Roast potatoes smothered in gravy. That’s where all of this starts, and I always forget that. Last night I made what I consider to be an “old-fashioned dinner” for me and my partner. As usual I cooked far too much, but that’s hardly the end of the world; we can always use leftovers and we have two hungry dogs. That’s not the thing which jogged my memory, however; it was potatoes and gravy.
Two things: one, gravy in this case is a brown liquid used all over the UK, made from thickened meat juices. It has nothing to do with sausages or cream; different stuff altogether. It is frequently made in an instant form from granules taken from a packet, tub or jar. This was that kind of gravy; I love it.
Two, my roast potatoes are probably different from yours. I do not fetishise them in to some Nigella-inspired, polenta encrusted, goose-fat fried object of self-immolation. I chop up a few potatoes, I season them, I spray a bit of oil on them, and I put them in a hot oven for an hour and a half. I stir them part way through. The oven dish is not non-stick, and I do not use much fat, so they stick. This is what causes the rough, ruffled edges and tears, which accept the oceans of thick brown gravy. OK?
The problem is that I love my roast potatoes, and all of the crispy bits which come with them. I love to get them as involved in the gravy as is humanly possible, to such an extent that I forget that the rest of the dinner is there. (n.b. “Dinner”, in this case, comprises meat, at least two of the common array of dinner vegetables, and gravy. Condiments, such as Mustard and chutney, are welcome.)
In this case, the meat component was a Steak and Kidney Pudding. It was a Wednesday night, so I was never ever going to make the puddings myself. They were bought frozen, and only contained several tiny fragments of kidney. The vegetables were the aforementioned roast potatoes and some bright green broccoli. I love dipping broccoli florets in to gravy too. They fill with the stuff: lovely.
As usual, however, I forgot that the meat component even existed, so engrossed was I in the roast potatoes and broccoli. The meat component is traditionally meant to be the main event of this kind of “Dinner”, and I had forgotten it was there. And it occupied a large part of my plate. And yet, this is always happening to me, regardless of the meat component I have prepared. What’s wrong with me?
I cook what is expected – by me – to be a meat based dish, and I ignore the meat. I have spent a few hours gently braising lamb shanks or belly pork and I am more interested in the sprouts; I have faced the fury of a hot piece of metal to make sure that the rather expensive meat is cooked to absolute perfection and I am more interested in dipping the chips in to the Hollandaise sauce; I have searched for the right cut of the right animal, and I am more interested in the accompaniments it comes with.
This is not, I hasten to add, an issue I experience when I am in a restaurant. Particularly in the fancy end of the restaurants I like they serve such a small portion of the high quality of the meats I have paid my hard earned cash for that the meat attracts my attention inversely in proportion to its size. In the lower end restaurants – which I perversely enjoy equally – the quantity of meat is so large that it is all I can focus on. The sides are the thing which need to be remembered, not the meaty bits.
Where does this leave me? Do I become a vegetarian? A vegan? I dislike animal cruelty, but I have no issue with killing animals to feed me, so that’s probably not the best way forward here.
And that, dear reader, is why I came up with the concept named in the title of this blog: The Roast Veg Dinner. I mentioned last week how roasting vegetables is the king, nay the emperor, of all of the ways we have to cook vegetables. If my main meal time focus is to dip, roll and crush roasted veg in to salty brown gravy, then let me make that, not just the heart of the meal, but the whole of it.
And that is what I do; we have this meal scheduled for tomorrow. Potatoes, at least roasted, but also perhaps mashed, for more of that lovely gravy-on-potato action, albeit with a very different texture. Carrots roast very well, and mix perfectly with gravy, so they are there too. Roasted onions help the carrots in their sweet, and so balancing, mission. Beetroot joyfully bridge the gap between the sweet and the salty. Roasted sprouts are one of my favourite things in the world to eat, so get them in.
It’s true that you could use whichever vegetables you like in this dish, but I would recommend using those which are at their best. Tomorrow there will be sprouts, but they will certainly not feature a few months from now. The same goes for varieties of potatoes: roast new potatoes can work well.
From me you’ll never see a parsnip in this dish. I overdid the roast parsnips a decade or more ago, and so the parsnip is eagerly attempting its rehabilitation through the medium of Christmas Fayre.
In every roast veg dinner there is always room for some non-roasted accompaniments, to lighten the mood somewhat. This is often a steamed brassica – I favour Cavolo Nero, but this is not always an option; Kale is a frequent stand-in and, once the stems are removed, steams very nicely too. Being a Geordie, one of the doors open to me is the venerable carrot and swede mash. I don’t think I’ve heard of anyone else in the world eating this, but the North East of England do, and that means me.
When it comes to elevating a dish, it’s the little details which make all of the difference. For some people it’s scrubbing a carrot with a scourer (leave the skins on for me) or making a velvety (wet) potato puree (lumpy, with skins, for me). These innovations do not amuse me, I am afraid. For me, the epitome of elevation of a roast veg dinner is the simplest thing in the world, even if it is often not understood: all I want is a pile of Yorkshire puddings. I might even ditch the roast potatoes for those.