Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My "Top Roasting Tips" or how to make the most of your Sunday roast

All this blogging about cooking has led me to reflect on how it is I cook, and what goes up here as opposed to what doesn't. I've become aware that an awful lot of what I do when I cook is instinctive, all the little tweaks and shortcuts that I just do because I know they'll improve the dish, so they probably never get talked about. I thought I'd try to rectify this by creating my own personal list of what I think is essential when trying to create a good Sunday roast.

This is probably not complete - I guess I can always come back and add more - but I've tried to make it chronological at least, so these are the things I think you need to be worrying about when you think about your roast.
  1. Buy Good Quality Meat
    This has to be top of the list. More than absolutely everything else this is the number one factor that will make or break your finished meal, as without a good piece of meat to start with you're never going to have a good finished product. Don't confuse good with expensive either - some of the most fab cuts are wonderfully cheap (e.g. shin of beef) - you just need to know how to cook them.
  2. Don't Roast it Straight from Cold
    Roasts are almost always big pieces of meat, and if you take them out of the fridge and put them straight in the oven then meat in the middle of the joint is going to heat up much slower than that on the outside. Sometimes this can be a benefit - perhaps you want to keep the middle of a joint of beef very rare - but personally I always find it best to take the meat out at least an hour (sometimes longer - depends on the meat) and leave it to get up to room temperature. Don't fret too much about it going bad - an hour or so won't hurt (though don't leave it anywhere warm like on a radiator!) and you'll get a better end product.
  3. Season Well Before Roasting
    Seasoning is always critical, and this applies just as much to roasts as anything else. You can be quite generous with the salt & pepper. Do make sure you do the inside of poultry and rolled pieces if you can, but don't over do it on pork crackling or it'll be over salted. Also, don't salt early - it'll start to leech juices out of the meat. Do it just before the meat goes into the oven.
  4. Know Your Oven!
    You don't necessarily need a great oven for a great roast, but you do need to know what you've got. Some ovens create temperatures that are widely different to what they display or what their controls suggest, so if you're in any doubt over your own oven check it with an oven thermometer. You never know, all those apparent failures may have been the oven's fault and not yours at all!
  5. Hot Then Cool
    Many cooks use this technique, and though I deviate from it quite frequently (with slow roasts and spit roasting in particular) it's still the one I do most often. Basically you start the roast off at a high temperature for a short time to start crisping up the outside and force heat into the meat, and then turn it down for the rest of cooking so you don't burn the outisde and the heat gradually permeates through and cooks evenly.
  6. It's Done When It's Done
    At the end of the day a roast is ready when it's ready, all you can do with timing and temperatures is try and get some sort of reliable guide as to when. There are lots of ways of checking when meat is ready, a thermometer apparently being the best (though personally I've never used one). For chicken and pork it's the juices running clear when you pierce the thickest piece of meat, for lamb and beef it's pretty much whenever it's gets to the stage you like it at! All I'm saying here is don't just assume it's ready- at least don't be a slave to the timing.
  7. Rest the Meat
    Resting is crucial. In fact if I was ordering these by priority then this would be number two after the quality of the meat. Resting allows the meat to 'relax', and ensures that the juices flow back from their excited states back into the fibres where you want them, creating a tender juicy mouthful. All joints could do with 20 minutes or so - large joints even more. Do make sure that you rest somewhere warm - not hot, not cold, but warm. Still in the oven is OK, provided the door is open a little to let some heat out, but you'll need the pan it was roasting on to ...
  8. Deglaze for Gravy
    Gravy has been many peoples bugbear, mine included, but no longer. Here's what I do. Once the meat is out of the pan and resting somewhere get rid of most of the fat from the pan (if it's good fat, like beef, then keep it aside for other cooking) and put the pan back on the heat on top of the stove. Add some liquid, and scrape up all the good stuff in the pan into the liquid, and reduce till you get to the consistency you like. That's it. If you like a thick gravy leave a little fat in the pan and stir some flour into it and cook it a little before you add the liquid (a little at a time). If you want to include some other flavours use wine, port, stock, water from vegetables, anything really in place of plain old water, or stir in some mustard, fruit jelly, whatever you fancy, but basic gravy is really quite straightforward.
  9. Serve on Warm Plates/Dishes
    Nobody wants to eat food so hot they get burnt, but the problem with roasts is often the opposite - what with resting and all the other mucking about the food can be too cool by the time it hits the table. To get around this you really do need to warm your plates beforehand, and by warm I actually mean quite hot. You don't want the meat to sizzle when you put it on (and believe me I've done that a few times!) but you do want them practically too hot to handle.
Well there are my thoughts on what makes a good roast - love to hear what tips and tricks others have to share!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Slow Roast Salt Marsh Lamb with Onions, Garlic & Thyme

Seems everywhere's getting foodie these days - or then again maybe it's just the places I choose to go - and Exeter is no exception. We've got some great places to get food around town now, what with the Thursday farmers market, and streets full of quality shops like Magdalen Road, plus places like Chandos in town (although their attitude to pricing is ... well ... let's just say they like a good mark-up. A very good mark-up).

Until recently we also had the brilliant Foodeaze as well, which is sadly currently closed, but happily due to reopen even better than before - we hope. But the reason I'm mentioning all this is actually the annual Exeter Festival of Food & Wine.

I've been going since it started I think, and have seen it grow from a quite small affair with not really enough room for all the attention to a very professional set-up, with top name chefs, tents of food galore, and special night time events. True it may have lost some of the charm of earlier days, when the suppliers may have been a little more generous with their tastings, but it's still a great place to be. Hell, I even made sure I got back from Spain in time to attend!

This year I got my usual selection of goodies, the pride amongst them a shoulder of salt marsh lamb, a great piece of meat, well hung and full flavoured. I love lamb well done so I slow roasted it for about 4 hours at 150ÂșC (important that it's not a fan oven for this, otherwise it cooks to quick and can dry out) on top of about 5 sliced up onions, 6 or so cloves of peeled garlic and loads of fresh thyme, plus the usual salt & pepper. This was all pushed down into a big Creuset stewing pot. I'm really starting to fine tune this technique now for slow roasting - this time I used no liquid at all, just relied on the meat and the onions to produce liquid as they cooked, and sure enough it worked a treat. The secret is to try and make sure that the meat completely covers the other ingredients, that way it roasts and steams, and nothing gets burnt. The meat comes out beautifully tender and moist and the onions sweet and slightly caramelised.

Served this with buttered minty new potatoes, rocket salad, and a rape seed oil minty mayo. Oh, and a nice drop of Australian red ...

I have to say though that part of the success of the dish was the sheer quality of the meat, which I'm happy to say has been providing leftovers all week for various risottos and stuffed pittas and wraps. When you start with such a good product you really have to do something pretty spectacular to screw it up. Kudos to the supplier, The Thoroughly Wild Meat Co.


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