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How to Make French Roast

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Rosemary-Garlic Roast Leg of Lamb with Red Potatoes

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by Arlene Jacobs
from Fine Cooking #166, pp. 39-43

Long before people had their own gas or electric ovens, a cook needed an awful lot of fuel, usually wood, to cook a roast. Villagers throughout France solved this problem by bringing their roasts to the local bakery (or boulangerie). After the baker’s work was done for the day, they would leave their large cuts of meat, usually set over a pan of potatoes, in the lingering coals of his oven. As the meat cooked, the potatoes nestled below absorbed the savory juice it released. By the time the coals went out, each villager had a perfectly cooked main dish with a delicious potato side, all in one. (Recipes for pommes de terre à la boulangère, or boulangère potatoes, were inspired by this tradition.)

These days, few, if any, cooks have a baker’s oven at their disposal. Fortunately, this method works perfectly well in home ovens, too. All you need is a nice cut of meat—think leg of lamb (Watch the video for a demonstration on how to carve a leg of lamb), pork loin, or a whole chicken—a pile of potatoes (and other vegetables, if you like) and an ovenproof skillet or a roasting pan. The cooking is mostly hands-off: The potatoes and vegetables, sometimes precooked just a bit for better texture and caramelization, are arranged in the pan, the meat goes on top, and the oven is left to do its thing. It’s a simple, time-tested method that offers big-time rewards.

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Make Your Bed: Potatoes, Aromatic Vegetables & Herbs

The roast may be the main dish, but it’s the bed of rich, tender potatoes and other vegetables beneath it that really steals the show, especially if you know which ones to use. Here’s what I like best:

Potatoes
Red potatoes, like Red Bliss, become tender but still hold their shape when roasted. They have a thin skin, waxy, creamy texture, and contain less starch and more water than russet potatoes, which I avoid for this method, as they tend to crumble.

Yellow potatoes are similar to red potatoes but are a bit starchier, less waxy, and have a slightly lower water content. Their smooth, buttery texture lends itself well to roasting. Try Yukon Gold, Yellow Finn, or Baby Dutch Yellow.

Fingerling potatoes vary in color, size, and starch and water content. Regardless of variety, they generally have a firm, waxy texture and are great for roasting.

Aromatic Vegetables
Root vegetables like carrots, celery root, parsnips, turnips, and salsify have a sweet, earthy note that intensifies as pan juice is absorbed. These are naturally firm and can withstand high temperatures and long cooking times without disintegrating into mush.

Alliums develop a great depth of flavor with long cooking. Onions (yellow, cipolline, or pearl) take on a mellow, nutty sweetness; leeks practically melt, becoming lusciously sweet; and garlic becomes tender and rich.

Herbs
Resinous herbs like thyme, rosemary, marjoram, savory, and sage add complexity and wonderful aromatic notes.

Photos: Scott Phillips

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