A Sunday lunch with roast chicken, roast potatoes, steamed vegetables and gravy is one of those classic English meals that can soar into the culinary sublime or dive into the dismals. A good experience leaves you satisfied and replete, a bad one consigns British cooking to the doldrums, where our European neighbours shake their heads sadly over our penchant for soggy vegetables, greasy potatoes and overcooked meat.
In our family the rest of Sunday lunch takes second place to the roast potatoes - they are the raison d'etre of Sunday lunch and if I try and produce a casserole with baked potatoes as a change, I'm told sternly by my four year old that it's not a proper Sunday lunch.
On my mettle to keep the family happy, over the last few years I have gradually perfected the art of roast potatoes, until they are golden, crispy and soft and fluffy but not soggy inside.
Here are my methods for the perfect roast potato:
1. Par-boil the potatoes first.
Once they are peeled and cut into similar sizes (small potatoes in two, large ones in four), put the potatoes into cold, salted water and bring to the boil. Once the pot is boiling, boil for about 4 minutes, then drain all the water off (keeping some for the gravy later), let some of the steam evaporate off, then clamp on the lid and shake the potatoes about until the edges have slightly bruised and fluffed up. This is what will absorb the hot oil to make a crisp surface as the potato roasts. Leave the lid off now so they dry a little, until the oil is ready.
2. Heat the oil first.
In a roasting pan, that is large enough to take the potatoes in a single layer, put enough olive oil or vegetable and olive oil mixed, to cover the bottom with ease. The potatoes mustn't be bathing in the oil, so keep it less than ½ cm/ ¼ inch deep. Put the tray into the hot oven (200C/400F) for 10 minutes before the potatoes need to go in. Once the oil is hot, put the potatoes in so they sizzle and toss them so they are coated all over, then return the tray to the oven to roast. The potatoes can be turned two or three times during cooking.
The potatoes need to stay in the hot oven until the very last minute when you are ready to serve lunch. If they hang around keeping warm they lose their crisp edge and gradually dwindle into leathery bullets. They need 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours at 200C / 400F to reach optimum crispiness. Time the meat to be ready 10 minutes before them, so it can rest, you can make the gravy and summon the troops to table, and only then produce the potatoes still sizzling from the oven. If people are late the potatoes can take another 10-15 minutes getting even more crispy in the oven, but after that I'd just get on and eat them without the latecomers!
4. Roasting tin.
I get the crispiest results from my enamel roasting tins. Pyrex trays result in softer, less crispy potatoes, any metal tray is better.
Keep the hottest part of the oven for the potatoes. Juggling roast meat, roast potatoes and everything in a small oven is tricky but the potatoes will only get crisp if they can bask in blazing heat for a while. If all else fails, when the meat comes out, turn the oven up to max and put the potatoes on the top shelf for a blasting. Last on the list of emergency remedies, put them under a hot grill (broiler) for the last five minutes while you are getting the table ready.
Once you have perfected your roast potatoes another problem arises - you can never make enough of them. I now allow five per person in our family!
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