There are certain foods that are almost as fun to say as they are to eat. This is especially true when it comes to British cuisine. There are the easy jokes about bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), bubble and squeak (fried patties of cabbage, potatoes and any other random leftovers) and stargazy pie (savory pastry with whole sardines horrifyingly poking their heads out the top crust). While it doesn't have quite the same Anglotastic drama, my favorite entry in the genre is the simple Sunday roast.
This end-of-the-weekend meal was once common throughout the British world. After church, families would gather for a late-afternoon spread of simple abundance. The exact format varies week to week, but the basic template is the same: a meal centered around a slow-cooked cut of meat, usually beef or lamb. Potatoes are roasted in the oven as well, boiled first to ensure that they're crisp on the outside and deliciously fluffy on the inside. Sometimes a Yorkshire pudding (a sort of savory popover), and then everything served with lashings of brown gravy (or, if you're fancy, a bit of brown mustard).
But there's something about the grandeur of the term "Sunday roast" that just lets you know it's more than a meal — it's an occasion.
As with most rituals, the meal itself is sort of by-the-by. Sunday roast is about more than just a roast. It's about time. The time to make a feast-worthy, table-groaning, slow-cooked meal. The time to sit with your family on your day off, to spend hours talking and eating and playing a game of cards, enjoying the last of your down time before the workweek ahead. No wonder it's a tradition that so many Brits remember with fondness.
I am all for adopting the Sunday roast, but with a few tweaks. While the practice is clearly about more than just food, you still want that food to be good. I don't begrudge those who want to sit down with their meat and potatoes. But for my contemporary West Coast sensibilities (and desire to avoid gravy for several months after Thanksgiving), I give it a bit of a twist.
First off, I swap out the roast beef for a roast salmon. Even when fillets are expensive, the whole fish can be surprisingly cheap. And it roasts up nicely in the oven, staying moist and separating easily from the bones. Stuffed with herbs and topped with lemon slices, the presentation is beautifully dramatic. And, also befitting a Sunday roast, it's ample enough to yield leftovers for Monday's dinner (it'll be fish tacos rather than mutton sandwiches, but the idea is the same).
I love roast potatoes, but why stop there? For the sake of variety (and health), I'll pull together an assortment of root vegetables — potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips — depending upon what looks good at the market. Instead of brown gravy, I make up an Italian-style salsa verde, a pestolike sauce of fresh herbs that brightens up the slow-roasted meal.
And a British meal isn't proper without a pudding. True, they use the term for any dessert, but why not go with an actual pudding? Start with a simple vanilla version in advance, then take advantage of the hot oven to cook up some fruit for a warm, sweet topping.
This updated, West Coast Sunday roast might not be recognizable to anyone from the British Empire. But it's a great way to turn a lazy weekend into an occasion, to gather family or friends for good food and good times. It may just become your new favorite phrase.
Recipe: Salsa Verde
This punchy salsa is delicious on many things — roasted salmon, roasted vegetables, creamy soups, rice pilafs, etc. There are many variations, but my favorite is a simple one, with several types of fresh herbs (you can vary them depending on what's available) and lemon juice instead of vinegar to further brighten things up. You want to process it (or, if you're going old school, pound it with a mortar and pestle) until it's just a rough puree — a bit of texture is nice, so you can get little jolts of the different elements.
Makes 1 cup
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic, pressed
1 anchovy (optional)
1 handful capers or pitted green olives (if the latter, coarsely chop them)
1 large bunch parsley, washed and coarsely chopped
1 handful fresh mint, washed and coarsely chopped
1 handful celery leaves, washed and coarsely chopped (optional)
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
1/3 to 1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and cracked pepper to taste
Place the garlic, anchovy (if using), capers or olives and fresh herbs in a blender. Add half the lemon juice and smaller amount of olive oil, and pulse a few times, scraping down as needed. It may take a few bursts to get everything going. Add more oil and lemon juice as needed to create a well-balanced, pourable but still herb-heavy sauce (while leaving some texture), and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with salmon and vegetables. Can be made a day or two in advance.
Recipe: Roasted Whole Salmon
As with cooking any fish, the secret here lies in not overcooking. The fish will continue to cook after you remove it from the oven, so pull it before you think it's quite done. The roast salmon is delicious from the oven, but it's also quite lovely at room temperature, allowing you to fuss a bit with the rest of your Sunday roast without worry.
Makes 8 to 10 servings, depending on the size of the fish and appetites (and leftovers are always nice)
1 whole salmon, 3 to 4 pounds
2 large handfuls of herbs — parsley, dill, green onions, etc.
1 lemon, cut into thin slices
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (if you've already got the oven heated for the rest of your Sunday roast, just wait until the veggies are about half an hour from being done). Lay the salmon down on a rimmed baking sheet. Season the cavity with salt, and stuff the herbs and half the lemon slices inside. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top, sprinkle with salt, and lay the remaining lemon slices on top.
Place in the oven, and bake about half an hour, until just barely set — the fish will have some firmness when you press it with your finger, and then flesh should just be thinking about flaking (begin checking after 25 minutes to ensure you don't overcook). Remove from the oven, let cool slightly (it will continue to cook) and serve. The salmon also is delicious at room temperature, in case folks aren't coming to the table as quickly as you'd like.
Recipe: Roasted Root Vegetables
The secret to British roast potatoes (and all roasted vegetables, really) is to boil them before they hit the oven, so that they'll roast up into sweetness without drying out. Knocking the vegetables about a bit after the simmer roughs up the edges, and that, paired with a sprinkling of flour, ensures that they'll have delicious, crisp-roasted outsides to offset their creamy insides.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 pounds waxy red or yellow potatoes (you can go with floury russets if you prefer — they'll crisp up more dramatically — but I favor the creaminess of the waxy red or yellow varieties)
2 pounds vegetables (scrubbed carrots, peeled parsnips, chunked-up fennel, cauliflower, turnips or rutabagas — whatever you desire)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
8 cloves garlic, peeled (slice in half if particularly large)
A few branches thyme and/or rosemary
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the potatoes and simmer until they are cooked but not falling apart, about 10 minutes. Remove with tongs or a spider, and set aside in a large bowl. When cool enough, cut in halves or quarters, depending on size. Add the other vegetables in rounds, cooking until each one is just barely tender (3 to 5 minutes for carrots, parsnips and turnips; just a couple minutes for fennel, cauliflower and less-dense vegetables). Remove when done and let drain, setting aside with the potatoes.
Take two rimmed baking sheets, and pour a few tablespoons of oil on each. Place in oven to heat up until quite hot but not smoking, about 5 minutes. Preheating the trays of oil jump-starts the cooking and ensures that everything ends up even crisper and doesn't stick. But if you don't fancy the danger of negotiating a pan of hot oil (understandable), you can omit this step.
Sprinkle a spoonful or 2 of flour over the vegetables, and toss or stir vigorously to distribute, adding another sprinkle if needed. Don't worry if you bang up the vegetables a bit — mushed edges mean more crunchy surface area.
If preheating pans, carefully remove from oven (if not preheating pans, just add oil to 2 pans). Carefully place vegetables in a single layer on trays, stirring so they're coated with oil, and sprinkle generously with salt. Place in oven and roast 30 to 40 minutes, or until butter-soft inside and crisp and browned on the outside. Remove from oven, add garlic cloves and herbs, turn the vegetables and sprinkle with a bit more salt. Return to the oven for another 30 to 40 minutes, until browned and lovely (if you're roasting the salmon at the same time, you can turn down the oven to 350 after another 10 minutes, then add the salmon to finish roasting in the same oven).
Recipe: Vanilla Pudding With Roasted Fruit
These light, creamy puddings are a perfect end to a big Sunday meal. They are made in advance (you can even do them the night before), then a fresh fruit topping is roasted while you enjoy the meal, and ladled on top while warm. The topping is just a loose template, so you can vary with the seasons.
Makes 6 servings
2 1/2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, or scrapings from half a vanilla bean (I like to add a little of each, if I can)
2 cups fresh or frozen fruit — blueberries, peaches, plums, pears, etc.; leave berries whole, cut larger fruit into thin slices or small dice
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste (depending on sweetness of the fruit)
Juice of 1/2 lemon, or to taste (depending upon flavor of fruit)
To make the puddings, place milk in a medium-sized saucepan. If using vanilla bean seeds, add them as well (I like to rub them with a spoonful of the sugar so they disperse evenly). Heat the mixture over medium heat until steaming.
While the milk mixture is heating, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and salt in a bowl until well combined (you don't have to beat a lot of air in, but you want it to become a nice, ribbony mixture — it'll take a minute or 2), then whisk in the cornstarch (this will thicken). When the milk is steaming, pour a small amount of it into the yolk mixture and whisk thoroughly to loosen it. Continue to slowly pour in the rest of the milk, mixing, until everything is combined.
Pour mixture back into the pan, return to stove and cook over medium-high heat, whisking constantly, until it begins to bubble and sputter. Turn it down to medium-low and whisk for another minute or 2, then remove from heat. Add butter and vanilla extract (if using). Whisk to combine. Pour the mixture through a strainer (or, my favorite, transfer to a blender and blitz for a moment, then pour) into 6 small ramekins or any small bowls. Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour, but you can make a day or so in advance if that's easier.
To roast the fruit, heat oven to 400 degrees (if you're doing a full Sunday roast, turn up the oven and roast the fruit once you've removed the salmon and vegetables and you're sitting down for the meal).
Place fruit, sugar and lemon juice in a small baking dish and toss to combine. Cook, stirring once, until the fruit has slumped down to softness and the juices have run out and started to bubble. The time this takes will vary depending on the size, type and juiciness of the fruit — figure about 20 minutes. Remove, let cool slightly, then pour/scrape atop the puddings and serve.
About The Author
Deena Prichep is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance print and radio journalist. Her stories have appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Marketplace, The Splendid Table, Voice of America, The World and Northwest News Network, and in The Oregonian, Vegetarian Times and Portland Monthly. She chronicles her cooking experiments at Mostly Foodstuffs.