1st -7th October 2012 is British Roast Dinner Week. Setting aside the crass commercialism it is worth noting that there’s something special about the Sunday roast. Something that certainly means it’s not worth waiting a couple of weeks to celebrate. It’s a ceremony for the family which, for us, marks the closing of the weekend and a chance to demonstrate love through food. Yesterday the wind blew and the rain lashed down. We each had our own things to do and then came together in the evening around meat, vegetables and gravy in the warmth. I can’t countenance having anything else: no matter how fine the curry, lasagna or tagine Sunday dinner needs to involve roast meat…that is all.
Although we eat as a family round the table every night the preparation for Sunday dinner is as important as the meal itself and the preparation for the finest meals begins with shopping. Although the centrepiece has to be meaty I have to confess I have mellowed on this. We do occasionally have salmon or some other fish but it does need to be cooked in the oven. There is a seasonality in play too. I find Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries fantastic for this as well as just looking around a greengrocers or the market. I’ll just see what Nigel was eating at around the time of year and it often inspires – not necessarily to cook what he cooked but to get the feel of what it ought to be. He creates a very evocative atmosphere in his writing. Eating something that is really good, right now, is terrific. Favourites for me are new spring lamb, very occasional game, peas and beans, figs, and roasted root vegetables. I look forward to them appearing in the shops. I’ll also pot roast more in the winter and barbecue meat more in the summer. If I was remotely green fingered I can think of nothing better than growing your own vegetables and showcasing them on a Sunday evening.
The preparation for cooking the meal is important to avoid any unpleasant panics or disasters to spoil the moment. Serving a plate of food to an expectant family is an act of love and so, more than any other meal of the week (with the exception of a dinner party for guests) it needs to be just right. I’ve made my fair share of overcooked beef roasts and undercooked lamb or chicken to know disappointment when I see it. The walk of shame to the microwave should be avoided at all costs. I’ve thankfully also had enough good experiences where the smiles appear with the first mouthful and remain until the clean plate is pushed away after seconds. Nothing is more satisfying.
In our house we discuss occasionally our preferences between the Big Four meats and none of us agree (vegetarians can skip the next few paragraphs). If you could only eat from one creature for the rest of your life which would it be? You need to consider the merits of the roast but also the quality of offal and by-products such as eggs and milk. I tend to waiver between the pig and the chicken.
In strictly Sunday lunch terms the best two options in my opinion are beef and lamb. Beef is a year round classic but difficult to guarantee tenderness and hard to cook perfectly- even harder to cook for a large group with differing views on pinkness. I would love to serve up the perfect rib of beef for a large family group but in all my years of cooking I’ve either failed to hit the mark or shied away from the challenge. We will occasionally have steak as a compromise – it’s probably the family favourite meal. Mention steak and our family will always recall a meal we had at a restaurant in Las Vegas. It was historically expensive but I could quite happily have just eaten the fat on my portion – it was that good!
From a year-round safe perspective chicken is the default – you can’t really go wrong but I do get bored with it easily – I also too often end up with gnarly leg meat and we very seldom have any left over. My preference, if I have time, is to bone the chicken and roll it up stuffed with herbs and lemon. It suffuses the meat and somehow you seem to get at least 50% more off the carcass.
Lamb needs to be good. It can be a bit fatty but, cooked well, it has no rival on the plate. A butcher once told me that meat of any animal is always sweetest from the front of the carcass so I have always since gone for the shoulder rather than the leg. I can also think of nothing better in a butchers shop that watching it being boned and rolled. The only exception perhaps being those beautiful lamb “cushions” you see prepared on French markets. I can still remember a joint we had from the Chatsworth Estate shop which was sweeter and tenderer than any other – we tried to replicate it subsequently but they never matched it. There is a Simon Hopkinson recipe which involves studding the joint with all of the usual garlic, rosemary and anchovies and it works beautifully. In the summer I love serving roast lamb with a pea, bean, mint and courgette salad of my own creation with the broad beans popped out of their skins to show the beautiful bright green. The other benefit of lamb is that a big joint leaves enough for our family’s second favourite meal – rendering down pieces of the remaining roast lamb on a baking tray until the fat is crisp then serving it with hummous and tsatsiki in wraps.
The trickiest roast is pork – probably the least favourite if we had a family democracy. When it is good it is absolutely fabulous but many supermarket roasts end up dry and tasteless (maybe it’s just me). As a result we tend to avoid but it was a fabulous roast from Peach’s this weekend that prompted me to write this. Incidentally I remember eating pork cooked deliberately pink at another very nice restaurant in Las Vegas. When we queried this with the maître d’ he assured us that undercooked pork was only a European problem. The actual dish itself was OK but my tastebuds are obviously too accustomed to roast pork to appreciate the delicacy and I struggled to set aside my prejudices.
Occasionally it’s nice to have duck – but in a female-dominant house this needs to be well rendered – and when the weather is very warm we will have salmon. In the cold of winter we’ll occasionally go for a white fish with lentils and in season we have had partridge or venison.
This Sunday we had the pork. The weather outside was chilly and the rains came with a vengeance. It’s nice to have the hum of the oven, the warmth it provides and the cosiness of darkening skies outside as a backdrop to the preparation. The perfect pre-Sunday dinner setting has the smells of roast dinner increasing and filling the whole house, music playing in the background and a steady accumulation of food without panic. And the key to avoiding the panic is preparation. The Sunday dinner is helpful too with its natural break points for resting meat while a large roast will retain its warmth. It gives just long enough to get the gravy right, cook Yorkshire puddings or turn up the heat on roasted vegetables. In the morning I made a Darina Allen inspired apple sauce with a touch of all-spice. Homemade relishes are a lovely touch. I will make a mint sauce to go with lamb, using our own mint, and a salsa for salmon. They are really easy, give a chance to use some garden produce and add a freshness that jars can’t replicate I think. A friend dug up some horseradish and made a wonderful sauce for a meal we had but I don’t trust my plant identification skills and don’t fancy the rubber glove treatment that raw horseradish needs,
I then prepared a big pan of red cabbage taking a recipe from Jane Grigson’s magnificent Vegetable Book with just a little diversion by swapping some apple for orange juice. The book is the bible as far as I am concerned for any vegetable recipe. I also like Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook as a source of seasonal inspiration. There’s something nice about buying vegetables on impulse and then finding a nice recipe for them.
We’d been for dinner the previous evening and had “tutti frutti” potatoes which introduced red pepper into mashed potato. Mash is my least favourite way of serving spuds so I decided to have a bit of a play with it by using some peppers I had in the fridge with red onion; slowly reducing them before stirring them through the mash (the flavours were great but the colour seeped in a little messily). I am a fan of the humble potato and can quite happily eat boiled new potatoes without butter. I love patatas bravas, jacket potato, homemade wedges, crunchy roast potatoes and Canarian potatoes (although I’ve never satisfactorily replicated at home). My favourite all-rounder, although it takes time to get right, is a Greek potato recipe I found online which involves roasting and boiling potatoes simultaneously in a mixture of water, parsley, olive oil, lemon juice and white wine. As the liquid boils down to a lovely coating for them, the potatoes gain colour and become crunchy roast potatoes. I have never yet had any kind of bake involving cream that I have liked.
I took a tip from Nigel Slater by taking the pork roast out of the fridge and leaving it uncovered in the oven. He suggests leaving it uncovered in the fridge but I couldn’t bring myself to do it that way. This way it also raises the temperature of the joint and makes the cooking times a little easier to calculate. Critically it also dries out the fat and resulted in the finest crackling I have ever created and possibly the best I have ever had. I stuffed the joint with some sprigs of rosemary, rubbed in some Maldon salt and then roasted it on a trivet. Although the recipe said to occasionally baste there was no running fat and so I just left it but kept an eye out that it wasn’t burning. While I let it rest I used my mother-in-law’s trick of taking the crackling off the joint, flattening it and putting it on a baking tray to finish. The gravy worked really well. I drained the fat out of the roasting pan and scraped any loose burnt bits off the pan then deglazed with some white wine, added chicken stock and then worked the bottom of the pan vigorously with a wooden spoon before adding some grainy Dijon mustard. This is a critical element of the dinner – it needs to remain a gravy because “sauces” have no place with the Sunday meal.
I knew it was good but there is nothing nicer than calling the family to order and enjoying it together with a glass or two of wine, sharing the experiences of the day and the plans of the coming week before snuggling down in front of the TV – even if it currently involves the awful Downton Abbey.