Perfect roast potatoes are simply one of life’s greatest pleasures – one of the soft and easy comforts that transports me straight back to a wicker chair in my elderly (and now devastatingly dearly departed) Aunty Helens conservatory in her house in Plymouth, where I spent the summers of my childhood being chased around the garden by a large and furious goose called Charlie. Aunty Helen – as any great Greek Cypriot woman is intuitively inclined to – would feed us from the moment we awoke beneath hand-crocheted heavy blankets, until the moment we crawled satiated and delighted back beneath the same. It was at Aunty Helens that I learned about the birds and the bees, aged 9, leafing open-mouthed through More! magazine’s ‘Position Of The Fortnight’ from a pile of women’s magazines carefully concealed beneath a Readers Digest in the downstairs bathroom. And it was at Aunty Helens that the first seeds of a love of cookery were planted, standing in her galley kitchen that was filled with light, peeling so many spuds we caught the peels in a large beige washing basket, I was useless and clumsy, she was brusque but laughing with it. I loved her so deeply, and I loved her roast potatoes most of all. Especially the ones she would slice for a bedtime snack, sandwiched between two thickly sliced hunks of white bread with butter so heavy you could leave teeth marks in it, and a smudge of piccalilli to finish it off. These roast potatoes are the roast potatoes of my childhood, and a love letter to a woman I wish I could cook for now.
Serves 4 at 14p each
1kg white potatoes, 50p (£1.25/2.5kg, Farm Stores white potatoes at Asda)
4 tbsp cooking oil, 6p (98p/1l, Asda)
a generous pinch of salt, 1p (27p/750g, Asda)
First lightly peel your potatoes – I swear by this cheeky little peeler for making a quick and easy job of it with a soft grip and light touch, but most potato peelers are okay. The thin metal ones are uncomfortable to grip after a while, so go for something with a bit of chunk if you want to invest in a peeler. Anyway, lightly peel your spuds, just skimming the skins off. (Don’t discard those – they make an excellent snack tossed in a little salt and oil and baked in the bottom of the oven).
Cut the spuds into thirds – this is important science so pay attention. Cut the top off vertically around a third of the way in, then cut the remaining potato horizontally. This increases the amount of surface area that comes into contact with the hot oil, making for more ‘crispy bit’, and more consistency in the ‘fluffy bit’. I have cooked literally thousands of roast potatoes and I am obsessed with this step. For overly large ones, quarter them longways for a similar result.
Pop your spuds in a saucepan and cover with water. Generously salt it for no real reason other than that’s just what people seem to do while muttering something about bringing out the flavour. Bring to the boil and simmer vigorously for 20 minutes. Turn on your oven to 180C and grab a roasting tin, because the next bit needs to happen fast.
Pour the oil into your roasting tin. Add more if you want. Ignore the hurdy gurdy about goose fat being better for potatoes – the goose politely disagrees with you. Sunflower oil is absolutely fine. Olive oil has a low smoke point so will go rancid in a hot oven, so don’t even think about it, despite what certain telly chefs might say.
Drain your spuds well and tip back into the saucepan. Shake vigorously for a few seconds to rough up the edges – this makes them extra fluffy AND extra crispy, but don’t get carried away else you’ll end up with instant mash.
Tip them into the roasting tin while still steaming and put them in the oven on the middle shelf for 90 minutes. Turn them carefully after an hour. After 90 minutes have passed, scrutinize them. Do they look like the spuds in the picture? If not, return them to the bottom (the VERY bottom) of the oven for another half an hour or more. In my formative years I worked in a pub or two and quickly learned that the reason pub roast potatoes are so good is that they lounge in a warm oven for half a day, gently still cooking. (I have been known to do mine for three hours, but mentioned that on Twitter once and caused a riot).
After your final half hour, your potatoes should be perfect. If you find you still have other dinner things to see to, you can leave them there in the very bottom of the oven right until you’re ready for them…
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