Easy recipes for the newbie cook, the beginner in the kitchen, the nervous novice: we all had to start somewhere, and you can start right here.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

How to Cook Perfect Roast Potatoes

Even good cooks sometimes put most of their concentration into the “main event” of the meal, which is a shame when the accompaniments don’t quite measure up to the central, perfectly prepared, masterpiece.  Put a bit of concentration and forethought into the side dishes as well, and you’re heading for master-cook status.

This simple recipe is for beginner cooks and experienced cooks alike, and will give you the perfect roast potato.  I have given a short version, and a more detailed explanation.

The short version:
Peel a quantity of floury spuds sufficient for your appetites, cut to the size you like, and boil until the outsides are beginning to soften and a sharp knife will penetrate to the middle.  Drain and dry thoroughly, shake a little to scuff up the outsides,  tip into a little hot , seasoned oil on a roasting tray, and cook in a hot oven for 45-90 minutes, depending on quantity, size and variety of potato until crispy gold on the outside.  Serve immediately.

The longer version:
You can roast any type of potato, including the waxy “new” types, but the proper, traditional, crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside roasties are made from floury spuds.  Choose varieties such as Desiree, King Edward, Maris Piper, or whatever floury type is local to your part of the world.  If in doubt, ask at your greengrocer, farm shop,  organic box scheme suppliers, or, if you must, the supermarket.

(What are waxy/floury potatoes?  Potatoes fall into a spectrum of the two basic types.  Waxy potatoes – such as Charlotte, Anya and Maris Peer – remain firm after cooking, and are great for potato salads, etc, and whenever you want the boiled or steamed potato to retain its shape.  Floury varieties – see above – are great for roasting, mashing, chips/french fries, potatoes-in-their-jackets etc.  There are thousands of varieties grown around the world, so experiment.)

Quantity: I don’t know, how hungry/greedy are you, and what else will you have with the meal?  Any suggestion I make here is likely to be wrong.  If you are a really new cook, and are only buying the potatoes for this one meal, consider a typical spud from the batch.  Guess how many of the size you like will come from that potato, and multiply accordingly (allowing a small amount of loss from the peeling).

I prefer small-to-medium roasties for my perfect ratio of crispy crust and fluffy interior: think slightly bigger than a golf ball, or three from a spud the size of a tennis ball.  It’s totally up to you; huge cannonballs, or little crispy items not much different from a sauté potato.  Whatever you like.  You are cooking YOUR perfect potato.

Method: peel the potatoes, cut to size, boil in plenty of water.  Once the water has come back to the boil, turn down to a brisk simmer, and check every few minutes.  You want the potatoes to start to soften on the outsides, but not begin to disintegrate.  When you are starting to get a little fluff on the outsides, and when a small, sharp knife-point or skewer will penetrate reasonably easily to the centre of the spud, they are ready.

Immediately tip into a colander to drain, and cover with a clean cloth to absorb as much of the steam as possible.  Depending on the quantity, they can sit happily like this for up to an hour before the actual roasting – not much longer, or they begin to discolour.

Pour a little oil into a roasting tin or tray (enough to cover the base to the thickness of a matchstick), and season with salt and cracked black pepper,.  Put the tray or tin into a hot oven (somewhere between three-quarters and full heat), and leave it there for at least ten minutes.

Shake the dried par-boiled potatoes a little, to break up the surface slightly, which will give you lovely crispy bits when cooked.

When the oil and tray are hot, tip the spuds in, quickly turning them round and over to get a coating of the seasoned oil, and immediately put back into the oven.  Give the potatoes a shake/turn every twenty minutes or so, and/or turn the tray round so that what was at the back of the oven is now at the front (this last is a good tip when roasting anything, especially in quantity).

If you are only cooking a few portions of roast potatoes, they will probably be done in 45-50 minutes.  If you are cooking substantially more, they can take 60-90 minutes.  It is perfectly ok to juggle the temperature if they are coming on too fast or too slow.  Time it so they can be served as soon as they are ready: if you leave them sitting around, even in a warm place, the interiors begin to lose their fluffiness and become “claggy”.

Ok, says the beginner cook, you say a hot oven, but the meat I am cooking to serve alongside needs a much lower temperature – what do I do?  Simple: you are going to rest your meat in a warm place for at least half an hour before carving.  Put the spuds in whenever you can, and when you take the meat out, turn the oven on full-blast, keeping an eye on them from time to time.

As an alternative to your everyday vegetable oil, you can also try olive oil, rapeseed oil, pork or beef dripping, or goose/duck fat.  All give slightly different flavours and textures.

You can roast pretty much any root vegetables in the same way.  Why not roast off a mixture, such as carrot, onion, swede, parsnip, turnip, bulb fennel etc, with maybe some of the more waxy spuds thrown in.  Add some woody herbs, such as thyme or rosemary, and perhaps a little garlic.  Not such a fierce temperature here, as you don’t want the more delicate and sugary items to burn; a longer, slower cooking gives a wonderful tender and sweet result, with a mixture of flavours and textures.

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