Slow down with savory seasonal roasts

Roasting less popular cuts, such as this eye of round roast with vegetables, results in a flavorful meal for a crowd – and leftovers for sandwiches.
Roasting less popular cuts, such as this eye of round roast with vegetables, results in a flavorful meal for a crowd – and leftovers for sandwiches.

Meat cookery is having a moment in Sacramento, as evidenced in part by the recent ribbon-cutting for carvery-style restaurant Empress Tavern and the upcoming opening of whole-animal butcher V. Miller Meats.

As the weather cools, it’s time to heat up the home oven, too. There’s no easier way to feed a crowd (or make a family dinner with leftovers for the next day’s lunches) than by roasting a big cut of meat, says Matt Azevedo, co-owner of V. Miller Meats in East Sacramento: “It’s perfect for a one-pot meal on a cold Sunday,” he says.

“A roast takes 15 or 20 minutes to start, and then you can forget about it for several hours. And in winter, it fills the whole house with a great smell.”

The key to putting a great roast on the table lies in the cut you select – and in tailoring your cooking method to it.

“Good cooking starts in the store,” says Michael Thiemann, chef and co-owner of downtown’s Empress Tavern, whose menu emphasizes roasted meats, including large cuts served family-style. (With advance notice, the restaurant offers whole-animal dinners.) “That’s what makes a good restaurant or home cook. Head to a local butcher shop,” Thiemann says.

Locally, such butcher counters as Corti Bros., Taylor’s Market, or V. Miller (scheduled to open as soon as this week) are solid choices. A good butcher, Thiemann says, can explain the characteristics of a cut and how to cook it.

Azevedo says he and business partner Eric V. Miller plan to emphasize this type of customer service education at V. Miller: “We’re both former chefs, and we have an educational opportunity. We’ll be really focused on helping people find what they want.”

Leaner cuts such as filet or pork tenderloin require roasting to a precise temperature; if overcooked, they may dry out quickly. They’re also typically pricey. As an alternative, Azevedo suggest looking for so-called off cuts, less popular – but often more flavorful – cuts such as shoulder or shank, which are loaded with connective tissue and fat: “Any time you’re roasting or braising, you’re going to have better luck with a fattier piece,” Azevedo says. “The fat keeps it moist if you overcook it.” Fat also adds to and carries the flavors in any dish.

For cooks and diners who prefer leaner, quicker-cooking cuts, however, Azevedo suggests an alternative: “Something like a filet is going to be very expensive,” he notes. “A great quick, easy roast that’s a little more toothsome and a little more affordable is going to be eye of round. It’s a cylindrical cut out of the leg.”

This lean cut, best roasted to medium-rare and served thinly sliced, cooks fast enough for a weeknight supper (see the following recipe); leftovers make a great roast-beef sandwich.

Whatever cut and method you choose, Azevedo and Thiemann agree on one key to a great result: Enhance flavor with a well-browned crust on the meat.

“Any chance you can get to put a dark brown sear on a cut, take it,” says Azevedo. “It doesn’t seal in the juices, but it helps build flavor for the meat.”

And don’t let the brown, flavorful juices left behind in the pan after searing (called the fond) go to waste; if you deglaze the pan (by swirling in a little wine, beer, broth, or other flavorful liquid), you’ll have an instant pan sauce or the base for a braise. (A note on the lingo: Braising means cooking in liquid in a covered pan such as a Dutch oven; roasting, by contrast, means cooking uncovered in an oven.)

Azevedo’s recipe for slow-roasted carnitas (pork shoulder), which follows, exemplifies the method he describes. His method, and those of the other recipes, can easily be adapted to similar cuts.

Thiemann concurs: “Roast low and slow,” he advise, “but you’ve got to brown the meat” for flavor. He suggests browning cuts on the grill before slow roasting, as an alternative to stove-top browning. “If you have a good heavy cast iron Dutch oven, that can get you through a lot.”

For longer-cooked cuts, however, browning in advance isn’t always needed, Thiemann says: “If you go low and slow, you can marinate up a big lamb shoulder, turn it on low, and watch it for three or four hours.” The result? Tender chunks of richly savory meat, well browned by the long oven time, as in the included recipe for lamb shoulder with green olives.

Such often-forgotten cuts, treated right, become lavish, satisfying dinners for a group, with minimal effort and maximal flavor. Just add heat. No wonder meat is the talk of the town this season.

Slow-roasted carnitas with pico de gallo

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 5-6 hours

Serves 6 to 8

In this recipe from Matt Azevedo of V. Miller Meats, pork shoulder (a rich, fatty cut) is slow-roasted until completely tender. Carnitas are typically served shredded in tacos, but the meat is also delicious on its own with its richly savory pan juices.

For the carnitas:

One 3-pound pork shoulder roast (butt)

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

5 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled

2 oranges

2 cups chicken broth or stock

For the pico de gallo:

2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters

1 serrano chilies, minced

1/2 small red onion, minced

1/2 cup minced fresh cilantro (including stems, for texture)

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon olive oil

Warm tortillas, for serving

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Season the pork all over with salt and pepper. In a large ovenproof pan or Dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Lay the pork in the pan and cook, turning as needed, until well browned all over, about 15 minutes total. Transfer to a plate. Reduce heat to medium-low.

Add onion to pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, grate the zest from the orange; squeeze juice from the halves and reserve. Add the garlic cloves and orange zest to the pan and cook until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Pour in orange juice and stir, scraping pan to release any browned bits, 1 minute.

Add the reserved orange rind halves to pan along with chicken broth and bring broth to a simmer. Return pork to pan and transfer to oven. Cook until pork is completely tender, 5-6 hours. Discard the orange halves.

Meanwhile, make the pico de gallo: Combine the tomatoes, serrano chili, red onion, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil in a small bowl. Add salt to taste.

To serve, pull the pork into chunks with two forks. If desired, heat the remaining olive oil in a pan and sauté the pork until crisp. Serve with warm tortillas and the pico de gallo.

Mustard-crusted roast eye of round with beer-glazed vegetables

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Serves 6

This quicker roasting recipe, inspired by Belgian flavors, combines both meat and a vegetable side dish in a single pan. You may need to call ahead to order eye of round, a lean and relatively inexpensive cut from the leg. Ask your butcher to tie the roast.

2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard

1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 cloves garlic, minced

One 3-pound beef eye of round roast

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

3/4 pound shallots, peeled and cut into wedges

3 Belgian endives, cut into quarters lengthwise

1 to 2 parsnips (about 1/2 pound), peeled and cut into chunks

1/2 cup full-flavored Belgian-style beer

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, stir together the mustard, garlic and thyme and set aside. Season the roast with salt and pepper. In a large cast-iron skillet or other ovenproof pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the meat to the pan and sear, turning as needed, until well browned all over (do not allow to scorch), 10-15 minutes. Transfer meat to a plate.

Add remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and reduce heat to medium. Add vegetables and cook, stirring often, until onions and endive are just beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the beer, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring and scraping pan to release browned bits, until beer is nearly evaporated, 3-4 minutes.

Coat the meat evenly with the mustard mixture. Set meat on top of vegetables and transfer pan to oven. Roast until done to your liking, about 45 minutes for medium-rare (125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer; temperature will climb after removal from oven). Remove from oven, tent loosely with foil, and let meat rest for 10 minutes before slicing thinly and serving with the vegetables.

Slow-roasted lamb shoulder with green olives

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: About 5 hours

Serves 6 to 8

Lamb shoulder roast is an underappreciated cut that, when roasted slowly, turns meltingly tender, thanks to its interior connective tissue and fat. A paste of tangy green olives and plenty of garlic stands up to the lamb’s robust flavor; if desired, increase the punch of the rub by marinating for several hours or overnight before roasting.

1/2 cup pitted small green olives, such as Picholine

4 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 bone-in lamb shoulder roast (5 to 6 pounds), thick exterior fat trimmed

Salt and pepper

1 cup white wine

1 red onion, cut in thick rings

3 cans cannellini or white beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup fresh chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. In a small food processor, combine the olives, garlic, olive oil, coriander, and chili flakes and process until a coarse paste forms. Rub the olive mixture all over the lamb, working it between muscles and bones. With a small, sharp knife, cut slits in fat and meat on top of roast and work the olive mixture into the slits. Season with salt and pepper.

Place the lamb on a roasting rack in a large pan. Add the white wine and red onion to the bottom of the pan. Cover the whole pan with a foil, crimping the edges to create a seal.

Place lamb in oven and lower temperature to 300 degrees. Roast until lamb is very tender, about 4 hours. Carefully uncover and return to oven until exterior is browned and crisped, 30-45 minutes longer.

Transfer lamb to a serving dish. Tilt roasting pan and skim excess fat from pan juices. Add beans to remaining pan juices and return pan to oven until beans are warmed, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley and surround lamb with beans. To serve, spoon beans onto plates. Cut lamb into chunks or pull meat from bones with two forks and place meat on beans.