Monday, July 26, 2010

Summer's Bounty of Roasted Vegetables

Back in the '80's ratatouille was all the craze. Blame it on Julia Child and her success at getting our attention to great French fare. A vegetable stew that was making good use of summer's bounty, a boon to vegetarians and could do triple duty as either an appetizer with French bread, a side dish or an entree. Making good use of eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini, basil, herbs de provence, onions, tomatoes...the method varied from throwing it all into the pot at once, or as Julia taught us...slowly adding each vegetable to cook to its peak and yet maintain its integrity. We thought we were so cool, cooking like we were in Provence! It was okay to me, not something I was feigning for since I really don't like eggplant but hoped putting it in the ratatouille would make it more appealing. It didn't, but would it be ratatouille without it? Probably not. It was always just a bit too wet for me. The vegetable combination seemed to merge into a squishy, wet affair that as a side dish was just okay. My guests always raved about it, and I, the grateful hostess, took bows for my culinary prowess...even though I had doubts about the star studded quality of the dish. Something was off to me.

Fast forward to today, and over the last couple of years I have fallen in love with roasted vegetables. Let me clarify this! I don't mean grilled, I mean roasted! Grilled vegetables are great, don't get me wrong, but there is a difference I get from roasting that grilling doesn't achieve. I can adequately remove a lot of the moisture from a roasted vegetable, concentrate the flavor of the vegetable and still get a little char on it. I can better marry the combinations than I seem to be able to with grilling, but that may be a fault of the cook and not the method. I am not a grilling maven. The other thing I have done is combined cooking methods to round out the dish. I blanch harder to cook vegetables before roasting such as carrots and saute easy to burn veggies such as baby/knob onions, mushrooms and garlic cloves before folding into the finished dish.

There are some rules:

..Treat the vegetable you are adding with enough finesse to bring out their flavor to the fullest potential. That being said, don't roast green beans and carrots together, you get the picture. Almost any vegetable can be roasted, i.e., wedges of cabbage, asparagus, root vegetables, summer squash, bell peppers, a variety of onions, etc.
..High heat is a must to allow the vegetable's liquid to evaporate and create a bit of char or caramelization. This is what intensifies their flavor
..Spread the cut vegetables on sheet pans with shallow sides. This allows the radiant heat to move across the vegetables, something you cannot achieve as well in a pyrex or ceramic dish with high sides. Make sure that the vegetables are not stacked but in one layer to prevent steaming. You may need to do this in batches depending on how many sheet pans you have, how many racks in your oven(s) and how many ovens you have.
..Don't cut the vegetables too small, and cut them in uniform sizes. A nice chunk maintains its integrity at high heat and can stay in the oven longer to rid it of some moisture and when it shrivels it is still a nice bite.
..Salt liberally, this makes a major difference but don't over pepper.
..Don't shy away from combining cooking methods. If you need to blanch, do so. If you need to saute, have at it. You will achieve a better balanced dish texturally, with a more pleasing taste in the end.

You will need: Sheet pans (I cover my sheet pans with silicon liners or something similar because caramelized veggies will stick)
Preheat oven to 425ยบ
Yield: A nice platter for 4-6 people as an accompaniment

Your choices vary and are personal, eggplant is extremely popular so feel free to use it, what follows is what I like in the summer, in the winter I cleave to root vegetables.

4-6 Bell peppers in a variety of colors if presentation is important - chunked
2-3 zucchini - diagonally cut into 1"
2 yellow squash - diagonally cut into 1" pieces
3 large carrots - diagonally cut into 1" pieces
1 bunch of asparagus - cut spears into thirds
2 pints mushrooms - halve or quarter depending on size
4-6 bunches of knob onions or two cups of pearl onions - trim knobs of greens, or peel pearl onions after blanching
1 head of garlic - peel cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
White Balsamic Vinegar
Kosher salt & freshly ground pepper
Fresh herbs: Rosemary, Thyme, Parsley
Optional Parmesan Cheese - shaved

In a large bowl toss bell peppers, zucchini and squash in 2 T olive oil and salt and pepper till well coated. Spread on sheet pans that have been lightly oiled, or covered with silicon liners. Sprinkle with fresh herbs of choice. Roast in oven until done to your taste. This can vary from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Rotate pans halfway through cooking. When done remove and let come to room temperature.

While the zucchini and peppers are roasting, bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the carrots for 3-4 minutes. Drain, and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread on a lined sheet pan, sprinkle with herbs of choice, and roast for 30-45 minutes until tender. Remove from oven and bring to room temperature.

Repeat same procedure with asparagus, except it will be roasted in 9-10 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Take the trimmed onions and peeled garlic and saute in 2 T olive oil over high heat, stirring frequently until softened, and caramelized. Add cut mushrooms to the mixture and continue cooking until mushrooms lose their moisture. When done, toss with 1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar, set aside.

When ready to serve, transfer to serving platter, combine all vegetables and sprinkle with additional white balsamic vinegar, and shaved parmesan cheese. Now sit back and bask in the compliments to the chef!