An English Christmas 5: Christmas is Coming, the Goose is Getting Fat

Okay, Christmas has not only come but gone.

But I had some goose fat left over and used it to make roast potatoes last night, so I thought I’d extend my—mostly culinary—description of a British Christmas to tell you about this delicacy.

A dish of roast potatoes in my kitchen.

Roast potatoes are chunks of peeled potato, fluffy on the inside, brown and crisp on the edges, and completely delicious. You use so much fat, you might as well be frying them; this is not for the faint of heart, or for dieters.

You don’t have to involve a goose at all, although goose fat is widely considered the best choice. Michael Caine was on the radio the other day saying he’s famous for making good roast potatoes, which is the only dish he cooks; he said he soaks the potatoes in olive oil before roasting.

I’m interested in more traditional fare. Our first Christmas in England I did roast a goose and it tasted very nice, but it was rather a lot of work. You parboil the goose first, to get some of that goose fat out of it, before wrestling the bird—which is now hot, wet, and slippery—into the roasting pan and after all that, you end up with what seems to be two bird’s worth of bones, but only enough meat to feed about three people.

Fortunately supermarkets sell little tubs of goose fat, ready to go. The place I shop carries three different brands. They may sell goose fat in the US these days; I never saw it for sale in the US before we left, but that was before the rise of the Food Channel and such.

Goose fat was thought to have medicinal purposes in the Olden Days. An older lady of my acquaintance tells me that mothers used to spread their children with goose fat in the autumn (not the fall, that’s an American term) and then sew the children into red flannel underwear, which they’d stay in all winter until she cut them out of it in the spring. This was to safeguard against colds and influenza. Even with a back flap in the underwear, they must have been pretty rank by the time Mother got the scissors out. The red flannel itself seems to have been thought to have healing properties; if you search the internet for home remedies involving red flannel you’ll find all kinds of uses, some as simple as tying a strip of red flannel around your waist, though exactly how this is meant to stave off pneumonia is not clear.

I’ll keep my goose fat for the kitchen, thank you, and not on my person, in any case. But once you settle the question of what fat to use, you still have to tackle the question of which variety of potato to buy.

When I was growing up, there were two kinds of white potatoes in the stores: Irish potatoes, the regular nondescript cheap potatoes, and the larger, symmetrical Idaho baking potatoes, which my mother never bought. About the time I left the US, Yukon Gold started to appear in California groceries. But when I arrived on this little island, I found a bewildering variety of potatoes. Should I buy King Edwards or Desirée? Maris Pipers or Charlottes? Signs go up when the new crop of Jersey Royals comes in, like the signs that pop up all over France when the beaujolais nouveau est arrivé. These people enjoy their root vegetables.

Imagine going into a supermarket and finding almost as many varieties of potatoes as there are varieties of apples. It’s no problem for British readers, of course, they’re used to that, but when I moved here ten years ago I didn’t have a clue. Fortunately the supermarket here packages their potatoes with a checklist on the back of the bags, with the boxes checked (UK: ticked) for whether the potatoes in that bag are good for baking, frying, mashing, or salads—that was a big help, as I wasn’t on first name terms with the local tubers.

This year I used King Edwards, even though Delia Smith (a household name and national treasure who has been writing on cooking since the late 1960s, and whose recipes for traditional English fare are generally considered foolproof) recommends using Desirée, or else Romano—or presumably any other potato with a name that sounds like a reality TV show contestant. Better stick with royalty, I think.

So this is what you do: Peel the potatoes, leave the small ones whole and cut the others into chunks of a similar size. Boil for 10 minutes, or until a skewer scraped along the edge of a test potato shows it to be fluffy, not waxy. Drain the potatoes, put them back into the pan, put the lid on the pan and shake the pan up and down hard, twice. That’s the secret—roughing up the potatoes crushes the edges so that they get crusty in the oven.

The other secret is keeping the fat very, very hot so the potatoes don’t take up too much and get soggy. While you prepared the potatoes, you have of course been heating the goose fat in a thick-bottomed roasting pan on the top shelf of an oven pre-heated to about 220 C°, haven’t you?

You don’t need Brain Training games when you have to convert from Fahrenheit to Celsius every time you cook (and from Celsius to Fahrenheit to understand a weather report). I was extremely grateful that a previous tenant in a house we used to rent at the other end of the village left a conversion chart taped to the inside of a cupboard, because the stove there used neither F° nor C°, but had gas marks: that means you just get a dial with the numbers 1-9.

Now take the roasting pan with the hot fat out of the oven and put it on the stovetop over a couple of burners on low—it is crucial to keep the fat hot while you’re working. With tongs, put the potatoes into the pan one at a time, then tilt the pan so the fat pools at one corner, collect it with a spoon, and pour hot fat over each potato individually. (I never said this was a quick recipe.)

Roast for 40-50 minutes without hassling the poor things any further and then serve, sit back, and wait for the fights over seconds, because these things are good.

Maybe people eat roast potatoes like this in the US, but if so I’ve never run across them. This suggests a chicken-and-egg question: do Americans not roast potatoes because they don’t eat much goose? Or do they not eat much goose because they haven’t discovered that you can roast potatoes in goose fat?

There may yet be more posts in this Christmas sequence. As long as there’s still leftover turkey, it’s still Christmas, right?

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3 Comments

Filed under Culture, Food

3 responses to “An English Christmas 5: Christmas is Coming, the Goose is Getting Fat

  1. They ARE good. You did it perfectly.

    American readers may be wondering, why goose fat so particularly? For those who haven’t seen it, goose fat melts absolutely clean and clear and imparts very little flavor of its own — which is a surprise considering that goose meat is much more strongly flavored than chicken or turkey.

    In fact, goose fat is so pure that in the 18th century, before canning was invented, people used to ship freshly-cooked meat in barrels filled with melted goose fat. As the fat cooled, it solidified and kept the air out, preserving the food. Presumably it went rancid over enough time, but in a well-sealed barrel and a cool environment it would keep for several weeks at least.

  2. Lynn Fogle

    John’s mother makes roasted potatoes with leg of lamb at Easter. I think she bakes them in the roasting pan with the lamb drippings which are mostly lamb fat. She turns them frequently and they also develop a lovely flavor and crust.

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