One of my favorite workplace rituals is my weekly walk around campus with E. I always look forward to these breaks for reasons beyond the fresh air alone. E not only listens to me prattle on endlessly about diet and exercise — she geeks out, too! The lady is a total fitness powerhouse/lifestyle guru, having dug deeply into all sorts of health issues. If I have a question about a strange muscle twitch or vegetable anti-nutrients, I know I can turn to her for some encyclopedic knowledge-dropping. Our walks are a safe space for our inner nutrition nerds to emerge.
During one of our recipe-swapping sessions, E recommended that I look into panch phoron. Also known as Bengali five-spice, the blend includes whole pods of nigella, mustard, fenugreek, fennel and cumin. I immediately filed the idea away for a rainy day, figuring I wouldn’t be able to procure such obscure ingredients any time soon. As luck would have it, though, I frequently came across the pre-made mix on the shelves of health foods stores. Each time, fearing I wouldn’t encounter such a rare seasoning again, I purchased it. The other day, after yet another packet of panch phoron tumbled out of my pantry, I studied my stockpile — and then got to cooking.
I decided I wanted this experience to involve the slow cooker and, for the first time in a long time, red meat. I love lean protein, but a girl can only have so much chicken! Besides, one whiff of the spices told me its funky complexity would pair well with the richness of beef. Blindly, without a recipe, I felt my way through the process. In a single pan, I systematically seared some chuck, browned aromatic alliums, and tempered the panch phoron. Into the crockpot the entire mess went.
Eight hours later, the entire apartment smelled intoxicatingly, wildly delicious — but even so, the roast’s aroma didn’t prepare me for its fall-apart tenderness or complex flavor. The panch phoron seeds, swollen but still pleasantly crunchy, had infused the beef with an indescribable savoriness: earthy, piquant, ever-so-slightly floral and bittersweet. I served the dish with jammy stewed onions, spooned straight from the same crockpot, and luxuriated in my spice-centric success.
The next day, I emailed E to thank her profusely for the recommendation. I didn’t tell her about the multiple bags of panch phoron I still had tucked away in my spice cabinet; I’m sure their days are numbered, given my discovery of the magic within.
Bengali chuck roast
- 4 tablespoons, ghee (you can also substitute a cooking fat of choice)
- 2.5 pounds, beef chuck roast
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 6 cloves garlic, diced
- 2 tablespoons, panch phoron*
* I’ve found panch phoron, sold in small green-boxed packets by Spicely, at Whole Foods and Rainbow Grocery and Berkeley Bowl in the Bay Area; I’m sure you can also find it in Indian grocery stores. If you’re in Berkeley, I’d also recommend stopping by Vik’s Chaat for their insanely cheap bulk bags (as well as their ridiculously delicious food, of course).
- In a large, heavy pan, melt 2 tablespoons of ghee over high heat. Once sizzling hot, drop in your chuck roast and brown it on all sides. You want to get as much color (flavor!) on it as possible. Turn the temperature down if the ghee begins to smoke, but don’t worry too much about burning any residue at the bottom of the pan– this will get taken care of in the next step. Once the roast is nicely seared, set it into the crockpot to rest and release some of its juices.
- Turn the heat down to medium-low and add the onions. They should start sweating and releasing some moisture. “Wipe” the onions around the pan to deglaze any stuck bits.
- When the onions develop a nice gold color (about 10 minutes), create a divot in the pan and add a 1/2 tablespoon of ghee in the center. Add the garlic and wait for it to begin browning (about 5 minutes). Be sure to move the onions during this time so they don’t burn. Mix the aromatics up and cook until they’re super fragrant (usually another 5 minutes) — then throw them in the slow-cooker. I like to layer some underneath and above the meat.
- Now, the third and final stage of pan-frying: tempering the panch phoron to “open” up the pods and intensify their flavor. Melt 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of ghee in the pan on medium-low heat. Add the panch phoron, making sure to coat it evenly in the ghee, and watch it carefully as it fries. It should take only a minute or so before the seeds begin “popping” and turning golden brown. A few moments before you think the seeds will be toasty enough, take it off the heat, since it will continue to cook from the residual heat. Spread the panch phoron evenly on top of the roast in the slow cooker.
- Set the slow cooker to cook on low for 6-8 hours. There’s no need to add liquid, as the roast will release more than enough juice as it cooks. Wait. Smell. Enjoy.
- To serve: remove the roast from the juices and set aside in a bowl. Strain the juices of the crockpot into another container, saving the broth to eat as a gravy with the roast or however you’d like. Tip: I like to cool it so I can skim off the fat before using it. As for the ingredients left in the strainer? Spoon those back on the roast for even more flavor.