Monday, November 24, 2008

WTSIM Sunday Roast

The scent of roast chicken wafts through the house – the reassuring smell of Sundays, leisurely family days spent at home, everyone doing their own thing in different directions until lunch gathers them around the table. One nose buried deep in a book, another child intent on an elaborate game with toys and animals, another off at an aunt’s house until recalled for the meal. Sunday lunch is a family ritual that holds fast through winter, but loses ground to Saturday evening braais in summer, when just the thought of a roaring stove at midday would bring you out n a sweat.

Johanna announced the roast for the theme of this month’s WTSIM and I wondered whether the weather would allow me to sneak one last roast in before summer took hold. Luckily this weekend was sunny but not too hot, with a cool wind that dissuaded the children from swimming, so last week’s summer braai by the pool has been followed by a return to a wintry Sunday lunch round the table.

Crispy roast potatoes are the draw card in our house – even without the meat the kids would be happy with a plateful of them. The meat can be chicken or lamb, we hardly ever do beef or pork. This week it was a chicken: lemon-scented, a whole lemon in its cavity keeping it fresh and juicy as it cooks and preventing it from drying out; a clove or two of garlic and some herbs underneath it, with a quartered onion or two grouped around in the tin and a liberal splash or olive oil to anoint the skin. The lemon makes sure there are plenty of juices (don’t forget to pierce the lemon skin) and the onions caramelize to give a wonderful rich colour and flavour to the resulting gravy. One tip I learned from Marcella Hazan is to start the chicken off breast down in the pan, so the lemon juice soaks it and the underside browns, then turn it over for the second half of cooking. It doesn't keep so perfectly shaped but it really does taste better.

Besides the chicken and potatoes we always do a tray of baked butternut, sprinkled with cinnamon and just catching at the edges for a sweet caramelly taste. Some fresh steamed vegetables are needed to offset all this roast richness, something green like broccoli and some carrots or peas.

Roasts are simple enough, once you have mastered the rhythm. Most of the work is in the preparation: peeling and par-boiling the potatoes, anointing the chicken with whatever oils and herbs you’ve chosen, peeling and dicing the butternut. Then you can shove it all in the oven for an hour and a half and leave it to cook, just checking in a couple of times to turn the potatoes and butternut and baste the chicken. Too much attention and you let all the heat out of the oven, losing the necessary degrees to achieve crispness and perfection. At the end there is another flurry of activity, draining vegetables and making gravy, carving the meat. The potatoes stay in the oven until the last minute, so they are as crisp and crunchy as possible and don’t sit sulkily in their bowl going soggy in their steam, while people are called to the table.

I have written a whole article on the perfect roast potato, so I won’t repeat the secret here and anyway, everyone has their own pet way of getting them just right, from Nigella Lawson’s semolina to those who swear by using goose fat for flavour. Mine just require short par-boiling, a shake in the pan to rough the corners and just enough hot olive oil to coat with a bit over, followed by an hour and a half in a hot oven.

Gravy is another controversial topic. My mother always used the juices from the meat, without any help from Bisto and that is what I like best, while my brother-in-law likes ‘army sauce’, thick brown Bisto blanket sauce, so sometimes we have two jugs on the table. To make my gravy, I roast onions in the pan with the meat to get a good caramelised flavour and brown colour, as chicken juices are pretty anaemic looking. When the chicken is cooked I take it out of the roasting pan and keep in warm, draw off most of the fat from the pan and then add in a liberal dash of wine, some water reserved from par-boiling the potatoes and then bubble it all up. The flavour is usually fairly concentrated, so taste it and see if you need more water. The only problem is it almost never quite makes enough gravy for my family, who love it soaked into their potatoes, even on their third helping!

After at least three weeks without a roast, there were a series of yums around the table as everyone tucked in happily to their favourite meal. The potatoes were shared out equitably, totaling six each and there were very few leftovers. I remember in my childhood, my mother managed to carve a chicken, so one half was Sunday lunch and the other half eaten cold with salad the next day. I think chickens have shrunk since then, as ours was a quivering ruin of bones with a few shreds of leg meat still attached by the end! And they had room for pudding...


  1. hi kit, thannks for your wonderful post - I never make roast chicken (because it never featured at home) and i wouldn't have the first clue how to carve it, either! i should try again, though, because I enjoy eating it (if done well) and i just need to suss the technique!
    your potatoes really DO look a picture of absolute perfection, so I will follow your instructions very soon.
    thanks for taking part in WTSIM!

  2. "quivering ruin of bones" I love that!!! Testament to delicious roasted chicken. As I read your post I am struck at how wonderful your food writing is, and always has been Kit! I was salivating. Your roast chicken and potatoes like these are perfect comfort food! Now I'm starving! The lemon in the cavity is something I must try. Have you ever prepared a chicken on a rotesseri spit in a fireplace? I've done what's called "dirty steak" that way. Place the salt and peppered meat on a grate over the blazing hot wood coals for 5-10 minutes on each side in the home fireplace. Brush off the ash or whatever is sticking to it, serve hot, and it was excellent. Maybe the primitive aspect is what enhances the flavor of the meat.

  3. Roast chicken SO represents Sunday lunch to me, whatever the weather. Yum. I've got much better at carving the chicken too!


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