This is part of our roast dinner building block series, aiming to provide you – our valued reader – with a repertoire of dishes you can mix-and-match to build your own roast dinners at home. This week, we’re starting with perhaps the most important building block: potatoes.
Potatoes originate from modern-day Peru, and first arrived in the UK late in the 16th century. It took them a while to be accepted by the locals, but by the 19th century they had become a staple in the British diet. In fact, these days it is almost unheard of to have a British roast dinner without a potato!
There are thousands of varieties of potatoes, each with different characteristics. For most culinary purposes, they can be coarsely sifted into one of two camps: waxy or floury. Waxy potatoes maintain their shape and texture during cooking, and are great in stews and salads. Floury potatoes go fluffy in the middle and make for great roasties and chips (American ‘fries’). Then there are the potatoes that fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the versatile ‘all-rounders’ that can be used in both waxy and floury dishes.
Most roast dinners employ potatoes in their roast form, but you sometimes find potatoes in other forms, such as boiled new potatoes in their skin, or fingerlings or the prized Jersey Royals. Here we’re giving you three potato options to choose from: roasted, buttered and mashed. We’re using a great all-rounder to complete this trilogy: the wonderful Yukon Gold variety.
Roast potatoes in the UK are almost always peeled. The flesh gets a much better texture during the roast, and the flavour of the potato is cleaner. Peel your potatoes, people! After peeling, cut the potatoes to your desired size. We’ve gone for medium sized potatoes here, quartering them, but if you like you can half them or even have them whole – just adjust the cooking time. Flat surfaces are good to have though, as they get some nice colour form their contact with the roasting pan.
Put the potatoes into cold salted water, bring to the boil, and cook until just before they are fully cooked, 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes. Drain them in a colander, and give them a gentle toss to rough up the edges – these will take up fat during roasting and go nice and crispy!
Speaking of fat, you need to choose what fat to roast your potatoes in. You can use an oil with a high smoke point (vegetable, canola, peanut, etc) and get good results. But it is widely accepted that the best roast potatoes are made with animal fat – duck fat, goose fat, beef fat (‘dripping’), or pork fat (‘lard’). We’re using some leftover dripping, and topping it up with some peanut oil because we didn’t quite have enough. Don’t worry – roast potatoes are flexible!
Heat your fat of choice in your baking vessel. We’re using a cast iron pan, but a traditional baking sheet is also a good option. Once it’s hot, add your potatoes, and season with salt and pepper. Now is a good time to add any herbs you’d like to flavour the potatoes with. We’re adding rosemary and thyme – the most classic, but any hard herbs will do. Spread your potatoes out, making sure they are not overcrowded, and they have good contact with the pan, then transfer to a hot 450˚F/230˚C oven and let them do their thing.
For the medium sized potatoes, turn them after 20 minutes, let them roast another 20 minutes, then they’re done! Adjust your cooking times up or down for bigger or smaller potatoes, and aim for crisp, golden brown edges!
Though ‘roasties’ are the most common potato accompaniment to a roast dinner, sometimes it’s nice to switch things up. A simple way to serve them is boiled or steamed, then gently tossed in butter and a soft herb. For this kind of dish, the best kind of potato is the waxy kind or an all-rounder, which are able to hold their shape and texture after cooking, but if floury is what you have, you can make it work too – just be gentle. If you can get your hands on some Jersey Royals or fingerlings, the best thing to do is to boil them in their skins and give them the butter and herb treatment. New potatoes work well this way too. For regular potatoes, the norm is to peel them first and cut into large sections. Here, we took our Yukon Golds, peeled them, and cut them in half lengthways.
Steaming gives a slightly better texture than boiling, so we steamed them until they gave no resistance when pierced with a knife, around 30 minutes. We then transferred them to a bowl, added salt, pepper, butter and chopped parsley, and gently mixed until they came together as a nice buttery, fresh, herby accompaniment to our roast.
Mashed potatoes are a classic comfort food, and do a great job of soaking up gravy and acting as a glue to make it easier to catch runaway garden peas. The best kind of potatoes for mash are floury or all-rounders. Simply peel, cut into evenly sized pieces, and boil in salted water until tender (ours took 20 minutes).
After draining, and while the potatoes are still hot, it’s time to mash. You can use a traditional masher, or failing that a whisk. Or if you’re serious about your mash you can use a potato ricer – an excellent instrument that pushes the potato through a mesh of small holes, making it an easy task to create a smooth mash with no lumps.
Mix the still-hot mash with butter, salt, and generous black pepper. Now you have a number of options. You can serve the mash as is, naked in its buttery potatoey glory. Or you can get creative and make some additions. Pretty much anything can go into mash, but common mix-ins include chopped green onion (the Irish ‘champ’), soft herbs like parsley or chives, cooked cabbage, leek or kale (the Irish ‘colcannon’) and cheese. Here we’re serving it up plan and simple, with a couple of extra pats of butter on top.
Potatoes are a versatile building block for your roast dinner. You can have them many different ways, including roasted, buttered, and mashed. Roast potatoes are a national favourite – sometimes in British pubs, a bowl of roast potatoes will be placed on the bar for people to snack on as they order their round of pints.
Whatever way you choose to have your potatoes, we wish you well in your endeavours!