A proper roast-chicken, turkey, lamb, pork, beef, game-should be juicy, with a snappy crust, and flavored with herbs and/or spices or simply well seasoned with salt and pepper. When fully rested, it should be brought to the table and carved. Preferably on a beat-up wooden board.
With rustic food, presentation is half the game. Let me rephrase. If your lamb is dry as a bone and grey, you could set up the thing on a working spit in the middle of the apartment and it would be a waste of time. But rustic food takes rustic surroundings. It just tastes better that way.
Some time ago we spent a day at the colonial village in Bethpage. It has your standard setup-grab your map and wander through the village, from general store to pig farm, weaver to shoe maker. Bonnet-wearing staff bends over looms and hearths and teach you about daily colonial life.
Because heavy rain kept away the school buses, we had the run of the place, allowing for lengthy talks with the weaver and the blacksmith. Darting through the rain, we took shelter in the servants’ quarters where a faux meal was being prepared. Roasts were on the menu, and I began to feel strangely hungry.
The classic British novel is nothing without a great feast scene. Tom Jones, of course, stands out, but also works by Dickens, Trollope, etc. Platters of roast game and vegetables, giant slabs of buttered bread and drippings (drippings seems a constant): they always succeed in making me hungry. Which is why, even in this low-rent Long Island theme park, guided around the kitchen by bonneted kitchen maids, I found my stomach growling. I could see a goose in the hearth and sweet butter in the churner (whatever), flagons of beer to wash it all down followed by pies and various jams.
A true roast requires a rustic, earthen setting. The same goes for the equally important sides. Potatoes must emerge from the oven piping hot and slathered in butter (drippings?). Because potato gratin is true feast food, serve it in some sort of crockpot or beat-up roasting pan. Dress up like an innkeeper, get drunk, and eat creamy potatoes. Just close the shades.
(NOTE: Of course, now’s the time to disregard all of the above. Pickled cucumbers go well with the rich gratin; copper pots and pewter do justice to a gratin, but if you like, go with a more updated presentation. After all, we’re not living in a Victorian novel.)
Potato Gratin (adapted from the Bouchon cookbook-pickled cukes are ours)
Makes 4 individual ramekin-sized servings
2 russet potatoes peeled
4 garlic cloves, smashed, skin on
2 cups heavy cream
freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons unsalted butter, softened
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons minced thyme
2 tablespoons bread crumbs
1/3 cup grated parmesan, comte, emmenthaler
salt and pepper
Pickled Cucumbers (below)
- Use a mandoline to slice the potatoes into 1/8 inch slices. Throw into a bowl of cold water to rinse starch and prevent browning.
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Drain taters well, then add to a medium pot with the cream and crushed garlic cloves. The cream should just cover the potatoes. Season the cream with salt and pepper. Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until tender but still with some bite.
- Remove potatoes and, placing a large colander within a larger bowl, drain, reserving the cream.
- To compose: butter each ramekin. Sprinkle a little minced garlic, minced thyme and a light cream layer. Follow with a few layers of potatoes, going from edge to middle to keep the layers even. Sprinkle more thyme, season with salt and pepper and pour over another light cream layer. Repeat until you reach the top, finishing with a layer of potatoes. It shouldn’t be soup, rather just moist with cream.
- Cover with foil, place on tray and bake for 30 minutes. Remove, check the cream level. If dry, add a spoonful, if too wet, remove some. Return to oven, covered, for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove. Heat broiler. Sprinkle the tops with thyme, breadcrumbs and cheese. Broil until golden, about 2 minutes, remove, rest 10 minutes, and serve.
Quick Pickled Cukes
1 cucumber, peeled, julienned
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup distilled white vinegar
1. Whisk the sugar and vinegar until sugar dissolves. Toss in a bowl with the cucumber and refrigerate for an hour.