One morning on the drive from home to schools, halfway down the hill on the two lane, the kids all crowded toward the passenger side window, hushed, peering out the glass, then cheered and chattered as we zipped past.
‘What is it’, I asked, scanning them in the rearview.
‘The weather tree!’, the twins announced, gleeful.
‘It’s red and orange, so rain’s are coming,’ they advised me.
That was the first time I’d heard of it. I’d never even noticed the tree before, and it took them another ride to point it out clearly to me.
On one stretch where the road straightened, off to the right near the edge of the shoulder, it stood, a thin but tall, scraggly liquid amber, with just a few branches, cropped close to the trunk. It looked like it had taken a lightning strike at some time, and partly recovered. A bit sad and forlorn, but obviously a survivor.
Over the years since, the weather tree has held a strange attraction for the kids, who for reasons unknown to me to this day, feel a kinship, and security, when they see it change.
‘How’s the weather tree’, I’ll say. And season after season we’ve watched for it as we roll by, and the children call out it’s turning. Bare to budding green, full leaf to fall leaf color, then, as it lost them again, back to winter bare. The weather tree has marked our time in a way television or hallmark never could.
Last week an old family friend called my wife to come by. She took her to the front room, where she’d lined up brown boxes. They were filled with her kitchen - her best special pots, platters, and utensils, from an earlier America, her life. The time had come, she would no longer be using them, she said. Collected, well employed, she wanted them to have a home. A good home.
We unpacked solid cast iron dutch ovens, heavyweight black covered pots and skillets of simple sturdy design. I’m not superstitious, but they had a dull metallic glow, that hinted at a life, and asked for respect.
Coming home alone up the hill last night, I saw the weather tree, glaring its defiant red and burnt orange signal, shaken in the wind but not bending, and I decided to put the iron to use, as it was intended.
Now, pot roast actually describes how it was once cooked centuries ago – in a heavy pot over a hearth fire, where it simmered for hours. An iron pot distributes heat from every side, top and bottom, and with a close-fitting heavy lid, holds moisture well, so the contents – usually a tough cut of meat – cooks slowly over time, and becomes fully tender. Today’s crock pot is just a wannabe to this original.
The version here is just a straight, simple, savory old fashioned one I knew from my mother.
Large cast iron or other heavy dutch oven (big enough to hold about 4 pounds of chuck roast)
- a 3 to 5 pound, well marbled beef chuck cut, blade, or similar. You want it nice and thick, not steaks. Fat is your friend, with this dish. The method of cooking works to turn a tough cut tender.
- salt and pepper; your favorite spice rub for beef, if you like
- 3 Tbs cooking oil
- 3 – 5 garlic cloves, rough chopped – as much as you like
- 2 medium onions
- 2 – 3 cups red wine, preferably a fruity red like merlot or cab
- a sprig or 1/2 teaspoon of thyme; one bay leaf if you like
- 1 and1/2 packets of dry onion soup mix
- 4 good sized carrots
- 2 celery stalks, with some of the inner green leaves from the core
- OPTIONAL – four large yukon or red potatoes cut in large chunks (I always prefer to make mashed, because it catches the pan sauce so well, but you can add the potatoes to the pot 30 minutes before serving if you like)
How To Make:
- Heat the oven to 400 F / 205 C
- Lightly salt and pepper both sides of the beef, rub with optional spices if you like.
- Add the cooking oil to the iron pot, heat it on the stove top til a drop of water sizzles, but before oil smokes.
- Put the meat in and cook it each side about 3 -4 minutes, til each side is browned nicely. This adds color and flavor, but also sears the meat and seals in some moisture.
- Add the chopped garlic, thyme and bay leaf.
- Turn down the heat, and add the onion soup mix, wine, onion, carrot, celery and celery leaf. Add water, if needed, enough to just cover the meat.
- Cover and place the iron pot into the oven. Reduce oven temp to 350 F / 175 C, and cook for about three hours. Ideally, the liquid around the meat will simmer, and not boil.
- About an hour in, you’ll smell it. Be patient. Time is what tenderizes the meat. It is done when a fork pierces it easily. Slice it fairly thin across the grain.
I like to serve the roast with spoonfuls of the gravy, over mashed potatoes with a hearty bread, a nice salad, green beans. The red wine gives it a wonderful fruity, rich touch that complements the savory beef and onion.
Comfort food. The kind that’s fortified generations and generations. And, maybe, also connects us to our past and future.