Bland, industrial, cooked-to-death, greasy, occasionally tasty… but only when it’s chicken tikka masala. I think that covers the waterfront on English food jokes, yeah? Despite a significant renaissance on the British food scene, the associations with droopy chips and sad boiled dinners tend to cling like sulfurous fumes to overcooked cabbage. National pride wounded, however, Mr. T does insist that English food, cooked in the home, is a very different and delicious beast.
And these roast potatoes, courtesy of his mom–excuse me, “mum”–Mrs. T, fall firmly into that different and delicious category. Indeed, everything that I’ve eaten at home on our visits to London has been quite delicious. Both Mrs. T and her sister, Auntie T, are very accomplished home cooks. (I am currently on the hunt for Auntie T’s uh-mazing chocolate apple cake.) His brother, Artsy T, spent time as a restaurant chef; and even his sister, Dr. T, has significantly upped her game since the arrival of the niecelet.
In any event, roast potatoes. I imagine that these accompany the big, juicy Sunday roasts that one reads about in Charles Dickens novels–generally only towards the happy ending, though. They’re basically what would happen if French fries and potato chips had illict, delicious babies. Crack their crisply burnished, golden brown crust to reveal pale and creamy potato innards. People, particularly those who have never had a traditional roast dinner, flip the bojangles OUT when presented with these. English expats are similarly thrilled. For Mr. T, who is quite the potato connoisseur, these represent the acme, epitome, the ur-potato experience. In short, they pretty much make everyone ridiculously, deliriously happy.
They’ve even replaced mashed potatoes at the Thanksgiving table. The traditionalist martinet in me (oh yes, I’ve got one of those) was not pleased at first, but EVERYONE is just totally taken with them. The mash just can’t hold a candle to these golden beauties.
Said potatoes require a screaming hot oven, some time, and a lot of lubrication. Since the roast dinner is not something that gets a lot of play these days, certainly in the US at least, allowances have to be made. We use a mild olive oil rather than more exciting goose fat or beef dripping. That said, for extra-super delicious bonus points, Team Goose Fat is the winner. You’ve go buckets of that floating around, right? I’ve only made them once with goose fat–for obvious reasons–but, damn, they were really, really good. So, next time you’re roasting a goose, save those um, “juices”!
I’ve been perhaps overly exacting in the directions below. (Shocker, I know.) While simple, however, these potatoes remain a special occasion side dish and involve high temperatures, oil, and other potential disasters. I want to ensure that they come out spectacularly for you. Basically, if you’re not English and you don’t do this all the time, suck it up and be precise. Let’s do this.
Mrs. T’s English Roast Potatoes
Yield: 5-6 side servings
6 Russet potatoes (~10oz each, a little less than 4lbs in total)
1 2/3c mild olive oil
Rinse and peel the potatoes. Line them up and trim off the short ends so you have six flat-ended potatoes of equal length. Cut each potato into three rounds. They should be about 1 1/2″ thick.
Fill a stockpot 2/3 full with room temperature water. Add 1 tbs salt and the potatoes. Give a stir, turn the heat to high and cover.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 400°F and set a half sheet pan near the oven.
Just as soon as the potatoes come to a boil (time will vary depending on your stove, pot, etc…), put the sheet pan into the oven and pour the oil in. It should be about 1/4″ deep. Carefully slide the pan into the oven. Pull the pot from the stove and drain off all the water into the sink. It’s going to be hot, so use oven mitts and avert your face when dumping the water. Steam burns are no bueno.
Once the potatoes have drained, return to the stovetop, turn the burner down to medium, and shake the covered pot around over the flame. The purpose here is to dry out the potatoes and rough up their surfaces a bit. You want them nice and dry and a little shaggy looking. You’ll have some potato bits stuck to the pot.
Open the oven door and carefully pull the rack with the oil-filled sheet pan out enough for you to maneuver the potatoes into the pan in neat rows–there should be plenty of room, don’t crowd them. Nice long tongs are good for this. Gently slide the rack back into place and close the oven. Flip the potatoes–carefully–every 15 minutes or so. Cook until golden brown and gorgeous, anywhere between 1 1/2 and 2 hrs.
Tell children, drunks, and pets to leave the kitchen and carefully remove the pan from the oven. Transfer the potatoes to a paper towel lined plate to drain for a few seconds. Sprinkle liberally with flaky salt and serve at once.