Roasted potatoes better than Elena’s simply don’t exist. Elena is The Daughter’s British mother-in-law. Her potatoes are the gold standard. This year, since we would not be in England and lucky enough to eat hers, I thought I would try to re-produce them for the Stateside family Christmas dinner.
The instructions – peel small potatoes, parboil them 5-8 minutes, rough them up in the colander or in the pot with a fork, dry them well, turn into a roasting pan with hot goose fat – seemed easy enough. The one thing that worried me was whether I had a roasting pan large enough to make these delicious roasties for twelve. Because once the crowd tasted them, I knew they would be back for more.
Turns out I had been worrying about the wrong thing. What I should have worried about was where I was going to get the goose fat. I was an innocent as far as goose fat went, but figured that like so many other exotic ingredients I’ve never used or needed, it was somewhere in the frozen food aisle of my local grocery, or maybe on the International Foods shelf, and all I had to do was look.
I waited until the week before Christmas to start looking. No goose fat anywhere.
At this point finding goose fat shot to the top of my things-to-worry-about list, eclipsing even the size of the roasting pan. It also became something of an obsession.
On two separate days, I closely queried two different butchers at the grocery store. By this time I was getting desperate and had decided to settle for anything resembling goose fat.
Me: “Do you have any goose, duck, chicken or pork fat? Or even any trimmings you can sell me so that I can render the fat myself?”
Butcher: “No, no, no, and no, and I haven’t trimmed anything so far today, so no.”
On that trip I ended up buying a marked down pack of chicken legs to try and squeeze some fat out of the skins. Also, that night I saved all the fat from the whole chicken I was roasting to add to my render pile.
The Hunter called a small independent grocery store in the next town. He knows the butcher and thought perhaps he might be able to help. His buddy wasn’t there, but the kid who answered the phone said sure they had lots of chicken fat in the freezer and to come on down.
I told The Hunter to hurry up and leave immediately, make no detours and come straight back. He returned apologetically with a frozen package of chicken meat and skin trimmings, labeled “For Soup.” He said: “I know this isn’t what you want, but I took it anyway.”
That package went into the refrigerator along with the chicken legs and the fat saved from the roast chicken.
I called several small butcher shops, another grocery store, and two Polish delis. One of the butchers offered to sell me duck fat in five gallon vats. I turned him down. I needed less than a cup and what would I do with the rest. But I thanked him anyway.
I looked up how to make schmaltz. In theory, it seemed easy enough (just like in theory, the goose fat roasted potatoes, seemed easy enough), but my attempt to render enough fat proved futile. Besides just being a plain old messy job, I didn’t have enough raw material and I came close to breaking my leg. The smell of all the chicken skin giving up its fat drove the dog nuts, and had her sitting smack in my way, causing me to trip over her numerous times while she stared at the stove. It was now four days until Christmas.
The Hunter left to buy the fresh Christmas kielbasa at yet another Polish deli. The line was out the door. While he waited for the line to inch forward, he earned the sobriquet of “The Kielbasa Whisperer.” No one near him had realized fresh kielbasa was available, or what to do with it when it was. By the time he reached the woman at the counter, he had not only explained how to cook it, but had made several converts, who vowed they would add it to their list.
But, as for finding me some fat for my particular Christmas obsession, no luck. The woman behind the counter, whose first language was not English, admitted that they did indeed have pork fat, but, gesturing to the ever-increasing line behind The Hunter, she had none that she was prepared to sell him at that moment. Perhaps if he called back in a week or two…
Three days before Christmas, in order to gather in all the remaining fresh stuff I needed, I went on my last foray to the shops. At Randall’s Farm, my favorite stop for fresh produce and deli, among other things, I had a look down their ham/sausage/bacon/cheese/specialty aisle for the elusive goose fat. I figured it was a long shot, but what the heck. Not seeing anything except salt pork, I asked at the deli if they had any goose, duck, chicken, or pork fat, either in the deli or in the kitchen.
The girl said she didn’t think they had anything, but, to be sure, asked a young man coming out of the kitchen. He also said no and then they both obviously felt so bad they couldn’t help, they started to brainstorm all the places I could try; but alas, I had already tried all of them.
I continued shopping, mentally crossing perfect Christmas roasties off the list. As I was browsing the dried cherries and dried apricots, for the chutney and the cheese board, respectively, Chef Mike – a big bear of a guy – and Karen Randall, the owner, came up and asked if I was the one who had inquired about duck fat. I said yes, that had, alas been me. Chef took a jar off the shelf almost right in front of my face, and handed it to me. A jar of duck fat! They also had chicken, pork and bison fat on the shelf. (Aside: I was a little confused at the bison, as isn’t that the lean option everyone talks about?)
I was speechless, so I hurled myself at Chef and gave him a huge hug. He was a bit stunned, but recovered well, I thought. He asked what I was going to do with it – was I going to make duck fat fries? I said no, I was going to make my daughter’s mother-in-law’s classic British roast potatoes and what I really wanted was goose fat, but, clutching that magic jar close, I was grateful to have the duck.
Both Karen and Chef immediately started moving the other jars around looking for goose fat. And while that would have been awesome, I didn’t expect them to find it. Nor did I care. For someone who two days earlier would have willingly settled for chicken or pork fat, and who five minutes ago was writing the classic roasties off the menu, duck was close enough.
It wasn’t until I was paying for the groceries that I thought to look at the price. $10.99 for 12 ounces! Crazy expensive. And for fat – a waste product – of all things! But it’s Christmas. I was desperate. And so of course I bought it.
As I was leaving Randalls, I got a text from my brother who, ironically, wanted to know what kind of potatoes, if any, we were having on Christmas, as he was making up his family’s menus for the week and he didn’t want to duplicate things – or at least not on back to back nights.
I texted back “Classic British Roasted. In duck fat. Because this is an uncivilized country and I couldn’t find any goose fat.”
That’s not quite the happy ending of the story. Was all the stress worth it? Did the potatoes turn out as I remembered Elena’s classic ones? Well. Not really. They were good. But they didn’t hit that gold standard. In thinking about it later, I figured it was because there were far too many pans coming in and out of the oven, and I probably didn’t have the duck fat hot enough.
Which means there is a postscript. I had saved some of the Christmas duck fat and as I hadn’t cooked all the small potatoes I had bought because they wouldn’t all fit in the pan, I decided to try again last Sunday. I peeled, parboiled, roughed up and dried the remaining potatoes, and I got the pan with the fat good and hot.
So hot that when I opened the oven, the smoke alarm went off and we spent ten minutes opening windows and doors and fanning the alarm until it settled down.
When all was quiet again, I dumped the potatoes in the pan, rolled them around a bit and cooked them about an hour.
They were perfect. Golden and crunchy on the outside and soft and creamy on the inside. But whether I make them again, I don’t know. Knowing that the smoke alarm is now involved, adds another level of complexity to the whole process and I’m sure it would throw the timing of a family dinner completely off. Perhaps I’ll save this particular recipe for just the two of us.