You’d never know it now, but for the first five or so years of married life, my meat purchases were pretty much limited to ground beef and boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I was completely intimidated by larger cuts with unfamiliar names, and had no idea what to do with them.
But today, if you looked at a few months’ worth of my meal plans, you’d quickly see that the majority of our meals are what I like to call “big ol’ hunk-o-meat dinners” – meals based on a large, hearty, not-too-pricey cut of meat – or some kind of creative leftover thereof.
It took me a year or two to get really comfortable with a few of the cuts, and I’ll admit that sometimes I buy whatever’s on sale and then do some mad Googling to figure out what to do with it when I get home.
But due to the magic of the Internet I always find some cooking method or other that will work for whatever I’ve tossed in my cart, and the more I’ve experimented the more comfortable I’ve gotten with them all.
There are a few reasons I rely on “big ol’ hunk-o-meat” dinners as a major part of my meal plan. First, everyone in our large and occasionally picky-eating family manages to find something on the plate to love, whether it’s the meat or the sides; second, they almost always stretch into a second meal.
And third, putting together a whole meal is a breeze – any kind of starch or veggies on the side will do. Keep in mind that just because the dinner is centered around a “big hunk o meat,” that doesn’t mean you have to dish out big ol’ honking servings of it: feel free to load up those platters with veggies and serve up the protein sparingly.
Best yet? While these recipes might seem complicated the first few times you make them, they soon become like second nature. Make a pot roast three or four times and you’ll soon feel comfortable experimenting with seasonings and different braising liquids. Make it seven or eight times, and you won’t even have to glance at a recipe anymore.
Here are four easy, hearty, comforting meat-based meals my family loves – roast beef, roast chicken, pork roast, and pot roast – along with some of our favorite leftover ideas.
Frequently, “Boneless Eye of Round Roasts” go on sale for $2.99 a pound at my local grocery store. This is a tough cut of meat, but I discovered a cooking method that renders it nice and tender while bringing out the best in its flavor. The trick is in starting the roast at a very high temperature so that it gets a nice sear, and then turning the oven off (or way, way down) to cook the rest of the way through.
Here’s how to make tender roast beef:
First, preheat the oven to 500 degrees F. You can mix some herbs and spices – I like rosemary, a little dry mustard, thyme, salt, and pepper - with a few tablespoons of olive oil and rub it all over the outside of the roast. I also slice a few cloves of garlic up thin, cut slits all over the roast with a sharp knife, and slide a slice of garlic into each slit.
You could just salt and pepper the roast and leave it at that, but I find that the garlic flavor really permeates throughout the roast when done this way, and the high temperatures create a nice crust from the olive-coated herbs and spices.
I find that a digital meat thermometer – the kind with the probe that you can leave in the meat and read outside of the oven – is absolutely essential to getting roast beef just right, since you can’t keep taking it out of the oven to check it and the cook time is so dependent on the size of the roast and your particular oven.
I’ve used the Oxo Good Grips Chef’s Digital Leave-In Thermometer* for the past few years, and love it – it’s reliable, accurate, and easy to use. Whatever kind of thermometer you use, make sure you put it in the roast before you put it in the oven, since you won’t want to be opening the door and letting heat out while it roasts.
When the oven reaches 500 degrees – and not a second before! – pop in the roast, shut the door, then turn the oven immediately down to 475 F and leave it at that temperature for about 7 minutes per pound (so, 42 minutes for a 6-pound roast; 21 minutes for a 3-pound roast.)
Then, according to the original recipe, you are supposed to turn the oven OFF for 2 1/2 – 3 1/2 hours depending on the size of the roast. But – and this is the crucial part – do not open the oven door at all during this time! The oven will need to remain hot to continue cooking the beef.
So here is where I admit that I no longer turn the oven off, because twice while I was making this roast, some family member or other came wandering into the kitchen and opened the oven door which led to much gnashing of teeth and wailing and tearing of hair and rending of garments.
Since I don’t want to hover in front of the oven for hours or lose my cool on another unsuspecting family member, now I just set the oven to a very low temperature – 185 F – as a precaution against snoopers. You might also do this if you have an oven that doesn’t retain heat well.
When the digital thermometer reads 145 degrees F, I take it out of the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes or so. It’ll cook a little more while it rests and usually the ends are a little more on the medium-well side for pickier kids, while the interior is nice and medium to medium-rare for me.
My favorite sides for roast beef are roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes.
Leftover Ideas for roast beef:
We usually get a huge, 6+ pound roast, and only eat about half of it in the first sitting. Then I slice it thin and serve it up again with mashed potatoes and au jus made from the drippings. If you wanted to get more creative, you could also use it in place of ground beef in a shepherd’s pie or use it in beef stew.
Pork Loin Roast
Pork loin – not to be confused with the awesomely tender but much more expensive tenderloin – can be found often for $1.99/lb and sometimes even less. It can be tough, but the right cooking method renders it tasty and succulent.
Here’s how to roast a pork loin:
First, preheat the oven to 400°F and either line a baking dish with foil or get out a roasting pan. I like to mince up 3-4 cloves of garlic and mix with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a couple teaspoons of dried rosemary, and a little salt in a bowl and rub the mixture all over the roast.
Then put the pork fat side down in the pan, roast in the oven for 30 minutes, flip over fat-side-up, and roast until your digital thermometer* registers 155 degrees (probably another half hour.)
Remove from oven and let stand while you finish up the sides. I like to sauté up sliced apples with some of the pan juices and a little bit of brown sugar and balsamic vinegar and serve those on top the pork roast with a big mess of veggies on the sides.
Leftover Ideas for Roast Pork Loin:
It sounds ridiculously simple, but my kids love when I cut leftover pork roast into bite-sized pieces and mix up with cooked brown rice and steamed broccoli. It’s so easy and the kids gobble it up.
In our house, pot roast is synonymous with chuck roast, the flavorful, striated cut of beef that comes from a cow’s shoulder. Chuck roast often goes on sale for $3.49/lb at my local grocery store, and my favorite way to cook it is to sear, then braise low-and-slow in simmering liquid.
Here’s how to make falling-apart pot roast:
First, start preheating the oven to 275 degrees F. Cooking for a long time at a low temperature is the best way to get super-tender, falling-apart pot roast.
Pat the chuck roast dry with a paper towel, then sprinkle all over with salt and pepper. Drizzle a few tablespoons of oil in a large pan over medium-high heat until it’s very hot, then place the chuck roast in the pan.
I like to use a large, heavy Dutch oven* so that I can do it all in one pot, but if you don’t have one, you can sear the meat in any large pan and then move the roast to a baking dish to finish cooking in the oven.
Let the meat get nice and brown on one side before moving it, or it’ll stick. 4-5 minutes per side should do it. While it’s browning, slice up an onion or two.
When the meat is browned, move it to a plate and put the onion in the hot pan. Stir the onions around a little so they soak up some of those lovely juices, and let them cook about five minutes until they are starting to look translucent and a little bit browned. Splash a 1/2 cup or so of red wine or beef stock into the pan, then give the bottom of the pan a good scrape with a spatula to loosen up all the yummy bits from the bottom.
If you’re using a Dutch oven, you’ll leave the onions in it; otherwise move the onions to the bottom of a casserole or baking dish at this point.
Toss a few peeled, crushed cloves of garlic on top of the onions along with 3-4 carrots, cut into 2-inch chunks (or just toss in a couple of handfuls of baby-cut carrots.) Now add enough liquid – I like a mix of red wine and beef stock – to cover the meat halfway.
Add another teaspoon or so of thyme and rosemary (or some fresh sprigs if you’ve got ‘em), put on the lid (or cover the roast tightly with foil), and put the dutch oven in the preheated oven.
Now let that roast braise! It could take as much as 5 hours depending on the size of the cut of meat, and will almost certainly take at least 3 hours. The nice thing about “low and slow” braising is that it’s difficult to over-cook the meat – if you take it out and it doesn’t seem tender enough, it likely needs more, not less, cooking.
I usually serve pot roast spooned up rather messily alongside rustic smashed potatoes.
Leftover idea: Toasted beef sandwiches.
Toast crusty rolls or buns on both sides under the broiler (they burn quickly, so watch carefully – a minute on each side is usually plenty!)
Then pile each roll with beef, and if you like, add some sautéed green peppers and/or onions. Top with slices of provolone, and stick back under the broiler, set to low, until the cheese gets bubbly and starts to brown.
At our local grocer, whole chickens – sold by a regional farm that touts humane raising practices – often sell for $7 or less conventional and around $10-$11 for an organic bird big enough to feed our family of seven (remember, we have two teen boys!)
If your family is smaller or younger than mine, a $5-$6 chicken might be plenty for one meal with some left over. And if you are on a super-tight budget, you can often find whole chickens on sale at around a dollar a pound. (See my thoughts on free-range vs. conventional chickens here.)
Follow my super-simple roasting method to yield a golden-brown bird in about an hour, with hardly any prep work or bird-sitting.
Leftover idea for whole roast chicken:
My favorite use for leftover whole chicken is homemade chicken noodle soup. I usually make the stock right after dinner and plan the soup for the next day.
Here’s how to make homemade chicken noodle soup:
Get as much of the meat off of the carcass as possible, and put into a large pot along with any vegetables you’ve got (I usually throw in onion, celery, and carrots, and sometimes a few cloves of garlic plus whatever else is wilting at the bottom of the produce bin) along with herbs like thyme, rosemary, and parsley (I never really measure, but maybe a teaspoon each dried, a little less fresh), and a bay leaf.
A lot of stock recipes warn against adding salt, but I usually do put just a bit in (less than a teaspoon) and find that it helps the flavor a lot. You just have to be careful not to over-salt when you make the soup.
Cover with water, bring just to a boil, then lower to a simmer and let gently bubble away for as many hours as you can spare – at least 4 is ideal, but keep in mind that you’ll have to let the stock cool before you can put it in the fridge and go to bed, and it takes quite some time! (I have learned this the hard way twice when I’ve fallen asleep while my stock was cooling on the stove and had to throw it away. Tears.)
Skim any scum that rises to the surface of the stock, strain out the bones, bay leaf, and veggies, and put the stock in the fridge until the next day. (Or, if you are too tired by this point, you can just put the whole pot in the fridge and deal with the straining the next day.)
When the stock is cold, there will be a layer of fat on the top that you can skim off, though I like to leave a little for flavor and because I think fat is actually good for you – crazy, I know.
When you’re ready to make dinner, add the leftover chicken plus diced carrots and celery, and fresh or dried thyme, parsley and simmer for an hour, then add a bag of egg noodles and simmer another 10 minutes or until tender. Serve with crackers or crusty bread.
The beauty of this recipe is that it really doesn’t matter how much chicken you have left over. If you have a lot, you’ll have a particularly hearty soup. If not much, you’ll have mostly noodles and veggies in a delicious chicken-flavored broth.
Let the amount of chicken you have left over guide how much of the other ingredients you put in. And if you have a kid who doesn’t like soup? Scoop it out with a slotted spoon and call it “chicken and noodles.”
Feeling inspired? Let me know how your “big old hunk-o-meat” dinner turns out!
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