Few meals retain a capacity for disappointment like the classic British roast dinner. Expectations are usually high, and there is just so much that can go wrong: tough meat, soggy veg, claggy gravy, ill-advised departures from traditional methods and ingredients. Most of us have probably had more bad ones than good.
With so much work involved, the temptation to cut corners is strong. But resist! Instead limit your ambitions, resign yourself to some hard work and follow the tips below. A better roast dinner is within your grasp.
If the meat is to be beef – and that’s the most British of roast dinners – then it’s really best to keep it simple, according to Nigel Slater: season it with nothing but salt and pepper, along with some onions chucked into the roasting tin for the gravy’s eventual benefit. The meat gets a hot blast in the oven first – 30 minutes at 220C (200C fan)/425F/gas 7, followed by 10 minutes for every 500g at 160C (140C fan)/284F/gas 3. If the timing worries you, use a meat thermometer, and cook it until the middle of the joint reaches 50C/122F. Once you’ve got that far, there’s only one thing left to do wrong, and that’s to forget to rest the meat.
Timing is always an issue with a roast lunch – everything has got to be ready at the same time, ideally before people start thinking about going home for supper. Henry Dimbleby and Jane Baxter offer a method for roasting a leg of lamb in the same pot with the potatoes. Depending on your schedule you can do it fast (in about an hour, on a high heat) or slow (for four hours, at 160C (140C fan)/284F/gas 3).
Another crucial tip from Nigella Lawson on timing: forget about it. Avoid what she calls an “oven management scheduling nightmare” by giving up on the idea of having everything hot and ready at the same time. If the gravy is hot and the plates are warmed, everything else can be hovering around room temperature. Remember: it’s not wrong, it’s sophisticated.
Chicken is a reliable, if faintly underwhelming option, but you could shift things up a gear by brining the meat first. It’s not difficult – you just have to think of it well ahead of time. The night before you roast your chicken, submerge the whole thing in a boiled – and then cooled – solution of water, salt, sugar and aromatics, then leave it chilling overnight. Admittedly this takes up a lot of room in the fridge, but the result is a moist, tender, allegedly foolproof roast bird. Basic instructions can be found here.
If you’re in the mood for a slightly more festive main course, make a change from beef, lamb and chicken by slow-roasting a porchetta joint. The meat is usually a boneless pork loin cut with the belly attached, the whole of which is rolled up and slow-cooked. There are a number of different ways to stuff it, but a simple seasoning of pepper, chilli, rosemary, garlic and fennel is more than enough. Bear in mind that a 3-4kg joint will need almost five hours in the oven, so you could be in for the kind of Sunday that starts with you setting your alarm.
For vegetarians, the standard nut roast is given a twist here: a white nut roast with artichokes from Guardian reader Beth Gardner: a mix of Brazil nuts, macadamias, pine nuts and almonds with artichokes hearts and chestnuts.
The “two veg” component of the meal should, ideally, be just that. One vegetable is not enough, and three is probably too many. It’s also the one aspect of a traditional roast dinner where a little adventure is rewarded – think beyond carrots and peas to, for example, Swiss chard, parsley and spinach or even garlic cauliflower cheese.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with carrots and peas, but if you’re settling for this classic pairing it’s worth looking beyond boiling. Try, for example, Yotam Ottolenghi’s simple but elegant peas and onions side dish. With Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s roast carrots with butter and cumin, the only difficulty will be finding room in the oven.
First, choose your potato. After testing several varieties, Vicky Frost settled on maris piper and desiree as better candidates than king edwards, although these are the Top 3 options, and you won’t go far wrong with any of them.
Rory O’Connell adds three more possible varieties – golden wonder, kerr’s pink and dante – to the list, but his main tips are to peel the potatoes as close as possible to the time of cooking, and to avoid salting them until they’re already brown, otherwise they might stick to the pan, and no one wants that.
Once the potatoes are peeled, advice on best practice becomes varied and sometimes contradictory. There is general agreement that the potatoes should be parboiled, though you also don’t have to look far to find someone calling this heresy. Some cooks score their parboiled potatoes, others just toss them around in the colander to rough them up a bit, and others dust them in flour or semolina for extra crispness. Bob Granleese wandered into this minefield last Christmas, clearing a narrow path for the rest of us. He also pointed out what might be described as a genuine roast potato hack: Heston Blumenthal suggests boiling the potatoes with their peelings for extra flavour. I mean, it can’t hurt, can it?
It’s a little unorthodox, but Sophie Grigson recommends roasting new potatoes, whole, with lemon wedges and olive oil. It means you don’t have to peel them first, which is an improvement all by itself.
Felicity Cloake has, as you might imagine, been here ahead of us, and her perfect beef gravy is remarkable for what it leaves out: there is no red wine, no secret proprietary additives such as Bovril or Marmite. The only ingredients on her list are flour (just a tablespoon – in fact none is probably preferable to too much), beef stock and the juices from the roasting tin. She’s very keen on homemade stock, but if you’re going to use store-bought – and let’s face it, you are – bear in mind that it’s usually pretty salty, so don’t add any extra salt until you have tasted the result.
Nigel Slater’s mushroom gravy is intended for a Christmas turkey, but it will certainly work with chicken. Finally, Rose Eliot presents an onion and red wine gravy , suitable for the vegetarians at the table. A roast dinner without meat may be a contradiction, but it’s a rare thing to have a full house for Sunday lunch without at least one vegetarian sitting there, feeling like the only Arsenal supporter in a holding cell full of Chelsea fans. A specially made gravy will help maintain the uneasy calm.
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