next add the tomatoes. Crush whole tomatoes with your hands. I always buy whole tomatoes rather than crushed for two reasons.
First, I can control the size of the tomatoes (I like most sauces chunky) and second, I think whole canned tomatoes taste better than crushed.
With the sauce made, snuggle the chuck back into it. Add beef broth so all the meat is covered. Put a tight lid on the pot and braise the Swiss steak about two to three hours or until the meat falls from the bone but still holds together in firm chunks. You want fork-tender Swiss steak but you don't want meat sauce. Tomorrow you can cook the leftovers in the sauce until they are falling apart and serve them on egg noodles or rice.
If onions aren't your cup of tea, make the same sauce with just a little onion for flavor and then add the tomato and beef broth. About an hour before the pot roast is done, add an assortment of winter vegetables and finish cooking. I like whole carrots, Yukon gold or small red potatoes, turnip, and parsnips. Chuck prepared as pot roast is a very tasty and inexpensive alternative to more expensive cuts like top, bottom, or eye of the round.
I enjoy my Swiss steak with a bottle of rather pricey Chateau Neuf de Pape. That's another advantage of that rather unusual rec-room in my basement. Chateau Neuf de Pape is a blended wine from the northern Rhone region of France. Traditionally the grapes used in Rhone wines are Grenache, Sarah and Mourvedre.
The Sarah adds rich fruit complementing the heavy sauce and bold flavors of the dish and the Grenache and Mourvedre adds tannin to cut the fat released from the beef while cooking. The wine was an excellent match.
The day after we enjoyed our Swiss chuck steak with Rhone wine, a representative from a local wine distributor dropped by. We tasted several Rhones and Rhone blends at price points considerably lower than Chateau Neuf de Pape.
Two suggestions emerged from our tasting which would continue the theme of a great meal at a reasonable cost. From South Africa, try Goats Do Roam. It's a corny play on words but a worthy wine. Goats Do Roam is made from the classic trio of Rhone grapes, ripened in the South African sun.
The wine is not as sleek and sophisticated as French but it is a richer and darker and very drinkable wine for about $12 a bottle. From France, in a leaner style, try Perrin Reserve Cotes du Rhone. Perrin should retail for a dollar or two less than the Goats.
On a recent trip to France, I discovered an appellation in the southern Rhone called St. Joseph. Wine from this area is lighter than Chateau Neuf de Pape and less expensive. They are sometimes difficult to find. A well-stocked wine shop should have some.
What could be more satisfying on a cold winter night than Swiss steak with a bottle of good wine, particularly when it's a bargain?
Jack Felber is a regular Times columnist. He and his wife, Marcia Felber, are proprietors of The Olympia Tea Room, a Wine Spectator-recognized harborside restaurant in Watch Hill, R.I. jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org