Friday, March 4, 2011

Best of British: English Roast Potatoes

How do you turn a humble Idaho-grown spud into an international superstar?

...make him into traditional English roast potatoes!!!!!

Roast potatoes are as much an English institution as fish and chips or mutton and mint sauce, and possibly more beloved than either.  No Sunday roast would be complete without these starchy, golden pockets of crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside goodness.  As a child, I would look forward to Sunday afternoons that held the promise of flavorful, oven-roasted meats, roasted seasonal vegetables and, the pinnacle of perfection, roast potatoes or 'roasties' as they're affectionately known.  Sitting on the wooden pews of our drafty, stone church I would squirm with anticipation of the feast that awaited us when we returned home.

The tradition of the Sunday roast stretches back to the Middle Ages, when feudal lords would reward their serfs for a week's hard labor with a day of rest on Sunday and a feast of roasted meat to be enjoyed after Sunday service.  I always imagined these hard-pressed laborers looking forward to their lavish meal with the same sort of anticipation I felt each week.

The traditional roast dinner requires quite a bit of culinary timing and skill, but roast potatoes are often considered the touchstone of a real English cook.  For years I tried to recreate them with minimal success.  I pored over recipes on the internet, contacted English friends and tweaked endless variables until I finally discovered a fool-proof method - and now I'm going to share it with you!  There are as many variations as there are people who make them, but if you follow these instructions, you should end up with something resembling the traditional English roast potato.

Getting ready for the big transformation...
I've been told that the type of potato is critical to ensuring the proper result, but I've actually used this method with a variety of potatoes and had success every time (knock on wood!).  If you have the choice, though, pick a floury variety  - any potato good for mashing should be good for roasting as well.  Once you have your potatoes picked out, you're only five steps away from real English roasties...

Step 1.  Preheat your oven to 400 ° F.  Scrub and peel 4-6 large potatoes and cut into quarters (or smaller if you have large potatoes - I like to use roughly 2-inch chunks because I'm a fan of crispy, crispy crusts). If you wish, you can reserve the skins to make a tasty pre-dinner treat I'll show you later.

Step 2. Place potatoes in a large saucepan, fill with water to cover, and add a pinch of salt.  Bring to a boil and simmer for about 6 or 7 minutes, until potatoes are slightly soft.  Potatoes should be easy to pierce with a fork but should not fall apart when pierced.  It's important not to overcook or you'll end up with mashed potatoes instead of roasties!

Look as those gorgeous, furry edges!
Step 3.  Drain potatoes in a colander, shaking several times to roughen edges. This is the key step: these rough edges will attract oil (mmmm...tasty, yes, healthy, no) and create the perfect crispy coating that everyone loves.  Leave potatoes to dry for about 10 minutes.

Step 4.  Meanwhile, pour enough vegetable oil into a large roasting pan to coat the bottom to a depth of about 1/4 inch.  I sometimes use my 9x13-inch baking pan (lined with foil for ease of clean-up), but it needs to be large enough to accommodate the potatoes with space around each.  If you're roasting the potatoes as a side to a pork, beef or lamb roast, you can cook the potatoes in fat from the meat or be ultra-traditional and use goose or duck fat.  I haven't had the chance to try the latter, but I have tried vegetable oil and it works fine (contrary to what some people will try to tell you! I'm all about traditions, but goose fat can be hard to come by).  Place the pan in the oven and heat the oil for a few minutes.

Ready for some heat!
Step 5. Place potatoes gently in hot oil (it may splutter - especially if potatoes aren't dry) and coat evenly using a pastry or basting brush.  Sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper.  Bake for 20 minutes.  Remove from oven and turn each potato once, basting again before returning to oven.  Bake a further 20-30 minutes until golden and crispy (personal preference really applies, here!).  Place potatoes on a paper towel to absorb oil before serving.  Serve with gravy or eat just as they are, because they're divine.

Ready for their close-up
A few tips: As I mentioned before, the roughened edges are key, but you can also coat the boiled potatoes with a tablespoon of flour to help amp up the crispy edges.  You can turn the potatoes more than once, but don't turn too often or you'll sacrifice your crispy edges.

I love to serve these with rosemary roasted brussels sprouts and roast chicken, but if you want to be authentic, serve them with roast beef, roasted root or seasonal veggies, gravy and Yorkshire pudding (the only other food that can give roasties a run for their money, in my opinion). Perfection.

Just. Wonderful.

Now for the quick treat I promised, using the potato skins from earlier.  Since roast potatoes require a fair amount of time in the kitchen (especially if you're serving them alongside a full roast dinner), I roast the potato skins for a pre-dinner snack which also cuts back on kitchen waste.  This is about as close as Matt and I get to eating potato chips! Just spread the peelings on out foil, spray with cooking spray or oil from a mister, and toss with some salt and maybe a sprinkling of rosemary, thyme, paprika or grated parmesan cheese.  Roast in your preheated oven for about 15-20 minutes or until crispy. Enjoy!

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