Rule the Roast

A hot oven plus a good cut of meat spells easy eats

March 30, 2012

Think cooking hunks of meat is as retro as June Cleaver or Carol Brady? Think again.

“Roasts are very relevant today,” says Neil Fletcher Wilson, a Hyattsville, Md., personal chef (301-699-2225, Chefneilwilson.com) who also teaches at L’Academie de Cuisine. “If you look at the menus at fine-dining restaurants, you’ll see a lot of roasted items. If you order a rack of lamb, that’s a roast. A Thanksgiving turkey? That’s a roast.”

But ordering a roast and cooking one on your own are very different things. The good news? You don’t need the culinary chops of a four-star chef or wise, old grandma to put a juicy roasted chicken or perfectly seasoned pork tenderloin on the table. The technique is actually pretty simple, and something even a kitchen novice can tackle.

Start by prepping your chosen protein, which might involve searing it a bit on the stove top. Season it with some salt, pepper and whatever other flavors you want to add to the dish. Then pop it in a preheated oven and cook it to the correct internal temperature. “It couldn’t be easier,” says Wilson.

Sure, it can often take some time for a roast to cook. But while it’s in the oven, you can catch up on emails or watch episodes of “Top Chef” instead of slaving at the stove. And it leaves an open range for preparing side dishes to go with your roast beast.

The key piece of equipment: a roasting pan. (Step away from those cheap foil ones from Safeway!) “Buy one that’s heavy, that has handles and that a roasting rack will fit into,” says Betty Rosbottom, author of “Sunday Roasts” ($25, Chronicle). “Get one that’s flameproof. Don’t roast in a Pyrex pan but in one that can go on a flame, because the drippings left over are great for making gravy.”

An instant-read thermometer will help you know if your roast has cooked the proper amount of time, while an oven thermometer gives you an accurate reading of your cooking temperature. The only other thing you really need are some willing diners to help you polish off the meal. (Or not — roasts provide great leftovers.)

Almost any kind of protein can be roasted, from beef to veal to seafood. Just make sure to pick up a cut well-suited to a dry-heat cooking process. “Buying a roast is just as important as knowing how to cook it, because there are so many cuts,” says Rosbottom. “So get to know your butcher.”

The end result is a piece of meat that’s got a nice crust on the outside, is moist on the inside and has tons of flavor. And though it’s a technique that’s steeped in tradition, a roast doesn’t have to come straight from the 1950s.

“It doesn’t have to be served with mashed potatoes and gravy,” says Stephanie Gorenflo, director of marketing at La Cuisine in Old Town Alexandria (323 Cameron St.; 703-836-4435). “It can be an updated version that’s not so heavy. I like to do roasted vegetables with just a balsamic glaze.”

If you’re new to the world of roasting, start off with something simple. “I’d suggest a chicken first, because it’s easily available, inexpensive and a basic, delicious food,” says Judy Harris, owner of Alexandria’s Judy Harris Cooking School (703-768-3767; Judyharris.com). “People tell me that my cooking classes are on their bucket list, but I think that roasting should be on everyone’s bucket list.”

And now may be the perfect time to give it a go. “Don’t be afraid of roasting,” says Wilson. “It sounds like something that needs a lot of fuss, but it doesn’t. With Easter coming up, a leg of lamb is the perfect place to begin.”

RECIPE FILES:

Cornish Hens with Fennel and Fingerlings

Serves Four

2 medium fennel bulbs

2 Cornish hens, each about 1 1/2 lb, split and patted dry

1 1/2 tbsp herbes de Provence

1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp black pepper

8 tbsp olive oil

1 lb fingerling potatoes, scrubbed, halved lengthwise

1/2 cup dry white wine

2 tbsp room temp. butter

Arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 400°F.

Trim lacy stems from fennel bulbs, place in a glass of water and reserve for the garnish. Halve the bulbs; remove tough triangular cores. Cut lengthwise into 1/2-in julienne strips.

Rinse the split birds and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, combine the herbes de Provence, salt and pepper. Rub half of this mixture on both sides of the Cornish hens.

In a large, flameproof roasting pan set over one to two burners on medium-high, heat 5 tbsp of oil. Add hens, cut-side down. Cook, turning until browned. Remove to a platter.

Add an additional 2 tbsp of oil and heat until hot. Add fennel and potatoes and sauté until lightly browned. Stir in remaining herbes de Provence mixture. Place the pan in the oven and roast the vegetables for 15 minutes.

Remove pan from the oven and arrange hens, cut-side down, atop the vegetables. Brush hens with the remaining olive oil. Return pan to oven; roast for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350°F and roast until hens are well-browned and their juices run clear, for 20 to 25 minutes longer.

Transfer to a platter and cover loosely with foil. Place the roasting pan over a stovetop burner set on medium-high. Add wine and whisk well to loosen any brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then whisk in the butter. Cook, whisking, until the sauce thickens slightly, for about two minutes.

To serve, pour sauce over the hens and garnish platter with fennel stems.

Orange-Studded Leg of Lamb with Herb Butter

Serves Eight

One 6 1/2-lb leg of lamb with bone, trimmed of excess fat

1 tbsp very thin, 1-in long strips of orange peel, plus 2 tsp grated orange zest

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tbsp olive oil

Spring-Herbs Butter (recipe follows)

2 cups dry red wine

1 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

Fresh tarragon and mint sprigs, for garnish

With a small, sharp knife, make 1-in/2.5-cm deep slits all over the lamb and insert one to two orange slivers into each

Arrange a rack at lower position and preheat the oven to 450°F.

Sprinkle the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large flameproof roasting pan/tray set over two burners on medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, brown the lamb on all sides, for seven to eight minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and brush all over with 2 tbsp of the herb butter.

Roast the lamb for 15 minutes, then brush with another 2 tbsp of the butter. Reduce the heat to 350°F and continue to roast the lamb until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat registers 135 to 140°F for medium-rare, for about 55 minutes more. (Cooking time can vary depending on the thickness of the roast, so start to check the temperature after 30 minutes.) Transfer the lamb to a carving board, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for 30 minutes.

Spoon off and discard any fat from the juices. Place the pan over high heat. Add the wine and broth and bring to a boil, whisking constantly to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Boil until the sauce reduces to 2 cups, for five minutes. Whisk in the remaining 4 tbsp herb butter and the orange zest. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, slice the lamb and arrange on a platter. Drizzle with some sauce and pass remaining

Spring Herb Butter

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tbsp minced fresh tarragon

2 tbsp minced fresh mint

1 tbsp tarragon vinegar

1 tsp kosher salt

Use a fork to stir together the butter, tarragon, mint, vinegar, and salt until well-blended. (Can be prepared a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temp before using.)

Recipes from “Sunday Roasts” by Betty Rosbottom ($25, Chronicle)

Such a Knife Boy

Don’t know your chump chops from your top round? Catch famed New York butcher Pa LaFrieda as he slices steaks, mixes up gourmet burgers and makes sausages in the Food Network’s new “Meat Men” (premiering April 9, 11 p.m.). We asked LaFrieda for some tips on choosing meat and holiday roasting. Jennifer Barger (Express)

Any tips on choosing a roast for Easter this year?
Well, you may find that lamb will be two to three times as expensive as usual. There was a drought in Australia, which has left the domestic market with really high prices.

Oh no, I love lamb! What else can I roast?
If you eat pork, try a fresh ham, which is a hind of pork that’s been deboned and tied. Instead of eating a processed ham, you’ll be making your own. My family usually coats it with a marinade of brown sugar and cloves. It’s inexpensive and delicious.

If I do splurge on lamb, what should I marinate it in?
I love a reduction of balsamic, brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce.

What kind of knives do I need for cutting meat?
You only need a deboning knife and a 10- to 12-inch scimitar knife. It’ll cost you maybe 30 dollars.

Is there an unsung cut of meat?
An outside skirt steak, but when I start explaining what that is, people look at me funny. Most places only sell the inside flank steaks. But the outside is where the love is, you want to be eating those. It’s got a taste that’s intense and beefy. Be adamant with your butcher!

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