Since my Nanna died in October, 2017, I have found myself increasingly turning to Maltese cuisine when it comes to dinner time. I guess that is the transcendental power of food: it can spiritually connect you to a time, place or person no matter how far they may be. Interestingly, this is not a dish that I really remember my Nanna making for me – she probably did, but when I think of eating at Nanna’s house, I think of Hobz biz-Zejt for lunch, soups like brodu, minestra or my Nannu’s favourite ‘Widow’s Soup’, baked rice or pasta, Maltese ravjul (the ‘big sister’ to Italian ravioli), and the ‘good’ pastizzi! By ‘good’ pastizzi, I mean the pastizzi from ‘the old Maltese man who makes them’; these pastizzi were, and still are, like something you can only get on the Black Market – made the traditional way by a mysterious old Maltese person that you probably need to meet in a dark alley with a briefcase to get your stash…
But back to this recipe. This recipe is one that I really associate with my mother. It was, and very much still is, Mum’s go-to. For her, it is as much about the aniseed flavour that punctuates the roasted meat and vegetables as it is about convenience. I have made this for friends when they have come over for a dinner, primarily because it is a cinch to make and robust with flavour; it can be prepared in advance and thrown in the oven an hour before you’re ready to eat. It is as technically demanding as peeling and slicing some potatoes, but what you end up with is a whole meal in a pan which cooks itself while you are busy doing other things.
Patata l-forn literally translates to ‘potatoes in the oven’ but think of it more as a roast traybake. Maltese juries will be divided over how to make the perfect patata l-forn: Chicken, lamb or pork? Peas or no peas? Fennel seeds or caraway? This is likely to be a controversial blog post as my Mum and aunts and cousins are all following. Patata l-forn is to the Maltese what a roast chicken is to the English or Australians – there is no real one way to do it, but if you ask me there are a few things which cannot be compromised.
The first is potatoes. You want a good roasting potato; an all-rounder like Desiree will do nicely. What you cannot compromise on is potato placement: they must be arranged on top of the meat, covering the protein and vegetables below and very slightly overlapping. The contents below steam the underside of the potatoes as they roast making them soft to eat while going and crispy on top; the steam produced under the potatoes also makes the meat incredibly tender. Nanna and my Uncle Jim’s mum would sprinkle some Keen’s curry powder on top of the potatoes for an extra kick, and my mum likes it with a little paprika. Uncle Jim’s mum would often beat a few eggs with parmesan cheese and pour it all over the potatoes in the last five minutes of cooking. I am yet to try this myself, but I am intrigued.
The second is peas. And by peas I mean trusty, reliable frozen peas that you will nearly always have in the freezer. You’ll think that roasting peas in the oven would make them go mushy; they do go dull in colour and soft, but they do hold they shape well. Mum and Aunty Margaret will often add carrots and even cherry tomatoes. You could even add some sliced capsicum, zucchini or fennel, I suppose, but I tend to like the simplicity of the peas and potatoes alone.
Third for me is caraway seeds. Mum and I are #TeamCaraway while my Nanna and Aunty Margaret are #TeamFennel. Use either until you find your tribe. What you do want, though, is a whole spice seed that permeates the roast with that pungent aniseedy aroma.
The last is liquid, and this is the bit that will be controversial and potentially where I run the risk of making a Maltese cross (pun intended). Perhaps it is my Italian sensibilities at work here but I need something to mop up with a piece of crusty bread at the end of my meal; the addition of a little tomato paste dissolved in stock make this almost a self-saucing traybake. The peas and onions tenderise while the juices of the protein and aromatic spices thicken and flavour a light gravy that can be spooned over the meat and potatoes or absorbed by bread later. Mum, Aunty Margaret and my Nanna omit this entirely, pouring just a little water into the pan for moisture and steaming. I don’t know where I got the idea from that this was just how you made patata l-forn, but it is certainly how I make it and how we like to eat it.
You can essentially use whichever protein you like. My preference is chicken pieces: bone in and skin on, rubbed with a little oil and seasoned before covering with the potato duvet. Aunty Margaret and Uncle Jim love this with pork chops, and it is commonly made this way.
But as somewhat an ode to my mother, I have given you the recipe for patata l-forn with lamb chops, her protein of choice for this favourite dish.
Potatoes in the Oven (Maltese Roast Traybake)
Serves 4 – 6
- 6 forequarter lamb chops (or 8 lamb cutlets, or 6 pork chops, or 8 – 10 chicken pieces or 4 – 6 chicken Maryland – chicken must be bone in, skin on)
- 1 onion, sliced
- 3 or 4 potatoes, preferably Desiree or similar, peeled and sliced into 1cm thick discs
- 3 or 4 garlic cloves, unpeeled but pressed with the back of a knife
- 500g frozen peas, do not thaw
- 3 teaspoons caraway seeds (or fennel seeds)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup of chicken stock
- extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt flakes and fresh cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 200 C (fan forced).
Tip the peas, still frozen, into a shallow roasting tray; one that will hold the peas and sauce without spilling – about an inch deep. (I have specified 500g of peas but this is approximate; you want to generously cover the full base of the pan
Add onion slices, pressed garlic, and a third of the caraway seeds. Give light drizzle of oil (about a tablespoon) and a pinch of salt, then mix well to evenly distribute the onion and seeds.
Season the lamb with more salt and pepper and arrange, evenly spaced, on top of the peas. Sprinkle one more teaspoon of caraway seeds evenly across the meat before lightly drizzling each lamb chop with a little more oil.
Lay the potato slices over the whole tray, slightly overlapping them, and totally covering the meat and peas. Season the potatoes with a generous pinch of salt and some cracked pepper, and the remaining caraway seeds.
Slowly and gently, pour the tomato paste and stock mixture into the base of the pan from one corner, try to avoid wetting the potatoes.
Give the potatoes a light drizzle with oil before roasting in the oven for about 45 mins – 1 hour, or until the meat is cooked and the potatoes are lightly bronzed and crispy on top but tender when pierced with a fork.
Serve immediately with chunky slices of crusty bread to soak up the gravy.