Mouths to Feed: Zanne and the Art of Sensible Cooking

By Celia Barbour

Zanne Stewart is the kind of person who, if you ask her a seemingly simple cooking-related question, will answer by quoting Julia Child. Not Julia Child the cookbook author, but Julia Child the human being, who once, apparently, threw her big, friendly arm over Zanne’s shoulders and, in her buttery falsetto, said, “Isn’t it fun cooking with other people, dearie?”

Indeed it is.

When I’d asked Zanne how she felt about having people in her kitchen, I wasn’t at all confident she’d answer with equal gusto. After all, the “people” Zanne was dealing with at that moment was me. And although I know a thing or two about cooking, having practiced it avidly and written about it devotedly for a few decades, I am still in essence a highly experienced amateur.

Zanne Stewart in her kitchen (Photo by Henry Weed)

Zanne, meanwhile, went to École de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, ran a small catering business and oversaw the test kitchens at Gourmet, where she worked for 36 years. Zanne, in other words, is legendary. (She is also a member of the advisory board of this newspaper, a nonprofit founded by her late husband, Gordon.)

The reason I was in Zanne’s kitchen was not to get in her way, but to understand firsthand a totally inspired approach to cooking she’s developed and refined over the years she’s spent feeding family and friends in her downtime (yes, she went home and cooked after her culinary workday was done).

Here’s why I think it’s inspired: Like most parents, I resent the idea that I should spend my weekends cooking for the week ahead. Yet scads of experts insinuate that the only way to prevent my children from becoming blithering delinquents is for me to spend my Sundays making lasagna, chicken cacciatore, jambalaya and baked enchiladas, then stashing it all in the freezer to be pulled out and microwaved on weeknights like so much DIY love-fortified Stouffer’s.

Well, no. Good concept; bad execution. Not only does it wreck Sundays (a day I might want to spend actually hanging out with my kids), it also doesn’t account for the very real possibility that no one will want jambalaya come Thursday.

Zanne instead proposes something she calls “modular cooking”: Make simple key components ahead of time that you can mix and match as your mood and appetites dictate. You wind up composing rather than cooking from scratch on busy weeknights.

Last Sunday, these components centered on a tomato-braised pot roast, and included pickled onions, chipotle mayonnaise, and roasted beets, carrots and onions. “It’s that money-in-the-bank thing — I know we have a few dinners for the week,” says Zanne.

How much chuck…? (Photo by C. Barbour)

Here are some of the ways Zanne has served this particular pot roast: Sliced as a classic main course; shredded into the sauce and served over ravioli; chopped into a quick borscht (with the aforementioned roasted beets and carrots); and rolled up in a tortilla with mango, cilantro and chipotle mayonnaise — her daughter Katy’s all-time favorite sandwich. (See below for these spin-offs.)

Moreover, the beef is a perfect go-to for this time of year. “The weather is a mess,” Zanne says. You might want a cozy dinner one night and something light and fresh the next.

She developed the recipe by combining two favorites. “Laurie Colwin just puts chuck roast, salt and pepper in an oven for some amount of time,” she says. (Sounds blah to me, but what do I know?) “It was an epiphany to all of us in the Gourmet test kitchen.”

“It does give off a lot of juice, however,” she adds. “I wanted to meld it with a recipe I’d learned in Provence.” There, a friend had roasted lamb on sliced tomatoes with whole heads of garlic scattered around it. “The lamb juices mix with the tomatoes and make this yummy sauce.”

Yummy sauce, tender beef, and all the components you need to transform them into a few nights’ worth of tasty meals? Sounds like the stuff legends are made of.

Braised Beef Pot Roast with Tomatoes

This recipe describes an oven-braising method, but ever since Zanne got an InstaPot, she prefers making it that way. Instead of Step 2, she cooks the chuck for 50 minutes on the Pressure Cook setting. The beef comes out more tender and the tomatoe flavor is brighter.

3½ to 4 pounds chuck roast (see Note 1)
28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes (see Note 2)
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, peeled

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Place the chuck roast in a casserole or Dutch oven just big enough to hold the meat and tomatoes. Rub the meat with salt and pepper. Coarsely puree the tomatoes with their juice, or partially break them up with your fingers, and pour over the chuck. Add the garlic cloves.

Cover the casserole and cook 2½ to 3 hours, or until quite tender. Remove chuck and set aside. Skim fat from tomato sauce and if the sauce is still liquid, simmer 5 to 10 minutes on the stove top, or until thickened. Remove garlic cloves; discard.

Slice pot roast and serve at once, with sauce, or allow to cool completely in the sauce. Store, in a covered container, for up to 5 days in the refrigerator.

Note 1: Zanne says she prefers chuck roast that’s not tied and cut in a thick “brick-like” shape.
Note 2: Whole peeled tomatoes have a better balance of sweetness and acidity than diced or pureed; it’s easy to puree them yourself with an immersion blender or break them up with your fingers for a chunkier sauce.

Additional Recipes

Roasted Vegetables

This recipe is for any combination of beets, carrots, russet potatoes, and/or sweet potatoes, as you like.

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line one or two shallow baking pans with foil.
  2. Trim beet stems to about 2 inches, scrub beets, and wrap in foil to completely enclose them. Scrub sweet potatoes and/or russet (baking) potatoes and prick each one with a sharp knife. Peel and trim carrots, halve them lengthwise, diagonally, and coat with olive oil.
  3. Arrange the beet packets, the sweet and russet potatoes, and the carrots on baking sheet(s) without crowding and roast vegetables until carrots are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove carrots from oven and continue to roast beets, sweet potatoes, and russets for 30 to 45 minutes more, or until they are tender when poked with the tip of a sharp knife. Discard foil and slip skins off beets. Vegetables keep, well wrapped and chilled, about a week.

Borscht

Borscht (Photo by Henry Weed)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 roasted carrots (see recipe above), cubed
1 roasted beet (see recipe above), cubed
1 cup chopped red cabbage
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
1 bay leaf
2 cups cubed pot roast plus 1½ cups of tomato sauce from pot roast (see recipe above)
Sour cream, fresh horseradish, and fresh dill, to serve

  1. Warm olive oil in a medium-size pot over medium heat. Add onion and cook just until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add carrots, beet, cabbage, vinegar, caraway seeds, and bay leaf and cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. The vinegar will start making the cabbage turn pink.
  2. Add the cubed pot roast to the vegetables along with the tomato sauce 1½ to 2 cups water, or to taste. Simmer, covered, for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Stir in salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Serve each portion of the soup with a dollop of sour cream, freshly grated horseradish and snippets of fresh dill to taste. Makes about 5½ cups borscht.

Katy’s Roll-Ups

Roll-up (Photo by Henry Weed)

For each roll-up:

1 8-inch flour tortilla
2 to 3 slices cooled pot roast (recipe above)
1 tablespoon chipotle mayonnaise (recipe below)
Pickled onions (recipe below) to taste
3 slices fresh mango
5 to 6 sprigs fresh cilantro

In a hot, dry skillet, warm the tortilla briefly until it begins to freckle, flipping once, just until soft. Spread tortilla with chipotle mayonnaise. Add remaining ingredients in a line down the middle, stacking them, and roll tightly to enclose. Cut in half. Serve immediately.

Chipotle Mayonnaise

1 chipotle in adobo
2/3 cup mayonnaise

Finely mince one chipotle in adobo. Because chipotles vary in heat, add it gradually to mayonnaise, stirring to combine and tasting as you go. Store, covered, in refrigerator up to one week.

Pickled Onions

Zanne always keeps a jar of these in the refrigerator, and adds them to all kinds of sandwiches and salads.

2 red onions, sliced in thin wedges
½  cup cider or white distilled vinegar
1½  teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon sugar
½  teaspoon cumin seeds

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the sliced onions and count to 10. Drain in a strainer, and return onions to pot. Add ½ cup water, plus the vinegar, sugar, salt, and cumin seeds. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar, and simmer 30 seconds. Pour the mixture into a glass jar and let it cool. Keep the pickled onions, covered and chilled. The onions keep for weeks but their color fades.

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