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Oven alchemy

You just think you don't like vegetables. Roasting releases more flavor and can convert the veggie-phobic.

Published January 19, 2005

Actor Chris Noth - you'll remember him as hunky Mr. Big from Sex and the City - is a lover of all foods. Except Brussels sprouts.

Doesn't like them, won't touch them, he says in this month's Saveur. He is not alone in his disdain for the would-be star of Honey, I Shrunk the Cabbages.

But Noth has never tasted my Brussels sprouts. If he did, he would never again malign my favorite vegetable.

In recent months I have turned around several haters of Brussels sprouts. Seconds were served. First tastes were experienced.

It is not magic that transforms Brussels sprouts from yuck to yum, just a magical cooking technique: roasting. Roasting smoothes the bitter edge of Brussels sprouts. High, dry heat coaxes out sweetness, and halved sprouts implode in soft, deflated heaps.

The technique can do the same for other vegetables. If you've never roasted vegetables, it is time to try. Beets, carrots, onions, peppers, parsnips, rutabagas, asparagus, green beans, even garlic, are sweetened and mellowed over time in the oven.

Roast a pan of veggies on Sunday and you'll have the makings for delicious dishes on the busy work nights ahead. Serve roasted eggplant, fennel, garlic and tomatoes over pasta or couscous topped with shavings of Parmesan. Buy crusty rolls and use the fiber-rich melange as sandwich filling. Heat the mixture and spread it over a takeout cheese pizza. Tastier yet, make your own dough and use smoked mozzarella.

Most people have roasted a chicken, turkey or piece of meat, and similar principles apply to roasting veggies.

"Roasting is not much different than baking," says Dawn Algieri, owner/chef of Lincoln Heights Bistro in Safety Harbor. "It just means you're cooking surrounded by dry heat. We use the term to differentiate between baked goods."

Last fall I ate a bowl of grits topped with roasted carrots, broccoli and onions at Lincoln Heights, and a more satisfying dish I can't remember. The simplicity was stunning. Algieri, a former cooking teacher, knows her techniques.

Roasting is done in the oven, unless you are dealing with marshmallows or chestnuts over an open fire. Charring red peppers over the flames of a gas stove is not roasting, Algieri says, even though many cookbooks suggest that technique. To get roasted flavor and sweetness, peppers need more time in a hot oven.

I roast halved Brussels sprouts and other veggies in a 400-degree oven. They are lightly coated with oil - vegetable, if you want no added flavor, olive oil if you do - then placed in a single layer on a baking sheet with a lip. (Lightly spray the pan with nonstick coating.) Sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. To green beans, I add two minced garlic cloves.

The oil facilitates browning, just as butter does on chicken or turkey. Be stingy with it; too much creates steam, plus adds fat to healthful vegetables. To prevent oiling too much, pour a bit in your cupped hand and massage it into veggies rather than drizzling from the bottle. You can add more if needed.

I add a few pats of butter if I'm going for the luxe life.

Algieri always uses salt and pepper, and she occasionally adds spices or fresh herbs such as rosemary or thyme. Avoid dried herbs because they burn.

"Sometimes I'll roast acorn or butternut squash and use ancho chili pepper and maple syrup," she says.

Dense vegetables such as beets and carrots take longer than lightweight asparagus and green beans. The pieces, cut in similar sizes to cook evenly, should be turned halfway through the cooking. I give Brussels sprouts 15 minutes, toss them about and put them back in for another 15. Green beans and asparagus will be done in about 20 minutes, and dense vegetables take an hour, maybe more.

Expect some browned edges that conventional wisdom might mistake as burned bits. Post-modern cooks know that as caramelization.

The high heat seers vegetables, Algieri says, preventing juices from escaping. It's all a bit counterintuitive, though. Why don't the vegetables fall apart when they are cooked that long? We have seen the dreadful results of broccoli when it is steamed or boiled too long. The lovely green goes gray, and the flavor lands in the pot. The sort of unappetizing mush that gives a cook a bad reputation is what's left.

The reason the longer cooking time works is because the heat is dry, Algieri says. Boiling and steaming bring moisture out of food, and that is why vegetables are cooked quickly when using those techniques. Roasting maintains moisture.

A similar principle can be applied to roasting meat.

Never stew tender cuts of meat, such as pork or beef tenderloin. The fat from the meat leeches into the water, resulting in rubbery bits, Algieri says.

"A tender cut of meat is always cooked in high, dry heat," she says. "The misconception is that tender cuts of meat are lean. Tender cuts are fatty, and that's what keeps them moist when they cook. The high, dry cooking releases that fat as liquid."

Lean, tough meat that comes from the part of the animals used a lot, such as the shoulder or hind quarters, requires "slo-mo" wet cooking, Algieri says. Think brisket and pot roast.

Use a meat thermometer to measure doneness for meat and poultry; a skewer or fork will tell you when vegetables are tender. Vegetables should be soft enough to pierce but still hold their shape. They continue to cook after being removed from the oven. How much depends on the density. Asparagus stops cooking more quickly than beets.

My magical Brussels sprouts cool off in no time at all and are still delicious at room temperature.

Anyone have the number for Noth's publicist? Maybe I can make him eat his words.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or

Roasted Balsamic Red Onions

1 1/2 pounds red onions (about 3 medium), each cut into 8 wedges

Vegetable-oil cooking spray

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preheat oven to 450 degrees and lightly coat a shallow baking pan with cooking spray.

Arrange onions in one layer in pan and roast in middle of oven, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and just tender, about 15 minutes.

Drizzle vinegar over onions and roast until most of vinegar is evaporated, about 3 minutes. Season onions with salt and pepper, and keep warm, covered.

Serves 6.

Source: Gourmet magazine, April 1997.

Roasted Root Vegetables With Rosemary

Nonstick vegetable oil spray

1 pound red-skinned potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound celery root (celeriac), peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound rutabagas, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound carrots, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 pound parsnips, peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 onions, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 leeks (white and pale green parts only), cut into 1-inch-thick rounds

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary

1/2 (or less) cup olive oil

10 garlic cloves, peeled

Position one rack in bottom third of oven and another in center of oven. Preheat to 400 degrees. Spray two heavy, large baking sheets with nonstick spray. Combine all remaining ingredients except garlic in large bowl; toss to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper. Divide vegetable mixture between prepared sheets. Place 1 sheet on each oven rack. Roast 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Reverse positions of baking sheets. Add five garlic cloves to each. Continue to roast until all vegetables are tender and brown in spots, stirring and turning vegetables occasionally, about 45 minutes longer.

Transfer roasted vegetables to large bowl and serve.

Serves 8.

Source: Bon Appetit, December 2001.

Pasta With Roasted Provencal Vegetable Sauce

1 16- to 18-ounce eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 large onion, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium zucchini, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 28-ounce can seasoned crushed tomatoes with Italian herbs

12 ounces penne pasta

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Arrange eggplant and onion on large rimmed nonstick baking sheet. Drizzle with oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast vegetables until beginning to brown, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Stir zucchini and garlic into vegetables; continue to roast until all vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes longer. Stir crushed tomatoes into vegetables on baking sheet; roast until heated through, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Ladle 1/2 cup pasta cooking liquid into small bowl; reserve. Drain pasta. Return pasta to same pot. Add roasted vegetable sauce and all herbs, and toss to blend. Gradually add enough reserved pasta cooking liquid to moisten as desired. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer pasta to bowl and serve.

Serves 6.

Source: Bon Appetit, May 1999.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved (quartered if large)

1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Toss together Brussels sprouts, oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Place in single layer on a baking sheet with a lip or in a large casserole. Do not crowd the pan. Place dots of butter all around.

Roast in upper third of oven, stirring once halfway through, until sprouts are brown on edges and tender, about 30 minutes total.

Serves 4.

Source: Janet K. Keeler, Times food editor.

[Last modified January 18, 2005, 10:52:12]

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