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A Roast Dinner HOWTO

v1.3 18nov2001: Rewrite and added photos
v1.2 15jul2001: Added commenting
v1.1 13feb2000: Added instructions for roast lamb
v1.0 30jan2000: First version

By Matt Webb and Es Roudiani, originally with detailed instructions on the phone to Tara (Es' sister). The first version of this page was written while we made our first roast dinner.

This is what we're making.

The basic setup assumes two shelves in the oven. The top one is hotter, of course. Whatever meat you're doing goes on the bottom, potatoes on the top. Writing this, it's just occurred to us to be organised and make sure the top shelf is far enough down to put things on, and far enough up so the chicken fits in underneath.

A chronology as a kind of summary seems like a good idea. It's at the bottom.

Please also feel free to add your own comments to the bottom of this document. Hints, tips, questions or advice to future readers are all most welcome.

Chicken ^

Chicken takes 20 minutes per lb, plus another 20 minutes, to cook. Rinse the chicken first, so it's clean. Salmonella is a horrible thing. The oven should be at 200c; make sure it's been preheated (although this is more important for the potatoes). Chicken seems really easy (that's tempting fate, says Es).

Before you put the chicken in the oven, rub butter and olive oil into it, and sprinkle salt and pepper on top. For taste. If you're feeling bold, add chopped garlic and tarragon, or whatever herbs you fancy. Make the mixture up in a bowl, and put some in the body cavity, some under the breast skin, and the rest all over the skin. To get it under the skin, you lift up the edge of the skin at the neck end of the breast, and carefully put your fingers in between the skin and the meat. Then put the mixture in. This is horrid, but it makes a difference.

The chicken sits on a baking tray with certain vegetables scattered around it - carrots and onions. Other vegetables are cooked differently. Onion: it is advisable to have an onion for taste. You don't have to eat it. Slice it (we think) and put it around the chicken. Red onion looks good and allegedly tastes better, although we wouldn't know. We've found that if you have an aggressive oven or a large hen, the carrots burn to a crisp instead of roasting, so we've started putting the vegetables in when there's about an hour's cooking time left. This seems about right.

While the chicken's cooking we need to "baste" it. Basting involves tilting the baking tray and getting the chicken juice in the spoon to pour back over the chicken. This makes the chicken nice and juicy. Baste while you have the oven open to turn the potatoes. Handy hint for turkey: Turkeys are large so they dry out from the top down as the juice runs out. Cook it upside down for the first half, then turn it over and the skin on top will go nice and crispy while it finishes cooking.

We found that there weren't any juices in the baking tray because they were still sat in the hen. Pick the breast end of the hen up and pour them out.

At the second basting we've found barely any juice and the carrots are quite dry. After consultations, apparently hen produces more juice the more it's cooked so there's hope yet. Also, some shops add water to their hens to make them weigh more, hence: more juice. If you use loads of the butter mixture, this helps stop the meat drying out.

To find out whether the hen is cooked: pick a bit with lots of meat (like the join in between the leg and the body) and stick a skewer in it. Take the skewer out and press down on the hole with a fork. Juices will bubble out (hopefully) - if they're pink, hen's not ready; if they're clear, hen's done. If you're in any doubt, put it in for a bit longer. Again - salmonella is a horrible thing.

After the chicken comes out of the oven it must sit and wait for ten minutes. Magically it won't go cold (leave the potatoes in there while you do this so they get extra crispy). Carve and serve.

Why you let the chicken sit: When the chicken is cooking, all the juices come to the surface. If you carve it straight away the meat is dry; by letting it sit the juices go back into the meat to make it lovely.

Final comment: the chicken was superb, and juices really did come out more in the last twenty minutes. While letting the chicken stand more juices came down onto the plate, so it really does help moisten the meat. Fantastic!

Lamb ^

Lamb takes 25 minutes per lb, plus 25 minutes extra, to cook. We're using leg because breast and shoulder are very fatty. Our lamb is just under a kilo, so that's an hour and a quarter. We're going to give it one hour and twenty, to correspond with the potatoes. This makes it pink in the middle.

To prepare: poke holes all over the lamb and poke thinly sliced garlic and rosemary in. Make enough holes to use two cloves of garlic. Instead of olive oil and butter, slap redcurrant jelly over the lamb before you put it in the oven. You could instead use mint sauce or jelly, depending on what you prefer, but if you use redcurrant then the flavour of the juices will combine well with the flavour of the jelly.

Baste the lamb every half an hour, and let sit after cooking, as for chicken. Mint sauce is an absolute necessity for lamb, so don't forget to buy some.

Sausage meat ^

We're having the sausage meat in a loaf, straight from the packet. It's fantastic in slices with gravy. It takes the same amount of time as the chicken and to be honest it's a bit of a secondary meat - I've had it in all graduations from cooked to well overcooked and it always tastes fine. Sit it on the same tray as the main meat.

Never having cooked sausage meat myself before this was quite a gamble. It worked, though - turning it whenever the oven was opened stopped the meat burning. It wasn't as crispy on the outside as I've had it before.

Talking to my Mother it turns out she neglected to tell me that the sausage meat is supposed to be wrapped in tin foil while it's being cooked. That would've helped. My Auntie Janet says: 'To cook the sausage meat it would help if you put the meat into a small loaf tin covered with tin foil and when it is nearly ready remove foil to allow it to brown.'

Potatoes ^

Crispy roast potatoes are the Holy Grail of roast dinners. Top tip: roast potatoes are best cooked in goose fat. But we don't have any of that. In fact, Es' family have goose fat that they reuse and it works a treat, so I'm told. But again: we don't have any of that.

Potatoes take about the same amount of time to cook as the meat - about an hour and a half. This depends on your oven though, one oven we use only takes an hour. Keep an eye on them! It also depends on how many you make, whether you're making parsnips as well, and all sorts of other things. Most ovens - reckon on about an hour and twenty minutes.

Three steps. Step one: peel the potatoes. Peel your potatoes onto a plastic bag. When you've finished, you can roll up the peels in the bag and throw away. Chop them to whatever size you like. We both like our potatoes quite small.

Step two: parboil them. Parboil is the technical term for boiling the potatoes in water. Put the potatoes in cold water, bring to the boil and keep boiling for six or seven minutes (five minutes is probably enough for small potatoes). When they're done, take them out and shake them dry with a colander. This is a critical step, I'm told. The colander helps break the surface of the potatoes which is what makes them crispy. Wow!

It can't be stressed enough the importance of preparation. We've just had to peel the carrots and onion, arrange the chicken, and fight to get the sausage meat out of its wrapper all in the time for the potatoes to parboil. Be prepared!

Step three: roast them. Put the potatoes into a baking tray filled with hot fat (the fat's already been in the oven for a while). The potatoes should sizzle when you put them in. Spoon hot oil on top of the potatoes when you put them in. The meat probably goes in the oven now too so remember to get that fat (we're using vegetable oil) hot before you start anything else. Use enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan. The potatoes should be turned over every half hour until they're done. At the same time make sure they're covered in hot oil. If you're a garlic fan (we are) add a few peeled cloves to the potatoes while they roast. They turn squashy and sweet, and are delicious. Or they just burn. Haven't quite worked out what makes the difference, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.

Different things to do with them: If you are cooking lamb, add a few sprigs of rosemary to the roasting tray. Saffron is also lovely, either crush the bits to a powder and sprinkle on, or leave them whole. We leave them whole. It gives the potatoes a lovely colour and flavour. I wouldn't use both though - we stick to rosemary for lamb and saffron for hen, although there's no particular reason for this.

Parsnips ^

Parsnips sit in with the potatoes but they take slightly less time to cook. Either sit them in the middle of the tray where it's cooler, or put them in slightly later.

We're putting our parsnips in later. Parsnips should be parboiled (as for potatoes); also shaken up. Treat them like potatoes, basically. Parboiling should start as soon as the potatoes have gone in the oven. We're going to use the same water as for the potatoes so we don't have to put more garlic in or reheat the water. As soon as the parsnips are parboiled (as before, five or six minutes), put them in with the potatoes.

Carrots ^

Carrots sit around the meat and roast in the juices. This makes them nicer. They go in when there's about an hour of cooking time left, otherwise they burn.

Don't worry if they seem very dry in the first half hour. as the meat cooks it releases more juice, and they will be lovely in the end.

Peas ^

Not really a roast item here, but we need more vegetables. Frozen peas. Boil them. Ta-da. Does exactly what it says on the tin.

Gravy ^

Gravy is another one of those things that can make or break a roast dinner. I'm perfectly satisfied with Bisto myself, but Es seems to be a bit of a gravy connoisseur and was horrified that I'd think of having beef gravy with chicken so we're making it properly.

When the meat comes out of the oven and is sitting, this is the time to make gravy. The following is done to the juices in situ, in the tray still. Add flour and Bisto to make a paste. Pour some of your new gravy into the tray to unpaste it. Add more flour to re-paste it, and keep doing this until you have as much gravy as you want. Then add this to the base of the gravy, which is supposed to be the bones of old chickens, or whatever you last made, all boiled up with water and unused old gravy. This is boiled for days, and can then be frozen to wait for the next time. Thus the remains of an old gravy begat a new gravy, and so forth and so on. We don't have minging old bones, so we're using yet more Bisto chicken gravy granules. Actually we've got Sainsbury's chicken gravy because apparently this is better than the Bisto version. Oh yes, and I say "base" but actually that's just gravy. Nothing special about the word base here.

You will find that the onion has caramelised and makes the gravy taste better.

We found that the onions-making-you-cry myth isn't really a myth at all! Of course, anybody who's cooked even slightly before would know that - but we aren't those people so it's a big surprise.

The gravy base varies according to what meat you cook: For chicken, use chicken gravy. For beef, use beef gravy. For lamb either use half chicken and half beef gravy (powders), or use chicken gravy and one lamb or beef stock cube. We're using the half and half method. Also add a big spoonful (Es is very exact with her quantities) of redcurrant jelly. This depends on how sweet a tooth you have, and how much you like redcurrant jelly.

The chicken gravy was a very good idea. Mixing flour into the juices worked very well and added extra flavour to the final gravy. I know that the juices/flour mixing is a bit of a black art, and I wish I could describe more about it here - but Es knows her stuff with this gravy thing so it wasn't really experimental (although now she tells me it was the first time she's actually made the gravy herself).

Chronology ^

We're adding to this as we go along. It's a pretty detailed chronology and it isn't even slightly what we're doing - the reason we know why to prepare is because we didn't and then got in a rush.

Comments ^

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