Sophie at the Stove: An Introduction

The Washingtonian's resident Brit shares her home-cooking adventures—and proves that there's more to English food than bangers and mash.

By: Sophie Gilbert

When I was asked to start this blog, I was given a rather complex task. “We want you to prove,” said my editors, “that British food isn’t as disgusting as people think it is. And you should also talk about cooking. And be funny. Definitely be funny.”

Sounds easy, no? Here are my credentials in terms of cooking: I have none. I’ve never taken so much as a basic knife-skills class, and I ate a radish for the first time in 2008. But I’m British, so that takes care of at least a part of the equation. And I grew up in a very food-oriented house—my stepmom, a former caterer, was trained at Cordon Bleu; my mom and stepfather are organic beef farmers; and my dad was a hardcore gastronome, who once gave me a glass of Château Margaux when I was doing my French homework at age 13 (I like to think it distinctly improved my work). So I grew up cooking and eating a lot, in London, which contrary to popular opinion has some of the best restaurants in the world and where it isn’t always raining.

I also worked as a waitress for six years, which gave me three important skills: (1) I can fan out an avocado prettily on a plate, (2) I know how to unblock a toilet, and (3) I can open a bottle of wine in less than five seconds. Curiously enough, it wasn’t until I gave up being a waitress and became a journalist that I started cooking properly.

When I moved to DC, I realized pretty early on that in addition to drafting dubious legislation and perverting dewy-faced freshman lawmakers, lobbyists also have one significant achievement under their belt: They’ve made eating out here beyond expensive. Who else but an expense-account holder would pay $36 for four pieces of sage-and-amaretti ravioli? So I started cooking every day, and over the last few years I’ve built up a good collection of recipes, some of which are borrowed from family in England, some of which I’ve made up, and a lot of which are shamelessly bastardized from old issues of Bon Appétit. I’ll share one with you here in the hopes that it’ll persuade the world that British cuisine doesn’t solely consist of gray mince, eel, and innards.

The one thing the Brits do best in the world is roast dinners, probably because we’re naturally greedy people and our Viking ancestry gives us an innate appreciation for large, dripping, occasionally bloody hunks of meat plunked in the middle of the table. No matter how busy we are, we make the effort every Sunday to sit down together and eat as many dishes as possible, while generally throwing insults at each other and discussing the weather. So here’s my recipe for roast chicken, which is probably not vastly different from the other 8 million roast chicken recipes out there, but it’s pretty good nonetheless.

Roast Chicken With Gravy and Root Vegetables

Serves 4 to 6

For the chicken:

1 5-pound chicken, preferably organic (it might cost $15, but it’ll feed six people, and the difference is worth it. When you eat factory-raised chicken, you can usually taste the trauma)
1 lemon cut in half, pips (British for seeds) removed
1 bay leaf
2 springs fresh thyme (or ¼ teaspoon dried)
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and flattened with a knife
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove any giblets from the chicken and rinse it inside and out under cold water. Pat dry with a paper towel. Place the chicken in a roasting pan big enough to fit the bird comfortably, breast side up.

Squeeze one half of the lemon over the chicken. Put that lemon rind inside the chicken cavity along with the bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, and garlic (you can rub the garlic over the chicken beforehand). Tie the chicken’s legs together with some string, trying to seal the cavity as tightly as possible.

Melt the butter in the microwave and, using a pastry brush, baste the chicken. The more butter you use, the crisper the chicken’s skin will get, and crisp skin is generally a good thing. Salt and pepper the chicken liberally.

Add about a cup of water to the bottom of the pan. This will make sure that any cooking juices don’t get cooked off. If necessary, you can add more water while the chicken is cooking. Place the chicken in the oven. After 90 minutes, check on it. It should be golden all over and delicious-smelling. Remove the chicken from the roasting pan, reserving the fat and juices, and place it on a plate or carving board. Let it sit while you prepare the gravy.

For the root vegetables:

3 large potatoes, possibly Yukon Gold or Idaho (King Edward is the potato of choice for Brits—as befits a sovereign nation—but unfortunately you can’t get them this side of the Atlantic), peeled and cut into six pieces each
2 large parsnips, peeled and cut into long pieces, about the size of a pen
4 carrots, peeled and cut into long pieces, about the size of a pen
½ cup olive oil
2 to 3 cloves garlic, peeled and flattened with a knife
A couple sprigs rosemary

Fill a large saucepan with water and bring it to a boil. Add the potatoes to the boiling water and cook for five minutes, until the edges start to soften. Drain, then slide them around in the colander to get the edges even fluffier.

To a large roasting dish or metal baking tray with edges, add the olive oil, garlic cloves, and rosemary. Place this dish in the oven for a few minutes to heat the oil. If you have a lot of vegetables, you may need two dishes. Remove from the oven and throw all your vegetables into it, tossing them so they’re evenly coated. If they look dry, drizzle another tablespoon or so of olive oil on top. Place in the oven for one hour, turning them after 30 minutes.

For the gravy:

1 tablespoon flour
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup low-sodium chicken broth
Tomato paste (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Drain off as much fat as you can from the chicken juices in the pan (you can save about a tablespoon or so for the gravy and store the remainder in the fridge for later use), then put the roasting pan over a burner on low heat. Add a tablespoon of flour and stir it into the juices, breaking up any lumps and letting the flour brown for about a minute. Add the wine and stir into the flour mixture, bringing it to a boil. Then add the broth and season to taste. I sometimes add half a tablespoon of tomato paste at this point to add richness, but it’s up to you. Let the gravy reduce for a minute, adding more wine or stock if necessary. Then pour the gravy into a serving dish, carve the chicken, remove the vegetables from the oven, and arrange everything on a plate.

If you want to be authentically British, start a huge fight with your family while eating and persuade at least one guest to storm out of the room in a giant huff. (It’s possible this could be authentic only in my family.) That way, there’ll be more chicken left for everyone else.

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