Roasting meat is the most primitive way of cooking, stemming from hunter-gatherers cooking freshly caught meat next to an open flame. Yes, ingenuity and technological innovation has made roasting a meal easier and more inventive, but this form of cooking still relies on direct, dry heat, as it always has. And it is still as much a ritual today as it ever was.
A Sunday roast is a meal that despite our modern pressures on time, brings families and friends together to share stories and experiences over a slow cooked and slowly eaten feast.
It’s not Britain’s favourite meal (apparently that’s Chinese stir fry) but it’s certainly one to evoke the fondest memories. It’s on a par with the Australian barbecue.
Why? Well, Sunday roast fuelled a nation through wars and post war depression. Money was in short supply, so meat could only be afforded once a week. To serve meat to family and friends was seen as an honourable thing to do. It was, and still is, a major event.
My early childhood memories
My mum would cook roast dinners every Sunday without fail. So I remember our Sunday dinners from a very early age.
Dad, a passionate flag bearer of women’s rights, would spend the afternoon down the Attleborough Arms pub and come back just before dinner was served (anything later would cause world war three). Mum would have a drink while she was cooking.
The meal could only go one of two ways – jolly jape or a war of words.
My everlasting memory of roast beef was an overcooked. To be fair, there was no such thing as cooking meat medium rare or medium when I was a kid. Chefs were still unknown. Vol-au-vents and prawn cocktails – so retro now – were the height of sophistication. The only wine to hit our table was sweet and sickly Liebfraumilch (brand name Blue Nun). And cooking for two young kids and a husband who acted like one couldn’t have been easy. Over done was the norm.
My older sister would struggle through, shearing, tearing and huffing and puffing at the meat (she should have been an actress) but would often leave the fat. I can understand why, but my parents were brought up to eat everything on a plate, including meat, fat, and skin. My mum would point out every little morsel of meat left on the plate.
My sister would raise her eyebrows. This was seen as an act of defiance and set off the fireworks. An argument would start. My sister would storm out, banging every door in every room in the house on her way to her bedroom (she took the scenic route).
Dad would keep his eyes fixed on the plate, waiting for the moment to be blamed for not backing up. I struggled with a chisel to get through the rock like roast potatoes. An awkward silence would take over.
Traditions aren’t always easy to carry on but mum’s roasts are now the stuff of legends. She has so much more time to prepare, not having to work and look after two young kids. I understand that all too well how difficult it is with two young kids. Fantastic meat is now readily available. And there are plenty of chefs teaching us how to cook well.
Carrying on the tradition
Living in Australia, I carry the torch for Sunday dinners. They are still a mainstay of our family life (although I tend to make the traditional roast only on colder, winter days).
Our kids are only three and six, so don’t really appreciate Sunday dinner, but it is important to me that we all have good wholesome food together, as a family, and with friends, now and in the future. It’s a tradition I want to carry on.
Dinner times are just as mental as my childhood. Tantrums, food flinging, force feeding and more tantrums are the norm. But this doesn’t matter a jot to me. We have no other family in Australia, so it means everything to be able to bring everyone together, even though nine times out of 10 meal times are dysfunctional .
I do wonder what my kids’ memories of Sunday dinner will be when they are my age though. But I do hope when they are old enough that they carry on this tradition.
Top six tips for a successful roast dinner
1: Don’t skimp on the meat
My favourite cut of meat is rib of beef cut on the bone from the fore of the animal (according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingsall, the smaller fore ribs are more succulent). Don’t think you can get this meat from your local supermarket. Get yourself down to a traditional, local butcher where the meat is aged and hung properly. It’s costly, but you value it more.
I prepare the meat by rubbing in olive oil and seasoning the meat. Sometimes I add rosemary. I normally place it in the roasting dish on a bed of vegetables so the bottom of the meat doesn’t burn. Included in the vegetables are onions, celery and carrots as well as a lot of garlic. I also add to the bottom of the roasting dish a glass of red wine or port along with a glass of water. All this helps to make fantastic gravy.
I cook the meat for 20 minutes on a high heat and then cook for 15 minutes for every 500 grams. This should cook the meat to medium rare to medium.
2: Simple to get wrong: stay focussed with humble Yorkshire pudding
The Yorkshire pudding is made from a simple batter of milk, water, eggs and flour. Originally the Yorkshire pudding was eaten on its own as a first course with thick gravy. This was to fill your stomach so that you would not eat so much of the more expensive meat in the next course. Now Yorkshire puddings are served and eaten with the meat. My dad used sprinkle sugar on leftover Yorkshire puddings for dessert.
The key to a great Yorkshire pudding is to fill your muffin tin with oil (about a third from the top) and put into the oven until it is smoking hot. Then add your batter about half way up the tin, and put back in the high part of the oven for 25 minutes. Don’t open the oven until they are ready and have puffed up more than double in size.
3: It’s ok to be obsessed with the potatoes
I have become slightly obsessed with making roast potatoes. I cut them to a certain size. I par boil them, drain them and rough them up by shaking them in a covered saucepan. Still in the pan I normally drizzle with olive oil (although I used duck fat this week). I add crushed cloves of garlic and season with salt and leave them for 30 minutes. I add a roasting dish to the oven with a small amount of oil. Once it’s hot I add the potatoes.
Here’s where I get a bit obsessed. I make sure every potato is positioned so that they lay on their curved side. I find they are crisper the less surface area is touching the pan. If you put them flat side down (the side you have cut them) I find they burn or don’t crisp as well. Works for me anyway.
You can never make too many potatoes. My rule of thumb is double the amount you think you need. They always get eaten.
4: Don’t cut corners with the gravy
You can’t underestimate the importance of good gravy. For a Sunday roast, forget gravy granules. It’s time and effort to make it, but so worth it. You owe it to your family.
I strain the juices and liquid from the bottom of the meat roasting dish into a saucepan. I also squash the roasted garlic through a sieve and scrape it into the gravy. I put it on a medium heat, add stock from the vegetables and reduce. I don’t mind thinner gravy, but my wife prefers it thicker, so I usually thicken it with a beurre manie (equal parts flour and butter combined to the consistency of breadcrumbs) or a bit of cornflour.
5: Don’t forget the accompaniments
Brussel sprouts, broccoli, carrots, parsnips and/or peas normally grace our table. Parsnips are beautiful roasted in parmesan. I haven’t found many people to like brussel sprouts though!
6: Get the timing right
To this day, I find Sunday dinners hard to make. Not because they are complicated, but because getting the timing right so everything is served crispy, succulent and hot is not easy.
My advice is this. Work your timings out before you start. Always add on another third of time on top, because it always seems to take longer than you think. Get the meat done and resting early. Work out how to keep food warm in advance if you finish something early or are running late with something. The success of a Sunday roast hinges on getting this right.