The quintessential British Sunday dinner: roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and a helping or two of vegetables. When done properly, this is a delicious meal, but for an inexperienced cook it can be a somewhat daunting ordeal.

No individual part of the meal is particularly tricky. The difficulty lies in getting everything ready for the same time without forgetting or burning anything. A little planning goes a long way towards alleviating the complexity; this is not a spur of the moment deal.

The ingredients

  • A big chunk of beef from your local butcher. For two or three, silverside is a good cut. For larger servings, consider getting a sirloin joint or rib of beef still on the bone — the bone helps conduct heat through to the middle of the meat.

    Don't worry if you end up with more meat than you can eat in one sitting. There're no reason to let the left-overs go to waste — your options include sandwiches, cottage pie or a stir fry.

    A word of warning: if you have frozen the beef, it will likely take two days to defrost. Do not attempt to cook if it is still frozen in the middle.

  • Potatoes. King Edwards or Desirée are popular choices; avoid new potatoes as they do not roast well.

  • For the Yorkshire pudding, to serve four: 3 oz (80g) plain white flour, 3 fl oz (75ml) milk, 2 fl oz (50ml) water, one egg.

  • Your choice of vegetables. Traditional options include carrots, peas or beans (of the squeaky or runner variety, not the little things that come in a can). Try to avoid anything which won't grow in the United Kingdom; serving a Sunday roast with wasabi and bean sprouts would be nearly as heinous as wearing jeans to Ascot.

    Do not even think about serving Brussels sprouts. This torture is acceptable only with a turkey on Christmas day. No matter how much you hate your family, once a year is more than sufficient.

  • To finish things off, one or two medium onions, a few cloves of garlic, salt, black pepper, and a teaspoon or two of English mustard powder. Some also like freshly grown mint or rosemary potatoes; others consider this overkill.

The timing

Now, the hard part. If this is the first time you've cooked a meal of this magnitude, it may help to make a flowchart. Work backwards — decide when you want to eat first, and figure out everything else from there. Don't forget that your oven may take a while to reach the desired temperature.

The beef will need ten minutes preparation time. For cooking, the magic formula seems to be twenty five minutes plus twenty minutes per pound (or half kilogram), plus twenty minutes standing time. If you don't like seeing a bit of pink in your meat, add another ten to fifteen minutes cooking time. If you aren't using a fan oven, add another ten to fifteen minutes cooking time. The ideal temperature is 170°C, or 190°C for ovens with no fan.

The Yorkshire pudding will need ten minutes preparation and twenty to twenty five minutes in the oven. The oven will need to be at a higher temperature here — 220°C (conventional) or 200°C (fan) — so try to put the Yorkshire puddings in when you take the beef out for standing. You cannot afford to let Yorkshire puddings stand around for too long; they spoil quickly.

The potatoes will need ten minutes preparation, ten minutes on the hob and an hour in the oven. Conveniently, roast potatoes work nicely if first cooked at the lower temperature and then at the higher temperature for a final twenty minutes to half an hour.

The vegetables don't take long, unless you have a penchant for mush. Although it may be traditional to overcook vegetables until all the flavour and crispness departs, this is the one area where eschewing convention is perfectly acceptable.

A transcription of my most recent timing list may be of assistance. This was for roughly a kilogram of beef:

    11:00   Turn oven on.
            Chop onion and garlic.
            Prepare beef.
    11:10   Put beef in oven.
    11:30   Start water boiling.
            Prepare potatoes.
    11:40   Put potatoes in boiling water.
    11:50   Remove potatoes from water.
            Shake potatoes.
    11:55   Put potatoes in oven.
            Decant wine.
            Set table.
    12:30   Remove beef from oven.
            Turn up oven temperature.
    12:35   Put Yorkshire puddings in oven.
    12:40   Start water boiling.
            Chop carrots.
    12:45   Cook carrots.
            Carve beef.
    12:50   Stop cooking carrots.
    12:55   Remove potatoes from oven.
            Make gravy.
    13:00   Remove Yorkshire puddings from oven.
            Serve.

Cooking the beef

To cook the beef, you'll need a large, heavy roasting dish. This should be ceramic rather than metal or glass. Ideally this dish will be large enough for both the beef and the potatoes; if this isn't possible, two dishes can be used.

Place a small amount of olive or grapeseed oil in the bottom of the dish. Dust the beef with flour, a little mustard powder, salt and black pepper. Chop the garlic into large chunks (do not use a garlic press — for long, slow cooking, you need big bits of garlic) and press them into the beef. Remove the skin from the onion, slice it into two or four chunks and place these in the dish. Put the beef on top of the onion — hopefully, the onion will caramelise and add flavour to the gravy.

Check that the oven has reached the correct temperature, and insert the dish on a lower shelf.

You will probably need to turn the beef once or twice whilst it is cooking. You may also find it helpful to use some of the juice that will be collecting in the bottom of the dish to stop the top half of the meat from going dry.

Cooking the potatoes

Wash and (optionally) peel the potatoes. Cut them into roughly equal chunks. Place them into a pan of boiling water and cook for around ten minutes. If you are cooking with mint, add it at this stage.

Once the potatoes start to go fluffy on the outside, remove them from the heat. Drain the water and put the lid back on the pan. Holding the lid down, shake the pan from side to side vigorously several times — this will help the potatoes go crispy and golden.

If your timing seems to be going haywire, it's okay to leave the potatoes to stand for a little while. Keep the lid on to avoid letting too much heat out.

Add the potatoes to the tray with the beef (or a separate tray with a little oil). If you are using rosemary, add it at this stage. Try to avoid overlapping potatoes, as this will decrease the crispiness.

Cooking the Yorkshire puddings

The batter, which can be prepared in advance, is made by mixing the flour, milk, water, egg and a little seasoning. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. The wrong way is to mix the liquids, throw in the flour and wonder what all those nasty lumps are. The right way is to break the egg, beat it, and gradually mix in the flour and a little liquid, and then finally stir in the remainder of the liquid.

Tin-wise, you have two options. Ideally, you will have a special Yorkshire pudding tray — if you do, the quantities listed make eight holes' worth. If not, a regular 11" by 7" (30cm x 20cm) tin should serve. Either way, get the tin very hot, add a little oil (or dripping from the beef) and then the batter. Place this on the top shelf of the oven.

Carving the beef

The beef is best carved after it has been left to stand. The beef will carry on cooking on the inside after it leaves the oven, but once it is carved it will just start to cool down. Stab the beef with a carving prong (or a large fork) and slice it into generous chunks.

Carving beef is not dangerous if one uses a very sharp carving knife. Nearly all carving accidents are caused by blunt or undersized knives. A blunt knife will still make a nasty mess of your fingers or arm, and is far more likely to slip than one which is razor sharp.

When carving, try to collect the juice that runs off. It can be added to the gravy.

The vegetables

If your vegetable of choice is the carrot, clean and chop them into pennies. Beans may need the ends chopping off; peas don't even need defrosting before cooking. Whatever you chose, cook them in boiling water until they are hot but still crunchy. Steaming is also an option for carrots or beans, but does not work so well for peas.

There is no microwave in this scene.

The gravy

Making the gravy is a last minute task. By this stage, you should have an empty roasting dish with lots of nice juice and maybe the odd bit of onion in the bottom. Transfer it onto the hob. Shake over a generous handful of flour and stir until you get some nice thick gravy. You may wish to add a little red wine or hot water to the mix.

Figuring out how to get the gravy from the dish into the gravy bowl is an exercise left for the reader.

Serving

Traditionally, a Sunday roast is served at the table. This will require a large serving plate for the meat and Yorkshire puddings, a bowl for the potatoes, a bowl for the vegetables and a gravy dish and saucer. These should, of course, all be of matching style; nothing less than your best dinner service will suffice.

You should also provide a small dish with either horse radish or English mustard. English mustard is strong, smooth, bright yellow and does not contain lumps or whole seeds.

If at all possible, try to use warm plates. This meal should be savoured and eaten slowly.

This meal begs to be served with a good strong red wine. This is an ideal opportunity to break out something with a lot of clout — roast beef can stand up to even the most vibrant, full-bodied wines. From Bordeaux, an Appellation Pomerol, St-Emilion or Haut-Médoc would be ideal. If you prefer new world wines, look for shiraz / syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. This is the one part where you will have to go abroad for ingredients — a Welsh claret just won't cut muster.

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