Posted on 1 Comment

Roasting as a Pastime

Roasted Italian Memories

The evening was stormy. Cracks of thunder played overhead. As we hurried up the old cobbled street, our feet danced around the growing puddles and streams. We were staying in an ancient hamlet buried in the hilly Umbrian countryside. Upon stepping into the trattoria, we took in the aromas of roasting meats, pizzas, breads, and vegetables.

A gorgeous and massive medieval pizza oven took up one entire wall of the kitchen. Stacks of olivewood sat neatly stacked to one side. This was my first exposure to the unabashed, divine nature of roasting. The cozy warmth on a cold and rainy night. The taste of a perfectly charred beet, halved garlic heads drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, wild mushrooms and fennel bulbs. They pulled me in. I was hooked and haven’t looked back. I relegated the taste of bland canned beets and garlic powder from my childhood to the cobweb-filled attic of my memory bank. Going forward, it was roasting or nothing. This was a sort of genesis, a new horizon. I moved from steamed carrots to roasted carrots, from boiled baby potatoes to toasted wedges.

Roasting Beets

Let’s take beets. It seems simple enough. I slice the freshly scrubbed beets into wedges, toss them in olive oil, sea salt, and coarsely ground black pepper. Next I spread them in a single layer on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, placing them in a hot oven to roast (400 F). After cooling the beets, I drizzle red wine vinegar and a good quality olive oil and then add sliced green onions and toasted pumpkin seeds. I lightly toss the mixture and lay the salad over a bed of arugula.

As we tuck our forks into this ruby salad, a refreshing sweetness greets us. Roasting the beets has concentrated their sugars and given the tips of the wedges a slight crunch. The overall result is delicious.

Roasting vegetables produces a depth of flavor one doesn’t get with the other types of cooking. An almost caramel tone develops in them.

Roasting Cauliflower

Let’s look at cauliflower. Take a whole cauliflower, steam it for a few minutes in a pot of boiling salted water, after taking it out, rub it all over with olive oil, salt and pepper, and place it in a very hot oven (475 degrees) for 20 minutes or until toasty on the top surface. This version of roasted cauliflower is absolutely scrumptious served with a cool yogurt cilantro sauce.

Roasting Eggplant

Another vegetable that benefits immensely from roasting is eggplant. Roasting transforms the interior of eggplant into an almost buttery consistency. I recently made an iteration of an Israeli staple where I roasted the scored and oiled halves of an eggplant until they became nicely browned. Then I topped each half with a citrus, pomegranate molasses, and tahini mixture and broiled those halves for a couple minutes until they turned caramel in color. I covered these halves with dollops of a yogurt cucumber mixture, sprinkled toasted pistachios, slivered mint, and Italian parsley.

Adding Complexity with Sauces

The dry heat of an oven amps up the flavor of what can normally be a rather plain tasting vegetable. Roasting adds the char on the edges and a caramel-like sweetness. With a bit of creativity accented by fresh herbs and cool flavor filled sauces, roasted vegetables move from the ordinary to the deliciously sublime.

Using whole-milk yogurt as a base and adding refreshing ingredients such as lime, lemon, cilantro, Italian parsley, basil, dill, cucumber, scallions, and spring greens like arugula, sauces and dips can compliment the depth of flavor in roasted vegetables. It’s the savory counter to ice cream on a slice of pie. You can definitely do without it, but oh, its addition is so wonderful!

Vegetables Galore

We are about to enter into the season of ubiquitous vegetables. Tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, beets, carrots, onions, cabbages, and squash of all varieties will soon be at our fingertips. Try roasting these.

When garden produce is starting to pile up on my counter, I pull out a sheet pan, lay down parchment, spread out any variety of vegetables, drizzle them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and add whole garlic cloves, sea salt, and freshly ground pepper. Then I place the pan in a very hot oven (400 F). Simple prep, yet it yields a divinely complex result.

However you end up using the vegetables in the end, roasting first will give a new dimension of flavor to the dish. Be it a salad, a soup, a side, an hors d’oeuvres, or a braise, roast and then combine. You won’t have any regrets.

Posted on 2 Comments

Autumn: The Season of Abundance

The mornings are crisp, the evenings almost nonexistent. The sidewalks are piled with yellow and golden leaves from the ubiquitous maple trees. They crunch underfoot. Squirrels busily scurry through them, burying then digging up and reburying their walnuts, searching for the perfect spot to hide their cache.

We pass through fall entertained by the sounds of distant football games and geese honking overhead. On our schedule are trips to the apple orchard, hot mugs of cider shared with friends, getting lost in a corn maze, and listening to the tales of our farmers who have been combining into the early morning hours to get their crop harvested before the snow flies.

Autumn’s Garden

Let us linger in this autumnal doorway. We come inside into our kitchens bringing in pumpkins, squash, fat fennel bulbs, thick stalks filled with Brussels sprouts. We carry in armloads of hardy vegetables and greens. Mounds of lacinato kale and ruby-ribbed Swiss chard spill out from garden baskets. Magenta carrots, pale leeks, sweet onions, and beets make their way into braises, stews and bisques. Any more bounty and my refrigerator will burst.

So we chop. We cook. We roast. Ripe tomatoes, garbanzo beans, and kale meld into a richly flavored Pomodoro Sauce. Green tomatoes become pickles or are sautéed with roasted peppers and curry and then served over rice. I wait all year to assemble beefy Borscht out of freshly scrubbed beets.

Cooking the Bounty

For tonight’s dinner party, I have stuffed juicy sweet apples with sauteed leeks that were tossed with goat cheese. I baked these in a pool of Sauvignon Blanc, butter, and bay leaves. Now as they finish cooking, the cozy aroma welcomes the arriving guests.

The main course is a large hen stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, sage, and thyme. Lemon quarters, cipollini onions, and pats of butter peek out of the cavity. I then rub the outside with a paste of olive oil, minced garlic, sea salt, and crushed black peppercorns. This bird is surrounded with root vegetables, carrots, parsnips, beets, and potatoes. Finally, slivers of kale, red onion, and Pecorino Romano tossed with a grassy olive oil and champagne vinegar comprise the salad.

Finally, warm from the oven free-form pear galettes drizzled with lavender honey serve as the capstone to this harvest meal. The meal fills with rich laughter and the garden’s final offerings.

Life celebrated by friends and food: fall is the perfect time of year for this. Now neighbors have returned from their summer travels. The bitey cold is not yet on the horizon. Autumn is certainly the season of abundance. Therefore invite friends, prepare your table, and savor the verdant plentitude.

Posted on Leave a comment

Beets

Attributes of the Beet

This deep ruby-colored globe is as delicately flexible to use in your cooking as it is beautiful to behold. The National Garden Bureau has named this “The Year of the Beet.” A justly deserved honor this is!

Beets are an obliging workhorse in the garden. They thrive in a variety of conditions, easily started in spring, after the last frost and not resowed until early August. They prefer slightly acidic soil (pH greater than 6.0) and are fine with a sunny or part-sunny spot.

IMG_4280 (2)
Microgreen salad with shredded beets, toasted almonds, crème fraîche, and dried cranberries in an oil balsamic vinaigrette.

Cooking with Beets

Both the leaves and the root are delicious and packed full of nutrients. I love beets roasted with a little olive oil and sea salt, used as one of the essential ingredients of Russian Borscht stew or boiled then tossed with goat cheese, crisp apple wedges in a toothsome salad. Likewise, the greens contribute well to soups, salads, or even smoothies. Because of their high nutritional value, they’ve taken the health-conscious world by storm. You can buy everything from beet pills or juice to beet powder.

Nothing, however, replaces a good old chunk of roasted beet.

Let’s explore together this versatile vegetable. From its humble beginnings all covered with loamy brown dirt to a rich garnet sliver poking out of a meaty braise, let’s celebrate the year of the beet.

IMG_3828 (2)