Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Mississippi roast and chicken albondigas



I wasn't cooking at all for a few weeks. I was busy one night and lazy the next and then Mark was out or Owen was out or I couldn't be dragged away from my marathon viewing of Shoah. It was great for a while, but eventually I started to feel slovenly and unhealthy. In the absence of leftovers, my non-dinner meals had devolved to cherry Hershey’s kisses left over from Christmas and spoonfuls of Jif straight from the jar. That’s not a droll hypothetical. That's a precise description of one of my lunches last week, and probably all of my snacks. There was another day when sustenance consisted of an orange, handfuls of Nabisco gingersnaps, and a chai latte.

Saturday, I decided to start cooking again. Mark’s aunt is visiting and you have to offer a houseguest a meal at some point, plus I missed real food and missed blogging. I decided to warm up slowly. I decided to warm up with Mississippi roast.

Have you heard of Mississippi roast? Sit down, get comfortable, I'm going to tell you all about it.

A few weeks ago Sam Sifton wrote a story in the New York Times about the “improbable rise” of so-called Mississippi roast. The story was both fascinating and unintentionally hilarious, or at least I found it so at the time.

Over the last decade, a 5-ingredient, slow-cooker beef dish -- a.k.a. Mississippi roast --  has become a sensation among, as Sifton put it, “the mom-blog set.” A slab of chuck goes into your slow cooker along with a packet of Ranch dressing mix, a packet of au jus gravy mix, a stick of butter, and a few jarred pepperoncini.  Cook for 8 hours. Dinner.

Sifton tracked down the Mississippi woman who invented the recipe and the friend of hers who subsequently published it in a church cookbook, et cetera, et cetera (this was the fascinating part), until suddenly it was all over Pinterest and the blogosphere. One blogger quoted in Sifton’s story enthused that the roast passed “the hubby test.”  

It didn’t quite pass the Sifton test.

Sifton: “Packaged dry ranch-dressing mix? Packaged dry gravy mix? These are built on foundations of salt and monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, artificial colors, polysyllabic ingredients that are difficult to pronounce much less identify. Surely they could be replaced without increasing by much the prep time for the roast.”

He came up with a new version of the recipe that involves browning the meat "aggressively beneath a shower of salt and pepper and a coating of all-purpose flour that I hoped would create a fond, or base of flavor, to replace the gravy mix, and give some structure to the sauce.” Then he whips up some homemade ranch dressing. Sifton: “It was exactly the same as the original effort, and took about the same amount of time to make.” (Italics mine.)

I didn't have to try the recipe to know this was absurd. How I chuckled. The original Mississsippi roast was about the miraculous alchemy of a few unfussy supermarket ingredients in a crockpot. It was about magic. By turning it into just another recipe and using the word fond, Sifton missed the whole point.

I was awfully smug. Like I'm so folksy and unpretentious. I made Mississippi roast according to the traditional mom blogger recipe Saturday, emptying two packets of flavoring powder plus butter and pepperoncini onto a chuck roast. I love ranch dressing. I love butter. I was sure it was going to be delicious. 

You've probably guessed from my long wind-up that a dramatic reversal awaits. I won't disappoint.

We sat down to dinner Saturday, I took a bite of the Mississippi roast and cried, “This is is terrible!”

It was terrible! The flavor of real beef had been replaced by salty and revolting “beef flavor.” The roast tasted like it had spent years in a can. It tasted like a hospital cafeteria smells. The difference between the flavor of regular pot roast and Mississippi roast was the difference between the flavor of a real strawberry and strawberry bubblegum. 

Mark said, “I don’t know what you’re so upset about. This is really good.”

Mark’s aunt said, “I like it. It’s delicious.”

Owen said, “It’s weird and too salty, but I like it.”

I’m not sure why this beef offended me so much. After all, I enjoy cloyingly artificial Hershey’s cherry kisses and love garbage like instant vanilla pudding. But Mississippi roast was so not my thing. Disgusting. I just don't get it. I’m sorry I ever doubted Sam Sifton. I bet his fancy Mississippi roast is delicious and worth the ten or fifteen extra minutes it takes to make, I can not recommend the original.

Last night, I continued the cooking revival by making the chicken albondigas (meatballs) from Zahav, which were good, though I thought they contained too much smoked paprika.

A word on meatballs. Everyone thinks they are an easy, homely, weeknight dish, but they're not. Meat loaf is an easy, homely, weeknight dish. Meatballs are a miserable chore. I forget this every time I decide to make meatballs and only remember when I'm in the middle of making meatballs. What is so hard about meatballs? A lot of things, but it mostly comes down to handwashing. If you’re shaping a meatball and the phone rings, you have to turn on the sink with your elbow and wash your hands to take the call. You have to wash your hands to turn on the stove. You have to wash your hands if your son wants you to come over and read his English essay. Then you often have to brown the meatballs "in batches." "Batches" is not a word you ever want to see in a weeknight recipe. 

And in the end, you just have meatballs and no one is as impressed as if you’d made something truly easy, like, I don't know, cassoulet.  

Gosh, I sound negative. I’m actually very cheery, A few things that have made me happy and might do the same for you:

*45 Years. It won't make you happy, exactly, but this movie will make you think and argue (in a good way) with your friends over what actually happened and whether the character played by Charlotte Rampling is justified in feeling as she appears to feel at the end, which I think she absolutely and clearly is. I can't say more without ruining it.

*I read John Waters’s wonderful book Role Models a few years ago and loved it so much I’m listening to it now in the car and I love it just as much, maybe more, because Waters narrates with personality and wit. This book really does make me happy. I find the irony and outrageousness of Waters' movies wearisome, but his writing charms me. He’s an enthusiast whose exuberant, almost wholesome, delight in eccentricity is infectious and life affirming.  Parental warning: I used the words “almost wholesome.” There are a couple of chapters here that must be avoided when driving carpool. 

*Typing the name “Waters” reminded me to say that if you’re ever in San Francisco, the David Ireland House, which I toured last week, is extraordinary and worth a visit. It’s a lovely old Victorian that Ireland, a conceptual artist, used as his canvas, so to speak. You can read all about it here. At the end of our tour of this bizarre, entrancing house the guide had us sit at Ireland’s dining room table which is set with silver bowls filled with cement, candles stuck in blobs of cement, and perfectly round cement balls. She asked if we had any questions. Having heard that Ireland threw raucous dinner parties at this table, I asked, “What did David Ireland cook?” She said, “He cooked very basic things but he was in a relationship with Alice Waters so he certainly ate well.” I said, “A relationship relationship?” She said, “Yes, a relationship relationship.” 

I like to keep this blog nominally about food and I think that brings us back around.

66 comments:

  1. This really made me laugh! I make a crazy ass pot roast with chuck, a packet of onion soup mix, a Coke and some ketchup. It sounds nuts but it really is good (although I fuss it up a bit by straining and defatting the gravy then thickening it a bit before I serve it). It is nothing like Mississippi roast, which sounds absolutely dreadful to me, except that it uses a chuck roast and a crock pot. Try it - honestly, the only variant is the amount of ketchup you use so I basically squeeze it on to the roast in a diamond pattern then I'm done. You don't even have to thaw the chuck roast, just throw it into the crock pot frozen.

    I'm normally a pretty ridiculously elaborate from scratch kind of cook so nobody can believe that a) I would make something that included both onion soup mix and Coke and b) it isn't disgusting but actually tastes delicious.

    Agree with you completely about the meatballs, by the way. What a pain! I generally bake them just because I can't bear the endless browning and if I'm going to do it, I make about a million of the wretched things and throw a bunch in the freezer so I don't have to do it again for a long while.

    Now I'm off to get the John Waters book from Audible. I just finished "When Breath Becomes Air" and could use something a bit lighter. Of course, my previous book was "A Little Life," which tore my heart out so I REALLY need some wit to get me out of the Slough of Despond.

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    1. Ok, I am going to warn everyone about the pornography chapter in Role Models in my next post! I had forgotten how raw it is. Very, very raw. So be warned. A great book, though. I believe it about the onion soup and Coke -- I've had onion soup mix pot roast and it was delicious. I think the culprit in the Mississippi roast was the gravy mix.

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  2. The more I think about 45 Years, the more unbelievable I find it. If she was the jealous type she seems to be, she would have found that stuff long ago.

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    1. Ah well, now that's three people who disagree with me and not one who agrees with me!

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  3. I hated my stepmother but she made a great brisket. Brown it, put it on a bed of onions and garlic, and pour over a mix of half beer and half ketchup. Cover, bake it at 300 until it is tender, three or four hours? It's sweet and sour and delicious. I agree the original Mississippi roast recipe is revolting. You can tell it's going to be too salty and chemical tasting from the ingredients list.

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    1. See, I missed that -- the "too salty and chemical tasting." I was a believer.

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  4. I JUST printed the original recipe for MS roast yesterday, convinced it would be great (and better than Sifton's lame re-make). Now not so sure...

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    1. Everyone else seems to love it, so you might also. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

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  5. A propos of Mississippi roast: John Thorne wrote an essay called "Truly Awful Recipes."He said the appeal of what he called folk recipes was that they were saying to all the Julia Childs and Alice Waters in the world, "Get the hell out of my kitchen." I believe the recipe he cited involved ground beef cabbage, ketchup and a bottle of Schweppes ginger ale; and it had to be.

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    1. I think he is exactly right. He also wrote a great essay about enjoying awful food. There's times when you want a lovingly created perfectly cooked meal with fresh and seasonal ingredients, and there's times when you want sweet and sour chicken balls with a Coke and some Cheez-its.

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    2. I haven't read John Thorne in years. I should pull out my books. He was so good.

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  6. Whoops: that should finish with "it had to be Schweppes."

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  7. MS roast sounds revolting to me. I think if you are accustomed to eating real food then this sort of thing offends your palate. Most men that I know have an undeveloped palate. I, for one, cannot eat that much salt! I wake up with bags under my eyes and a horrible case of water retention. Making a chuck roast in the oven (winter) or slow cooker (summer) is one of my best dishes. I have perfected it, and it doesn't take that much prep time as most of it is cooking time. I would be happy to share my method. I agree, meatballs are a complete pain, and when I make them, which is infrequently, I make enough to freeze. I never feel that they are good enough to justify the time spent on them. I like to eat meatballs that someone else has made!
    If I am alone, I eat like a scavenging survivor of a nuclear holocaust, even though I think everything I am eating tastes horrible. I think I see it as a rare opportunity to take a break from cooking, and I take it whether I like what is available to eat or not. So, I understand completely. It's why I have always been skinny when living alone, and probably malnourished.
    Have you tried making crispy chicken thighs? I kept skeptically returning to this recipe, and when I finally made them, they knocked me out! Absolutely delicious. It makes a mess, which I will be better prepared to counteract next time, but I highly recommend them. I cannot imagine anyone who is willing to eat chicken not liking them. Crispy skin, moist interior, with just the right amount of umami. Incredibly satisfying and a great sub for fried chicken.
    I will have to check out the movie and Water's book - thanks! I was very happy to see a post from you in my inbox this morning.

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    1. I made the crispy chicken thighs after finding the recipe in Genius Recipes published by Food52. It passed the husband test (and the cook's test) for sure. It is everything you said.

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    2. I actually used the recipe from Nom Nom Paleo which required magic mushroom powder. I highly endorse her recipe with the powder, but I haven't tried others. Mine passed the husband test as well; he RAVED about them.

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    3. Thanks for the recipe tip. "Crispy" is always enticing. Beckster -- I've been so happy having leftovers this week. That might be reason enough to cook dinners. Lunches and breakfasts are so much better.

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  8. I can't comment on Mississippi roast but for several years I "made" an ice cream cake for my children's birthdays-- after the first time, at their request-- that consists of layering unwrapped ice cream sandwiches with cool whip into which I mixed crushed Oreos and Smuckers hot fudge sauce. The only time I felt truly guilty was when astonishingly healthy friends of ours (their kids made art out of the halloween candy instead of eating it, see what I mean?) ate it and asked me "Wow, this is good. What's in it?"

    +1 on meatballs, too. Last night I thought about making some and instead just threw some ground beef and bacon into a pan and fried it. No one will be surprised that it got eaten just the same.

    And I'm always happy to read your writing, no matter the topic. Thank you for posting!

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    1. That ice cream cake sounds really good. Fake food sometimes is.

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    2. The whole of that ice cream cake is much greater than the sum of its parts, I must say.

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  9. Mississippi roast sounds like a Pioneer Woman recipe.

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  10. Soo glad you tackled this, and all of the nuance of the language used. (I grumbled here.) I would have totally done the same thing, made the original and then wished I hadn't rejected the fancy. Will try and report back. For science. ;)

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    1. Yes, science. It makes even disasters bearable.

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  11. Per meatballs and other greasy prep: Costco nitrile exam gloves are, and always will be, your dear, disposable friends.

    In winter I braise chucks often and confess I also use a powdered "cheat" -- catsup spice (also called ketchup powder and similar). You can buy it online but it's a 19th c. recipe easy to make at home: Start with powdered paprika, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace and cayenne (notice no tomato in any form). Mix in roughly equal proportions and adjust to taste. Personally I cut back on the cloves and substitute chipotle for half the paprika and cayenne. It's an ideal seasoning base for beef and yes, you can mix the powder with pureed cooked tomatoes to create your own ketchup.

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    1. I'm intrigued about catsup spice. I don't necessarily think that is a cheat. It is a spice mix, yes? I use spice mixes for convenience myself. Oh, and I am a nurse, so I always use gloves for raw ground meat prep, but I think other folks probably don't think about it. That's a great tip!

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    2. It was more of a flavor base for braising or stewing beef during the Victorian/Edwardian eras. Notice there is no salt; you add that plus garlic and other seasoning in addition. Catsup spice also works great in cassoulet or dark poultry meat pies. You shouldn't taste these spices enough to identify them individually in the finished dish.

      There are many variations in American and Brit cookbooks. Some are more Indian, with black pepper instead of cayenne plus cardamom or cumin. Others include celery seed (I've added that sometimes for umami, but it's a pain to grind), dry mustard, nutmeg, even crushed dried peach leaves.

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    3. I love the gloves idea. I have never heard of catsup spice, but I will look into it.

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  12. #30 ice cream scoop. Meatball problem solved.
    that Mississippi roast sounds like a recipe a stoner would co-opt from his grandmother's recipe box

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    1. Is #30 just a regular scoop? Why do I never think of things like that?

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    2. It's a bit smaller.

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    3. I use a #30 scoop for cookies and meatballs. And usually make them around g'kids. So they get hoodwinked into rolling them. If I'm stuck rolling... I use disposable gloves I find in the paint department of the hardware store (a box usually lasts forever) I use these gloves for mixing the revolting meatball mix by hand also. And every other gunky food related mixing, or handing exercise. They really are a life saver in my kitchen.

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  13. Cosigned so exuberantly on your meatball stance. So much work to have something so unimpressive at the end. I have never thought they were worth their hype, have never made them, and intend never to make them. Meat loaf forever!

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. NEVAHHH!

      Although GInny's #30 ice cream scoop does have merit, there's still the browning in batches. Thumbs down to batches.

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    3. Why do batches....just throw them in the oven on a parchment papered sheetpan. Honestly why would anyone do them any other way. Parchment NOT FOIL about 400 degrees

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  14. I never considered making meatballs such a chore; didn't realize others disliked making them so much. I've always loved them and all my dinner guests have, too. I brown them and simmer them an hour or so in my San Marzano tomato sauce with sauteed garlic and onion and dried basil and oregano and plenty of fresh basil. Makes the house smell GREAT.

    Have you read Waters' Road Trip? Love it.

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  15. Man, so much hate for the Mississippi roast. My mom started making this last year and I think it's delicious. Not a recipe I would normally make (I'm a health nut and generally a foodie) but I think it's extremely pleasant to eat.

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  16. Your posts are always welcome....

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  17. My dad just made the Sifton knock-off, and it was pretty good. Not world-shaking, but you know, pretty good.

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  19. It's the wine pairing notes at the end of the NYT Mississippi roast recipe that made me snort.

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