Whether you’re a wiz at making roast dinners or perhaps taking your first piece of meat for spin, there’s a always room for improvement when it comes to making the perfect roast dinner. I’m yet to attempt the Yorkshire pudding and always trying hard not to overcook the green beans. Anyone with experience will tell that it’s all about timing. The difference between a good roast pork and a mouthwateringly-memorable one is time. Whether your potatoes are nice or out-of-this-world is all about how long they’ve been roasting for. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
So today, instead of a recipe, I am giving you some kitchen wisdom. Things I’ve learned from my mum, from trial and error and little bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way.
– I would always recommend a chicken for anyone new to making roast dinners. They’re a forgiving bird, and if you leave it in the oven a little too long, it’ll still turn out pretty good and you can always cover up a dry breast with loads of gravy. I won’t go in to details here, but if you’re looking for a thorough tutorial, you can refer to my post on roasting a perfect chicken.
– If you decide to go with pork, choose a boneless shoulder and cook it for at least 4 hours with a thin layer of water (+ wine or cider) in the pan for most of the time. As long as there’s about 2 hours of slow cooking (150C), then a good blast of heat (200C) either side of that slow cooking portion will ensure some good burnt tips and crackling. For good crackling, salt the rind twice, dabbing off the water each time, before roasting. The more liquid you can draw out of the skin the better. Sprinkle with PLENTY of salt before you put the meat in. The crackling should come good in the last 15 minutes of roasting in a hot oven.
– Keep your vegetables simple. Some potatoes, pumpkin and maybe parsnips in a baking dish, with plenty of olive oil and seasoning. Some green beans and carrots cut slim, so they steam at the same time. If you want more, you can always microwave some petis pois at the last minute.
– Don’t use stuffing, goose-fat, fancy seasonings or Yorkshire puddings just yet. Master the basics first. A bit of onion and/or garlic, some thyme and plenty of salt and pepper should be all you need for most meat.
– To make a good gravy is really so easy, but so many people don’t have the confidence. The only way to get good gravy is to ensure the development of those sticky, brown meat juices that cling to the bottom of the tray and that can only happen when the meat has had a chance to get hot. I usually stick any roast into a 210C-220C oven for at least half an hour. This way you get everything off to a cracking start and you’re more likely to get some good gravy. A final blast of heat at the end of cooking will also help and it’s at this stage that I pour about half a cup of water into the pan. Once the water has absorbed all of the sticky brown meat drippings – you can pour out all of the liquid into a pot and then place the meat back in the oven to dry out a bit.
– There’s a few ways to add flavour to gravy. After the first half-hour blast, pour about half a cup of white wine over the meat – or perhaps red wine over beef. This will help drag down some meat juices into the pan and add flavour. Other ways to add flavour is to sprinkle around the pan or tuck underneath the meat, some tasty vegetables like onion, fennel and garlic. A roast pork likes fennel, apples and onion, whereas with a chicken you can pop a bag of peeled baby onions around the bird and they’ll happily roast and impart a gentle flavour. When it comes to red meat you can go crazy because red meat is a stronger flavour and can withstand anything you want to throw at it. You’ll need to strain the meat juices through a sieve if you add vegetables to the pan as they’ll cook down into mush and they’ll need to be removed. If you can leave the gravy till last, use the water you’ve cooked the vegetables in to bulk up the gravy. But not too much – or you’ll dilute the flavour. You can usually tell by colour, how strong the meat juices are. Best to add too little water – as you can always add more to tone down a very strong gravy.
– Thickening gravy is done by making a runny paste with one or two heaped tablespoons of plain flour and water. The thicker the paste, the thicker the gravy. Once you’ve poured the diluted meat juices into a pot, bring it to the boil. You shouldn’t have too much more than about a cup of liquid, or it’ll be too bland. If it looks too watery, then reduce it for a while. Take the pot off the heat and pour in the flour paste, whisking like mad until it’s all thick and lovely. If you get lumps – you can pour it through a sieve.
– Of course you can par-boil and ‘rough up’ your potatoes. Of course you can use duck or goose fat. But you don’t really need any of those things. If you want potatoes that a fluffy on the inside and crisp and pointy on the outside, all you need is time and space.
– Crowding potatoes is the worst thing you can do. If you need to feed lots of people, it’s ok if the pieces are touching, but once you start layering them – you’re never going to get crisp roasties, no matter how much oil or fat you use, and this because they will stew instead of roast. If possible, give each piece of potato, parsnip or pumpkin they’re own space to roast in the pan. Pour a generous amount of olive oil over the vegetables and use plenty of salt. Toss and then add a little more salt. Cut the pieces of potato so that they’re about 2-3 inches in diameter and always cut pumpkin a bit bigger as it’s cooks quicker. Be sure to have a good dig at your potatoes with a spatula a couple of times during cooking, to get even cooking and lots of nice crispy bits and broken surfaces. They should come good after an hour at 180C.
– To rescue a bad batch, simply turn the heat up and blast them for 15 minutes. Even it means spreading them out over two pans. If they’re too dry, pour over more oil and keep roasting. The potatoes are the most flexible element of any roast. They’ll still be good if they’re a bit overdone. Underdone will simply not do – so always give them plenty of cooking time.
Next Level Vegetables
– If you’ve mastered the basics and want to add a little spice to your roast, then try roasting mushrooms, onions or even beetroot in with the meat. But don’t add them from the start – only add about half way through, pop in some portabello mushrooms and whole baby onions (peeled) or a leek cut into 2inch pieces. They’ll roast up so beautifully and taste divine.
– Throw in some Brussel sprouts with the potatoes. Roasting these bitter little cabbage balls brings out their good side and they even get a little bit crispy around the edges. Or why not roast your carrots too? They become so sweet when you roast them.
– Roast pork loves apple and fennel. If you want either of these items to be edible after being roasted, they can’t be cooked for too long. Pop them in with the pork in the last half hour or so of cooking.
– For perfectly cooked vegetables like beans and carrots, put a little bit of water in the bottom of the pot and use the steam to cook them, as opposed to covering them with water and boiling. Put them on when you know the meat is ready, so that you can prepare the gravy and let the meat rest while the vegetables cook. Take care that the pot doesn’t cook dry and don’t let them over cook.