the Sunday roast
roast beef dinner with Yorkshire pudding
If you had to define one meal that typified English cooking it would be the Sunday Roast. The Full English Breakfast may have fallen foul of the trend for healthy eating but the Sunday Roast is still cooked in most English households. It may not be cooked every Sunday (or even on a Sunday at all) but it remains unselfconsciously a mainstay of English cooking.
So what is this English Sunday roast? Well, basically it is meat roasted in its own juices in the oven served with roast potatoes, a selection of vegetables and some accompaniments.. The four most common meats are beef, lamb pork and chicken.
The accompaniments are essential to the whole meal and tend to vary according to the type of meat that is being roasted.
Roast lamb is commonly served with a mint sauce. Our European neighbours, the French, are absolutely astonished that we English can serve a sauce of chopped mint, sugar and vinegar with a beautiful roast leg of lamb (sans l'ail) but, as you will see from many examples on this website, it is the combination of a strong flavour with a sweet and sour taste that clinches it for the English.
Roast pork is usually served with a sage and onion stuffing (forcemeat). This stuffing might be in the centre of rolled shoulder of pork or simply cooked in a tray on its own in the oven. The skin of the pork is treated with salt, scored in a criss-cross pattern and then cooked so that it becomes intensely crisp . The crunchy skin or crackling is then served separately on the plate. Apple sauce adds the required sweet and sour note.
Roast chicken can also be cooked with a savoury stuffing which, like roast pork, might be flavoured with sage and onion or maybe parsley and thyme. Redcurrant sauce (a preserve with, you've guessed it, a sweet and sour taste) is a traditional accompaniment to a roast chicken dinner. Sausage meat can also be used to stuff the chicken.
And now we come on to the most famous English roast of all - roast beef. So fond have the English been over the centuries of their roast beef that the slang French term for the English is les rosbifs. Roast beef was the favourite meat of the Samuel Pepys whose diaries tell us so much about food and cooking in 17th century England and it's interesting that he thought of it as a special meal to be eaten only with good company. Roast mutton was far more of an everyday meal for Pepys.
The traditional way to serve roast beef is with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce. Although the birthplace of Yorkshire pudding is obviously the county of Yorkshire in the north of England it is served with roast beef all over the country. Yorkshire pudding is a baked batter made from flour, eggs and milk cooked in a little of the dripping (fat) from the roasting beef. Yorkshire pudding can be made in one a large tray and cut into portions or it can be made as several small puddings. Originally, horseradish sauce was made from pounded horseradish mixed with vinegar and sugar (sweet and sour once more but this time hot as well). Nowadays, shop-bought horseradish sauce consists of finely grated horseradish in a piquant mayonnaise but I like to make my own with pickled horseradish mixed with cream. English mustard sometimes replaces the horseradish sauce as the spicy accompaniment to the beef.
The cuts or joints of beef which are suitable for roasting depends on how the carcase is butchered. The three principal roasting joints are sirloin, rump and rib (although topside and silverside are often also sold in English supermarkets as roasting joints). Personally, I think you can't beat a fine rib of beef. Since the BSE crisis English supermarkets seem to have shied away from selling rib of beef on the bone and, if you can get it at all, rib joints come pre-boned. You will have to search out a decent butchers to find rib of beef on the bone. Rib of beef has a thick vein of fat running through it which adds flavour and keeps the meat moist in the dry heat of the oven. The rib bones ensure even cooking and keep the joint hot while it is resting before being carved.
While your meat is resting then is the time to make the all important gravy. And I mean real gravy. Not something made with granules out of a carton. Real gravy is made from the the juices and fat which have dripped from the meat into the roasting tin. If there's an awful lot of fat you can spoon some of it off but it's the fat that gives the gravy its body. The fat and juices are thickened with flour and stock is then added to loosen the gravy. The gravy is made right there in the roasting tin so nothing is wasted. All the crusty bits round the edges of the tin are incorporated into the gravy giving it extra flavour and colour.
The principal vegetable in an English Sunday roast is roast potatoes. Crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside is what you're aiming for when you cook them. Using the right variety of potato helps to give good results and King Edward is reputedly the very best for roasting. Modern concerns over the intake of saturated fats mean that most roast potatoes in England and now cooked in vegetable oil although traditionally they would be cooked in the fat given off by the meat. In any case, modern joints of meat are very, very lean compared to the past and you'd be lucky to get enough fat off the meat to both make your gravy and roast your potatoes.
What other vegetables are served with the Sunday roast is purely a matter of preference and availability. I like to use whichever native vegetables are in season. So that would mean things like baby carrots and spring cabbage in spring and Brussels sprouts, roast parsnips and mashed swede in winter. Sprouts suffer from such a bad press that I feel I must speak to their defence. If you use overblown sprouts, leave on the coarse outer leaves and then boil them to within an inch of their life then, sure, they are going to be smelly to cook and revolting to eat. The English habit of seriously overcooking vegetables (for which we were duly notorious) is, thankfully, a thing of the past in most households. The way to cook sprouts is to choose sweet little specimens, remove the outer leaves and the stalk and then boil them in water for no more than 7 minutes (less if you like them crunchy - I don't). There are many dishes in which you can use sprouts combined with other ingredients but this is the simplest.
So that's it. The great Sunday roast dinner - English food at its finest.
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