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Roast meat and two/three/four veg

The traditional Sunday roast may not be the healthiest meal of the week, but it has to be one of the most pleasurable. To someone like me, born and brought up in England, a good roast dinner is still somehow qualitatively different from the most delicious continental or oriental meal.

I suppose it?s partly pure nostalgia (which, as an old friend of mine often says, ain?t what it used to be) but it?s also about bringing out the inherent flavours and textures of the meat, the potatoes and the other - prefereably local and seasonal - vegetables rather than playing games with herbs and spices and new, original mixtures of ingredients (probably flown, at vast expense, from halfway round the globe) that may impress and delight when first tried but whose novelty wears thin pretty quickly.

There?s another factor: a Sunday roast is actually a fairly low-stress meal to cook. Unlike many dishes, a decent-sized joint won?t spoil if it?s left in the oven, or resting under foil, for five or ten minutes longer than the recipe says. And crispy golden roast potatoes are no more or less delicious than darker-brown ones - they?re just a bit different. So you can leave the main items to develop their flavours while you concentrate on making the gravy and not stewing the fresh vegetables to a mush; they?ll happily wait until everything else is ready.

A main course in which there?s a large joint to cut second helpings from and tureens of vegetables to dip into doesn?t need a starter, either. Better to come straight at it with your appetite fully whetted, and your palate clean and ready to make the best of the flavours. That makes timing even less critical.

And if there?s a cold pudding to follow, the whole thing really is a doddle!

Let the technology take the strain

For years I roasted everything except 14-pound turkeys for a couple of hours and hoped for the best. The meat was always edible and sometimes delicious, but buying a roasting thermometer was a really good move. It guaranteed that each kind of meat was heated through enough to kill any of the bugs it might contain (though it seems that the prion that causes Mad Cow Disease and perhaps CJD, being only a protein rather than a living organism, can?t be cooked to death), allowing me to stop before it was cremated.

Basically, it?s a steel spike with a dial on the end. You push the spike into the meat, aiming to get the point - the temperature sensor - in the middle of the thickest part of the meat .-This is easy with a rolled sirloin, but more difficult with a shoulder of lamb on the bone. You put the joint in the pre-heated oven with the dial facing the door and get on with the rest of the meal. When the needle hits the desired temperature, just hoik the tin out of the oven and cover the meat with a sheet of foil. It will sit quite happily for half an hour while you cook the more tender vegetables and make the gravy.

My roasting thermometer is calibrated like this:

  • Rare beef - 60C
  • Medium beef - 70C
  • Well-done beef, ham and veal - 75C
  • Lamb - 80C
  • Pork and poultry - 90C

The real joke is cooking by weight. I usually cook roast beef for Christmas dinner, spending over 40 on a seven-pound piece of boned but not rolled Aberdeen Angus sirloin - in effect, a magnificent 18-inch-thick sirloin steak. Even at ten minutes to the pound and ten minutes over, with would get an hour and 20 minutes? cooking. With the oven at 220C the thermometer shows it to be cooked rare in between 40 and 45 minutes. That?s because this splendid slab of meat, 18 inches long and eight wide, is only four inches thick, so the heat penetrates it very quickly.

The food hygiene dimension

The only food-poisoning bacteria that can survive a temperature of 75C are the spore-forming ones. You can boil them or pickle them in bleach for hours without killing them, so if the food you?re cooking contains some there?s nothing you can do about it. For the rest, cooking to a core-temperature (which is what a well-placed roasting thermometer measures) of 75C is good enough. Taking lamb up to 80C and poultry up to 90C won?t make them any safer, so this must be a matter of taste.

Pork used to be a source of tapeworm, so maybe that?s why it is traditionally cooked to 90C.

There are a few things we need to bear in mind, though. First, you don?t find food-poisoning organisms inside muscle - lean meat. That?s why it?s considered safe to eat rare roast beef, and why the French get away with cooking lamb and duck to the same temperature as beef. But the outside of any piece of meat must be assumed to be crawling with bugs. This may be bad news for rare-beef eaters, because when the butcher bones and rolls a ?joint? of beef he puts some of the outside inside. So any rolled joint should be cooked to a core temperature of at least 75C.

British chickens must be assumed to be seething with Salmonella, and the recommendation is that we cook to a core temperature of at least 75C. Normally, that would mean the centre of the thigh or breast, but if you stuff a chicken the middle of your stuffing could easily pick up the dreaded bugs on the way in - so put the tip of the thermometer right in the centre.

Turkeys are assumed to be as high-risk as chickens, and sadly any duck processed on premises where chickens or turkeys are dealt with must be equally suspect.

Crackling

I?ve more-or-less given up on crackling, because I?m convinced that the ability of a pig?s skin to form good crackling has far more to do with genetics and/or nutrition than about how it?s cooked. Given that, according to my thermometer, the middle of a pork joint has to get close to boiling point, the outer skin is going to get a good long blast of heat at whatever oven-temperature you use. OK - score it into much narrower strips than any modern butcher can be bothered to, brush it with oil or dripping and rub it with salt. Either it will crackle - or it won?t, and if it doesn?t, it?s the pig?s fault, not yours. (The idea of the salt, by the way, is to use a process called osmosis, which I remember more vividly even than the diagrams of rabbits? reproductive organs from my third-form biology lessons, to draw out the juices from the skin, which presumably firms it up and forms an attractive coat of varnish on the outside.)

Patricia swears by cutting the crackling off when the joint is part-cooked so that it gets cooked from the inside as well as the outside. It helps - but the bottom line is that I still don?t know how to ensure that the skin crumbles easily in your mouth rather than surrendering reluctantly, like plywood.

Gravy

For my Mum - and, I guess, for many others - making gravy was an act of blind faith. You took out the meat, put the tin on the gas and stirred flour into the dripping. Then you emptied the potato water in, stirred until the lumps vanished and hoped for the best. (Some people even used Bisto. I can vivdly remember smelling Bisto every Sunday, wafting up the communal stairs of the London house where our flat was.)

For me, making gravy is the ultimate piece of creative improvisation. Obviously you?re going to get a lot more fat and juices in a tin that?s been in the oven for a couple of hours roasting a piece of pork than one that?s been there 40 minutes just singeing a slab of beef. If you favour a very hot oven, the juices may well have been totally carbonised, unless you roast on a rack and keep some water in the tin (bad for crackling, I?m sure, and quite difficult because the bloody stuff keeps evaporating). So, logically, you roast meat that needs to reach 90C at a lower temperature than meat that has only to get to 60C.

I usually burgle some dripping from the tin half an hour or so before the meat is cooked and fry some onion and garlic in it. If there isn?t any dripping I use oil or, latterly, lard. (Even more latterly, I?ve taken to collecting dripping from all sorts of things and mixing it, so what lurks in the fridge contains fat from meat, poultry, sausages, bacon and God knows what else. It tastes brilliant, imparts its flavour to gravy - and will probably kill me quite soon.) When the aromatics are well browned I put them aside. Then, assuming there?s anything useful in the roasting tin, I tip off as much fat as possible, deglaze it with wine, vegetable water or, if I?ve done the sensible thing, stock made from the washed vegetable trimmings (the green parts of leaks, onion skins which contain a brown dye, carrot and parsnip ends and peelings, etc). This means pouring the liquid in over a low heat and scraping up all the bits - a process that has the added benefit of cleaning the tin before everything sets like Araldite.

Then I make the roux in the onion pan and pour in the deglazing gunge. When the resulting infant gravy is smoothish, the creativity starts. I have a taste, usually adding pepper first, and then decide whether the gravy needs salt. If it does, I often use soy sauce instead because that adds an extra bit of meatiness to the flavour. Then I may add wine, sherry, sherry vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple juice, Thai fish sauce, a couple of anchovy fillets - just following whims and taking advantage of what?s lying round the kitchen.

Stock

The very best thing of all to give gravy real guts is, of course, brown stock. Not running a commercial kitchen, I don?t always have stock, but from time to time I buy a huge bag of chicken wings from the local market for 48p a pound (not free range, these!), roast them nice and brown, and use them as the basis for stock (having first sidetracked some to be salted, peppered and eaten with mayonnaise and sticky fingers - yum!). Some odd bits of cheap beef - even mince - can add extra colour and flavour (now that beef bones are no longer acceptable). The meat is simmered in water for two or three hours, until it seems to have surrendered most of its goodness, and then a variety of vegetables are added - notably onions (and their washed skins), carrots and celery - but many others will contribute useful flavour (avoid potatoes and parsnips, though - they are starchy and make the stock muddy). Finally, I strain out the solids and reduce the stock a little, chill it and remove the surface fat, which goes in my dripping bowl, of course. The I reduce it again until there isn?t much left at all. It sets to a very thick jelly in the fridge and keeps for ages. Even just a tablespoonful gives a batch of gravy a real boost.

However you make gravy, aim for a small amount with an intense flavour. The meal is a roast, after all, not a stew, and you don?t want your crisp vegetables slopping around in a watery puddle!

And now - the spuds!

I hate solid roast potatoes with a firm, shiny brown skin. I like them made from floury potatoes and thoroughly mangled at the end of the parboiling so that they are fluffy and crisp and golden andyum!

Here?s how. I learned the basic method from Delia Smith, to whom I shall be deeply grateful until my very last Sunday roast.

You need floury potatoes, not waxy ones, so King Edwards, Maris Pipers, the Caras they sell for baking and Dsires are all suitable. According to Harold McGee?s On Food and Cooking (my bible of culinary science), ?mealy? (floury) potatoes are denser than waxy ones. If you can be bothered, you can check which kind a potato is by dropping it in brine made with one part salt to 11 parts water (by weight, I assume). If the potato sinks, it is a floury one and therefore suitable for roasting. Waxy ones float.

I was taught by my Mum always to put potatoes in cold water and bring them to the boil. Logically, if you do this the potatoes will cook more evenly, because low-energy heat from the slowly-warming water will penetrate to the centre. However, if you drop the potatoes into boiling water the outsides will cook quite quickly. This, I suggest, is better for ?Delia?s roast spuds?, because we want a lot of floury debris with our firmer chunks of potato.

So I put my floury potatoes, peeled and cut into fairly small pieces, into boiling water and cook them until the outsides are beginning to break up but the centres are still firm - they are going to get an hour or so in a hot oven, after all. Then I drain them and, holding the lid on firmly with a cloth, shake the pan vigorously. If I?ve judged things right, I will have plenty of firm pieces of potato and lots of light, fluffy ?mash?. This is tipped into a preheated shallow Pyrex dish containing fat - dripping, lard and even extra virgin olive oil all contribute their own unique character - stirred around and then roasted at around 200C. It?s wonderful, whether it?s lightly crisped and golden or has tooth-cracking dark brown edges, and whether the potatoes still have some shape or have collapsed completely.

The veg

I adore roast parsnips. When I was a kid my Mum used to cut them up just like the potatoes, so each new piece of roasted root was a mystery. Would it me sweet parsnip or relatively bland spud? The only tip I have for parsnips is not to parboil as much as the potatoes - they cook quite fast.

I also love mashed swede, but Patricia has introduced me to a mix of swede and carrot - gorgeous. I peel each vegetable and cook it separately in the microwave - my Panasonic Genius has an automatic program for root vegetables. If you?re not so lucky, follow your microwave instructions - or boil them. Then I bung them in the food-processor with too much butter, a little salt and some pepper, and mash them effortlessly. Delicious.

For the rest, lightly buttered steamed cabbage will do nicely, thank you - but not too soft and soggy, please!

Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.

This site was transferred in June 2005 to the Sites4Doctors Site Management System, and has been developed and maintained there ever since.