JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Simplifying a roast beef dinner

For all my married life and longer, I have read The Spectator every week. The political articles are good, the book pages are better, and the home life columns used to be the best, but, alas, some of the columnists are no longer with us, and, recently, editors seem to have deemed home life to be of little interest. One of my favourites was Jennifer Paterson, the Spectator's cook, who wrote a cookery column like no other, and later became a TV cook, one of the Two Fat Ladies (the one with the motorcycle).

She lived for the moment, and didn't go in for journalistic tricks, so she didn't bother to anticipate an occasion which would crop up in the lifetime of the magazine (thus no dinky ideas for Valentine dinners), and she certainly didn't give Delia-ish instructions for Christmas cookery. She cooked no-nonsense food, and made it clear that, although decent food was important to her, she had other interests - for instance, she was very hot on obscure saints. This is a typical example of the sort of writing you'd get:

I am so unnerved by the announcement that a bird-eating tarantula has given birth to 700 babies in London Zoo that my mind has glazed over and I can think of nothing else. What about next year when all those babies do the same thing? They are bound to get out or be let out by anti-something or other people, and life will be far more dangerous than having attacks of lysteria hysteria. Any spider that can eat a bird is worthy of a lot of terror. However, on we must go.

JP's novel method for roasting beef first surfaced in the Spectator in 1987, and I remember thinking it was an interesting idea, although I never did anything about it. Years later, I bought a copy of her collected Spectator columns, and there it was. Again, I did nothing about it. Now that I have - for Lucius's birthday celebration last night - I cannot think why I let all that time ... TWO DECADES ... go by without roasting beef in this markedly effective and simple way.

Here is help for anyone unnerved by the last-minute titivation required for a roast dinner; for those with one oven; for those who like a simple life; for those who wish to talk to their dinner guests; for those who like to prepare ahead.

What is this wonderful recipe? You cook the beef up to 24 hours in advance, keep it out of the fridge, and serve it on the hottest of hot plates with the hottest of hot gravy (which you can now also make ahead). Astonishingly, it is just as if you had cooked and rested it in the more usual manner. She says it also works with lamb.

Yesterday was busy: visit to the butcher, young to fetch from the station at various times, tea for a neighbour, a four-course dinner to prepare, an early-evening real tennis match to watch. The perfect opportunity to use this method. I cooked the beef at tea-time. While Lucius and I were out watching Horatio play his semi-final match (he won, although he nearly threw it away), Lettice made gravy and roasted potatoes. We have only one oven, and this method meant that it could be at the perfect temperature for both meat and potatoes (normally it's a bit of a fudge).

I can do no better than let the lady herself explain the details:

I have discovered that if you are going to have some roast beef or lamb for some meal there is no need to do it just in time. I do it the night before, thus obviating all that last-minute sweating over the oven and leaving nasty greasy oven pans in the sink when you need them most. It doesn't matter whether you are serving the meat as a hot repast or a cold one, the meat will taste much better, having saved all its juices within rather than pouring them out on the carving board. It will be easier to carve and the leftovers will be as good as the original. There is nothing more depressing than the sight of an old joint that has been carved when hot then left to grow sad and grey in the larder. If you are intending to serve it cold, well and good. If hot just pretend it is. Served on hot plates with the accompanying hot vegetables and gravy made from the deglazing of the oven pan (also done the night before and kept up your sleeve) no one will notice. When you consider that a hot joint should have 'rested' 20 minutes before serving and then all the time taken in carving and serving, the actual meat is never all that hot anyway.

These are the instructions for roasting the beef (although you can perfectly well use your own usual method):

Put the meat on a grid over a pan. Smear with oil if you like (I don't bother). 250C for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 185C, and roast for 15 minutes per pound. I no longer cook in imperial, so my 2.3kg (ie 5lb) sirloin got 15 minutes at the higher temperature, then one hour at the lower. Perfect, pink.

If you are roasting lamb: Use the above instructions, and add a further 15 minutes at the end (ie at the lower temperature), for a rosy finish.

Really really worth a go. So long as your plates are very hot (and therefore not made of pottery, which will crackle). Amazingly, it works. Just don't put it in the fridge once you've cooked it.

The full menu, decided by the birthday boy (our family tradition):

one baked scallop (each!)
roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, roast parsnips, peas, and gravy
apple crumble

Related links

Fillet of beef
Birthday celebrations last year (v similar menu)


Cottage Smallholder said...

This sounds like a great way of taking the pressure off a Sunday lunch party! Thanks for sharing this.

Have passed the link onto the chief roast lunch chef.

Clare said...

Belated Happy Birthday to Lucius. That sounds an excellent alternative to cooking beef, potatoes and Yorkshire pudding at the same time. I will try it out when I have my own kitchen again!

Ant has been in the high Arctic for the past week, on an icebreaker just off Banks Island. He gets back tonight - 24 hours later than scheduled as the helicopter due to collect him had engine problems. Sadly this has meant forfeiting our planned skiing weekend at Mont Tremblant.

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

What a great character Jennifer was! You totally keep up with her. This is simple cooking but so good.
Sounds like Lucius is up and making recovery! Happy Birthday!

aforkfulofspaghetti said...

Ah, the late lamented Jennifer... Cooking programmes have certainly been duller since her demise. I never heard her mention this way of doing a roast, though - what an amazing nugget of culinary info!

Anonymous said...

I love the sound of that. We are off for a week's holiday and that would make the most wonderful dinner to come home to after a cold day out walking with the dogs. Must go to butcher on Monday! Thank you (Must dig out old Spectators too!)

Anonymous said...

I used to love watching the Two Fat Ladies - they worked so well together - I hope they do a repeat of the series - so more entertaining than some of the 'cookery' programmes these days.

I will look up the link to the site I bought my vacuum packer from in the week.

So tired after a long and hardworking day.

Karen Baking Soda said...

Ah Jennifer, the one with the motor -and the helmet-! Couldn't believe what I saw the first time (must have been a re-run) but loved her at first sight!

KJ said...

I am all for making roast dinners easier. I hate that last minute panic of trying to get everything cooked and onto the table all at the same time and still hot. This is a much better idea.

Kits Chow said...

Sounds wonderful. I love the Two Fat Ladies. I agree about their no non-sense approach to cookery.

What kind of plates did you use?

Joanna said...

The plates I used are ironstone, the everyday sort of tough plates that bounce off the floor when you drop them. Porcelain would be good, too, if you've got them. Anything really ovenproof. Just not pottery, because it will crackle or even crack in the heat, which is sad when it's one of your favourites.