Food & Drink: Mr Hopkinson cooks his goose

Could this be the year that the bird reaches perfection and the stuffin g is beyond compare? For the next three weeks Simon Hopkinson applies his exper tise to the challenges of Christmas
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The Independent Online
Simon Hopkinson is regarded, especially by chefs, as perhaps the best cook in the country. In 1987 he co-founded Bibendum, the brilliant South Kensington restaurant, with Terence Conran and Paul Hamlyn. Lancashire-born, he started his career in restaurants in the north and in Wales. His first book, Roast Chicken and other Stories, has just been shortlisted for an Andre Simon Award.

There was an embarrassing moment when I appeared on the first edition of Masterchef. The ebullient and friendly Loyd Grossman was asking me various questions about my favourite this and the most topping that, or what I really like to cook best. I was a little nervous and heard myself uttering something to the effect that ''roasting a chicken is a joyful thing to do''. Then I broke into a mild sweat having realised I had just said something a bit daft.

I later pondered on these quaint words and decided they were not so daft after all. While ''joyful'' might invoke hymn-singing or hugging a friend rather more immediately than roasting something in the oven, there are extreme pleasures to be had in the kitchen. Baking cakes for one, making stews for another and, for me, roasting. I think it is the style of cooking that I do best because I find it such a pleasure.

Can you think of any other kitchen smells as intoxicating as those of a Sunday lunch? A bird or joint sizzling away, gravy simmering, the sweet scent of roasting parsnips, the pong of sprouts or cabbage just drained, the sting of freshly grated horse-radish in the air?

The very idea of that special moment before lunch, between noon and 1.30pm, is particularly evocative of a British way of life. The omnibus edition of The Archers has just finished, Desert Island Discs is about to begin and it is time for a glass of sherry.

Memories from childhood recall Ted Ray or Billy Cotton and a glass of Dandelion and Burdock. The idea of sitting down to bruschetta with mozzarella and roasted peppers, followed by open ravioli with chicken livers and sage, would be, for me, a travesty. It might be delicious, but it is not a roast.

There are not many dishes that could be a pretender to roast beef. We serve it every Sunday at Bibendum. If we did not, there would be an uproar. The beef comes with very large Yorkshire puddings, which we cook once the order comes into the kitchen. These take about 25 minutes to rise and puff up into golden towers of crust and goodness. It is a constant source of marvel that a mixture involving only eggs, flour, milk, salt, pepper and fizzy water, can turn into something so ridiculously good.

When roasting any joint of beef, it is preferable that the bones are still attached. My favourite is the standing rib joint. It may be more difficult to carve, but the reward will be a more succulent and juicy texture to the meat. Ask your friendly butcher to trim up the joint to allow the greatest ease of carving, but to leave the bones still attached.

Technically speaking, to roast is to cook in a dry heat, usually in an oven, with some form of fat to provide a coating of insulation from that dry heat. The fats coat the surfaces through basting which adds succulence to the joint, bird or, sometimes, fish that is cooking.

Certain joints, ducks and geese, or the odd gamebird such as pheasant, or a fatty woodcock, do not need any excess fat at all. (Pheasant, with present-day rearing, can attain so much extra fat through eating too much corn, that it has ceased to be the ''game'' bird it once was.)

Myriad pieces of advice fly around at this time of year as to the best way to cook a turkey. I, personally, do not go with the foil method - the bird steams rather than roasts. Also, starting off with the breasts down is, I feel, mistaken. These are going to be the parts of the turkey that will cook the quickest anyway, so to give them an extra boost at the start is surely going to overcook them.

As with the goose (see recipe), start off at a high temperature for 30 minutes or so, and then turn the oven down - lower than for goose by a few degrees, in fact. And baste often for a good, mahogany-coloured skin. Then, at the table, make sure to request some of the dark meat, which has more flavour.

It is tempting to extol the wonders of roasting lamb and rib of beef, loin of pork, or fish but, given the season, I shall restrict myself to fowl - except to point out one universal rule of roasting: always rest the meat, all meats, 15 minutes after cooking. This enables the muscles to relax and the juices to settle within rather than flow out during carving.

Now, goose would be my Christmas bird this year. For the stuffing, I would follow the late, great Peter Langan and use mashed potatoes, but these I would prepare with some ideas of my own.

Roast Chicken and other Stories is published by Ebury Press, pounds 17.99.

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