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Roasting veggies keeps in more of the flavor

July 20, 2010|By CHINA MILLMAN / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sometimes, vegetables need a little heat to bring them closer to perfection.

Theoretically, roasting would be a great way to intensify flavors, but who hasn't been burned by a pan full of roasted veggies swimming in oil, some bits overcooked, others still weirdly raw.

Just when I'd given up on roasting, I remembered that during my few months of real-world restaurant work (my post-culinary-school externship), I roasted a lot of vegetables, but always on wire racks set into rimmed sheet trays (aka jelly-roll pans). The rack ensures that air circulates all around the vegetables and excess oil drips into the bottom of the pan.

Halved cherry tomatoes, tossed in olive oil and a little salt and cooked for a few hours at 250 degrees, become packets of intense flavor. One of my favorite summer lunches is a cold orzo salad with roasted tomatoes, chickpeas and cucumber tossed in lemon juice and olive oil. The tomatoes also are great added to a green salad or piled on toasted bread spread with fresh ricotta.

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Asparagus roasted on a rack at 400 degrees is so reliably tender and sweet that I rarely cook it any other way. It's also easy and quick enough that I can justify obsessively peeling the stems when the asparagus is thicker than a pencil -- a culinary-school rule that completely won me over.

The rack also will come in handy for making bacon for a group. Bacon cooks up perfectly crisp in the oven, and the fat drains into the bottom of the pan. Be sure to save the rendered fat by pouring it into a metal or glass container. Let it cool, then use it instead of butter for sauteing or even baking. Some people recommend refrigerating lard, but I typically keep mine on the counter with no ill effects.

In cooking stores, where the racks are widely available, they're typically called "cooling racks" and can be found in the same area as sheet pans. They are usually sized to fit into any standard half-jelly-roll pan (about 18 by 13 inches) and should cost between $10 and $15. They are slightly harder to find online, except on amazon.com where they are plentiful.

As great as the racks are, some vegetables are better roasted directly on the pan, which will give them crispy, almost caramelized edges. Broccoli florets become more crave-able than potato chips when tossed in olive oil and salt and roasted in a 400-degree oven.

Vegetables that you want to blister and collapse, such as bell peppers or eggplant, also should be roasted directly on the pan.

Most roasted vegetables are equally good hot or cold, so they are fantastic components to keep around for salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Roast four or five kinds of vegetables on Sunday, keep them in containers in your fridge, and you'll find it was never so easy to eat your veggies.

SIMPLE ZUCCHINI SOUP



Unlike many soups that benefit from time to rest and meld the flavors, this soup, it turned out, was at its best just after it was cooked. The texture of the zucchini was firm and almost a bit chewy, and the distinct flavors made it taste appealingly light. The next day it's still good, but the zucchini has absorbed some liquid (albeit a more flavorful one than it lost while roasting).

4 medium zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
Extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
10 ounces onion (about 2 small onions), finely chopped
1 quart chicken stock
14-ounce can tomatoes, finely chopped and combined with juice
Parmigiano-Reggiano

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Place cut zucchini in a bowl and drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil, enough to thoroughly coat the zucchini, but not so much that it's pooling in the bottom of the bowl. Gently spread zucchini in an even layer on top of a wire rack set into a jelly-roll sheet pan (the kind with sides). Evenly sprinkle with kosher salt.

Roast zucchini for 1 to 1-1/2 hours, until they have become a bit shrunken and shriveled, and taste done.

Heat a 3-quart soup pot over medium heat. Add a generous coating of olive oil to the bottom of the pot, then add the onions. Turn the heat down to medium-low and sweat the onions until translucent and very soft, about 10 to 15 minutes, salting to taste. Turn off the heat.

When the zucchini is ready, add to the pot. Add a quart of chicken stock (whether it's homemade or store-bought, it should taste good alone) along with the chopped tomatoes and their juices.

Bring the soup to a boil and then immediately turn down to simmer. Let it simmer for 10 minutes, salting to taste and adding a generous amount of black pepper if you like. Serve immediately, topping each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, with a slice or 2 of bread to accompany.

Serves 3 to 4.

ORZO SALAD WITH TOMATOES, CHICKPEAS, CUCUMBER AND HERBS



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