A roast – because it usually means a big bit of meat – is a special meal, even a celebratory one. A joint, whether you’ve cooked a whole chicken, a leg of lamb or a rib of beef, makes a statement. We don’t usually serve food on big platters any more (many people don’t even have one), but in my mind a proper joint of beef arrives at the table on a platter surrounded by roast vegetables, a raft of gently deflating clouds of Yorkshire pudding following close behind.
The Sunday roast developed in England as a dish to eat after church. A special Sunday meal was common in most European countries, but the English, in particular, loved a roast. It’s still venerated here and in English-speaking countries such as Australia. A mouthful of beef, horseradish sharp enough to make your sinuses smart and the soft sweetness of Yorkshire pudding is gorgeous. It’s special too because of the price tag. A good chicken is affordable, but roast beef is a blowout meal these days.
Gradually, I’ve more or less done away with the traditional Sunday roast – served at lunchtime – because it wipes out the day. At home, when I was a child, the Sunday roast was never served with fewer than four vegetables, making it almost as stressful as Christmas dinner. Nigella Lawson, in her book How To Eat, even has a Sunday lunch timetable and acknowledges that a laid-back approach to this meal won’t cut it.
My children love the freedom of an empty Sunday and I don’t want a family meal to become a burden. When I was growing up my dad, fired up by the church service he’d just been to, would sermonise about values and gratitude as he divvied up the root vegetables. I loved the rare beef, carved into bloody slices, but not the side serving of moralising.
Despite the food, it wasn’t the best meal of the week. My children started to refuse to eat roast chicken – a dish they like at other times – for Sunday lunch, referring to it as Divorce Chicken. You see, roasts are a big deal, they’re more than just food – they’re loaded with significance and expectations.
Roasting, however, is my favourite way to cook, mostly because the method itself is low-hassle (it’s the side dishes that make the traditional roast a military campaign). Even though I’ve dealt with the more negative connotations that can come with a Sunday roast, I still want to make them, I’m just open about the form they take and when they’re served.
A whole salmon is the centrepiece of many an old-fashioned summer buffet, but most wouldn’t consider roasting a big fish for a special autumnal meal. When you serve the sea bass below, however, it seems even more of a feast than roast beef. I don’t have a dish large enough to take a fish this size, so I usually cook and serve it on one of the solid shelves from my oven. It always provokes whoops of excitement when it’s brought to the table. This dish is an ‘easy’ roast as the vegetables are cooked with the fish. All you need to do is make aioli.
It’s the same with the leg of lamb and stuffed chicken recipes. They’re both cooked with a starch – pasta or rice – which becomes imbued with the juices from the meat. You only need a green salad on the side, or maybe roast peppers. I usually cook these roasts on a Friday night – a celebration of the weekend ahead – or a Sunday night to stave off the ‘it’s school tomorrow’ blues. I don’t limit it to the family but invite close friends too.
Whether you’re cooking for two with leftovers in mind or for six (since goodness knows what next week’s rules will be), a roast can still be a statement and a meal that binds those who eat it. But it doesn’t have to have a multitude of side dishes or be served at 1pm on a Sunday.