" Do you need us to bring anything?" they asked. "No, just come" we said. And yet our friends Mike and Sally came bearing gifts. Literally a bucket of fresh beets direct from Sally's amazingly beautiful and productive garden and greenhouse, a cushion spurge she thought I might enjoy in my garden and a beautiful package of beef cheeks wrapped in white paper. Invite a rancher to dinner and if you rate you might get an enviable cut like cheeks or hanger (both tucked away in my freezer right now).Our favorite neighbors, our friends recently came back from a trip. We missed them and wanting to hear about their travels made a good excuse for dinner at our house.
Looking into my freezer I found a chuck roast -- almost 4 pounds --really two big for the two of us (not a fact that generally stops me) so it seemed perfect to build a dinner for four around. Pot roast. Could I really serve pot roast to guests? James had advised me to make a "regular dinner" not go overboard. Pot roast is about as regular as it gets so I forged on.
Stracotto (Italian Pot Roast) in Italian officially means overcooked but the name is used for a variety of braised roasts. The meat is slow cooked in a rich sauce flavored with pancetta, aromatic vegetables, dried mushrooms and tomatoes. Jumping off from Sara Moulton's recipe I found online I started by soaking 1 ounce of dried mushrooms in a cup of warm beef stock. Then browned the seasoned meat on all sides in hot olive oil. I set the meat aside, poured off most of the fat and added a couple ounces of chopped pancetta to the pan along with a chopped onion, carrot, and celery stalk. When the vegetables softened I tossed in 4 cloves of garlic (finely chopped), about a TB minced fresh rosemary, 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 2 bay leaves and seasoned the pot with salt and pepper. Next I stirred in 3 TB of tomato paste and a whole bottle of red wine (well actually the remains of two bottles I had in the kitchen -- using up that wine was initially the inspiration for this dinner). The wine cooked down for about 20 minutes and then the beef went back in the pot along with the mushrooms, a 28 oz can of tomato purée, and enough beef stock (yes I used the mushroom soaking liquid but poured it through cheesecloth first to remove any grit) to come 2/3 of the way up the side of the roast in the pot. The meat simmered very slowly, covered for almost 3 hours. I turned it over in the pot a couple times while it cooked.
When the meat was super tender I strained the sauce to remove the aromatic vegetables and cooked the liquid down a bit (with the meat resting on the side) to serve as gravy.
When people come to dinner, though I do like to be busy in the kitchen, I to have a good number of make ahead dishes. That way the kitchen seems clean and everything well organized to hit the table at the same time without guests seeing the cook starting to sweat. I usually add the finishing touches while James and our guests enjoy a few appetizers (today it was a salt cod brandade I had tucked way in the freezer for just such an occasion and toasty French bread) Alongside the classic of make ahead dishes, pot roast, I served an oven baked polenta. -- a fuss free but still impressive side dish, especially when studded with delicious creamy Humbolt Fog goat's cheese and parmesan. With these two rich dishes instead of a heavy vegetable recipe I opted for a bitter fresh tasting arugula, radish and red onion salad with tart balsamic vinaigrette (1/4 cup balsamic, 1 tsp dijon mustard, 1/2 tsp salt, pepper, 1 minced clove garlic, 1/2 cup olive oil shaken together).
I know James said "regular dinner" but I just can't have people to dinner and not serve dessert -- especially when I know our guests, like Mike and Sally, appreciate a sweet treat. More than once James has told "you don't always have to serve dessert." But honestly I do. You go to someone's house you expect dessert -- it's what good boys and girls get. Even if it's just something simple I can't feel that I have treated guests well unless the cake plate comes out.
Usually, because I love a theme, I would have gone for something terribly Italian like budino or biscotti and vin santo. But tonight -- because I wanted to try a recipe I saw on The Kitchy Kitchen, a cooking blog with photography so gorgeous I think about quitting every time I read it -- and because we have a lot of jam around the house thanks to my annual county fair efforts -- I opted for these simple lemon jam bars. A little tart a little sweet and just sugary enough to feel special -- just like the perfect dinner for friends.