THE roast potato has Christmas all sewn up. No matter what meat your family chooses — if you're a pork or poultry, a seafood buffet or even tofurkey kind of clan — the roast spud is likely to inveigle its way into the mix.
Roast potato might be about as appropriate for an Australian Christmas as snow and reindeer, but that never has, and never will be, a good reason to step away from the oven.
There'll be no weather-based denial of these wonderful creations in all their carb-laden, high-GI, starchy and evilly addictive glory.
They look simple — hell, they are simple — but there are secrets to good roast spuds. Whatever road you take, whether it's the choice of potato, the choice of fat or about a dozen more variables, the ultimate aim is universal: a crisp, golden exterior and a light, fluffy interior.
My task was to find consensus on the best route to perfect potatoes. First stop on the journey of spud discovery was the canon: Britain's holy trinity of Nigella, Jamie and Delia, offering their sage advice from the pages of cookbooks, TV shows and syndicated magazine columns.
And it immediately appears the mission won't be easy.
Nigella, unsurprisingly, is a goose-fat kind of gal whose endorsement prompted a supply shortage across Britain. Delia, even less surprisingly, prefers lard. Jamie goes the alarmist route ("It doesn't matter how good your meat or gravy are: if you get the roast potatoes wrong — it's all over") before recommending "a couple of lugs of olive oil, butter or the fat from your Christmas bird".
So far, so divergent (and if you want to really complicate matters, US chef David Kinch is an enthusiast for horse fat, which probably won't be available in your local supermarket).
But let's get back to basics. First port of call is the type of potato.
Like men, there's a right sort and a wrong sort. For good roasting spuds, you need a variety that's floury as opposed to waxy. Heston Blumenthal recommends a rare Scottish spud, but I always go for the bog-standard Desiree.
Paul Wilson, from the Middle Park Hotel, Newmarket Hotel et al, recommends Sebago, Royal Blue, Kipfler and Golden Wonder as good varieties to roast. Scott Pickett, of Northcote's Estelle Bar & Kitchen, is on to a good thing when he says it's worth tracking down the yellow-fleshed goodness of Dutch Creams.
Everyone agrees par-boiling is the road to righteousness — anywhere from four to eight minutes is recommended, until the potatoes begin to crack and blister. Wilson says the par-boiling stage is where you can start to add your own accent: "Personally, I like to par-boil them with other goodies. If you're serving them with something normal, say lamb, beef, chicken, I add unpeeled garlic cloves and rosemary, or if it's something Latin, I add a pinch of saffron, pinch of dried chilli flakes, a teaspoon of smoked paprika, rosemary and garlic cloves."
It's best to give them a good shake to fluff them up for extra crunch factor before cooling them down and putting them, if you're Nigella, Delia or Jamie, on the tray with pre-heated fat — although, for what it's worth, actor Michael Caine advises soaking the spuds in cold extra-virgin olive oil before they meet the roasting tray. I haven't tried it but he played Alfie so he must know a trick or two.
If you take Wilson's advice, however, you might want to shallow fry them for a few minutes in a healthy oil, such as rice-bran oil, before roasting in a pre-heated oven (180C up to 220C — depending on what else is in there) with a splash of oil and butter, or around a chook or joint of meat.
Don't add salt until they're ready to be served — salt is the enemy of a crisp potato as it will draw the moisture out and make them soggy.
As for my own experiments in the potato realm, several years of perfect potatoes using olive oil only were up-ended when the Epicure office received a jar of wagyu oil. I embraced it like a one-way ticket to potato nirvana. But the result was funky, animal-y and kind of wrong.
Pickett puts me right: with wagyu fat being such a distinctive flavour, I should have tried a ratio of maybe 30 per cent fat to 70 per cent oil. "I'd never do all fat or dripping," he says. Wise.
Like Christmas, it's best to approach wagyu oil in moderation. But as for the roast potatoes — no, there can't be too many of those.
Source: This story was originally published in Epicure on December 20, 2011.