The Roast Dinner Equation (Part 1)

I’ve always posted something special during the Christmas season. In 2019, I went down memory lane and posted my first draft of Food and the Senses, one of my first proper attempts at food writing. And in 2020, it was all about exploring the one thing all Calcuttans associate with Christmas: the Christmas cake. This time, we will explore the other major culinary aspect of Christmas, which isn’t very popular here in India, at least not as much as cake. And it is also an area I’m not very knowledgeable about, so I decided to turn to an expert.

Readers of my blog are already familiar with Dr. Nodee Chowdhury, home cook par excellence who loves smuggling veggies into her baked goods (check out my Undercover Veggies article) and absolutely adores baking in all its forms (check out our Baking 101 series). This time, she sheds some light on her expertise in the savoury kitchen, particularly the roast dinner. As usual, the series is peppered with pictures of some of Nodee di’s magnificent creations. So, join us on a three-week journey as we dissect and discuss the roast dinner, the meal symbolic of the “most wonderful time of the year”.

Utsav: I’ll have to be honest, I’ve never had a roast dinner. But the sheer ubiquity of it on Thanksgiving and Christmas themed movies and TV shows has always piqued my interest. What exactly is the role of the holiday roast dinner in the West?

Nodee: I would assume it has a similar role as our Ashtami bhog or Sunday afternoon mangsho-bhaat. It is rich, a carb-rich indulgent meal to tantalise the senses and pretty much knock you out for the rest of the day. But the deeper purpose, I would suspect, is to have a long sit-down dinner with friends and family and spread the cheer.

Clip from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973)

U: I love your Ashtami bhog analogy! And yes, it does make sense. The social aspect is just as important as the actual gastronomic aspect in spreads like these. So, let’s try and dissect the meal, piece and piece, starting with the bird. To begin with, does it always have to be a bird?

N: Well, traditionally yes. If you consider the Thanksgiving Turkey story, it was the pilgrims that provided the fowl, while the Wampanoag tribesfolk brought deer. Now deer isn’t an easily available or digestible meat, so I suppose the lighter and roomier turkey made its way onto dinner tables. If you talk about Christmas, it’s more of a loose concept. Royalty including the British monarchy insisted on it being turkey, but the rest of continental Europe often keeps just a roasted or baked protein as the centrepiece. Thereby, Christmas ham, a-la-Christmas Carol is as authentic as any.

U: Going beyond the confines of tradition, what other protein could we use as the centerpiece of a roast dinner?

N: I think for the majority of the crowd, chicken would be an easy target. But the adventurous could go for pork, be it chops or spare ribs, or a beef dish- be it steak or a stew of the Stroganoff kind. Something hearty and filling for winter months.

U: So it isn’t really confined to the territory of a roast. And to be fair, a stew in the winter months shared with friends and family does sound amazing.

N: Agreed! It needs to serve as a protein-based dish chock-full of flavour, where a stew does qualify.

Beouf Bourgignon (Courtesy: The Spruce Eats)

U: Fair enough. For me though, a stew is rather familiar since we have versions of it back home, albeit with different ingredients and flavours. The roast on the other hand feels a lot more foreign to me. So, for a beginner making his first roast, what should I keep in mind when buying the meat?

N: Firstly, how big of a bird do you want- it would depend upon how many mouths you are feeding. Buying an expensive turkey for a family of 3-4 would be a bit wasteful unless you have a lot of plans for the leftovers. Secondly, instruct them clearly about how to prepare the bird. Skin-on is the best way to avoid drying it out in the oven. Lastly and a rookie mistake if you are using a frozen bird, don’t forget to defrost it in time. The best-case scenario is to buy the protein the day of, and keep it absolutely dry prior to preparing it.

U: In Kolkata for example, it is much easier to buy a chicken instead of a turkey, which might be a lot more difficult to find. Does it make a difference?

N: Subtle, if any. It is really about the preparation and the sides, at the end of the day.

U: I know a lot of people are squeamish about skin-on chicken, but it is kind of essential to have it on for a roast, isn’t it?

N: It depends on the mode of heat you plan to apply. If you are flash frying or grilling it, chicken can stay crisp on the outside without drying out the juices. However, roasting is a slower, lower heat which a delicate white meat can’t withstand without drying out unless you have the cover of skin. Also, you can stuff the skin with wonderful flavour and help it crisp up into a gorgeously golden-brown delicious layer.

U: And we’ve got the element of texture going as well, with the tender chicken and the crisp skin creating a wonderful contrast.

N: And it makes all the difference!

U: Correct! So, skin-on chicken it is. Let’s talk about brining now, which seems to be a vital part of a lot of these roast meat dishes. What exactly is it, and how does it affect the final product?

N: Brining is exactly what it sounds like. Salt water, can simply be made with lukewarm water and a generous amount of salt (say 4 tbsp per litre), along with some herbs like rosemary and thyme. It helps in keeping the chicken tender and moist through the cook. You can choose a simple brine or keep it in salted buttermilk, ideally overnight or at least 4-8 hours. Tie the legs of your chicken and tuck the wingtips in and just immerse in brining liquid, breast-side down. Remember to pat it dry so that the skin gets to crisp up nicely.

U: Is brining a mandatory step or is it an optional hack for a better dish?

N: Oh it’s definitely optional. Think of it as a level up *chef’s kiss*.

With our turkey bought and brined, it is time to start cooking. Join is next week in Part 2 of our exploration of the roast dinner.

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