How many years has it been that January after January we decided to make the vegetable part of the plate bigger and the meat or poultry side smaller? A decade or two, at least. We are all moving forward, but in the winter it is a difficult promise to keep.
Grate the dull vegetables until they are caramelized and taste like candy, and the densest roots become delicious. Cutting up the vegetables is your only preparation work, and do not shorten the cooking time. You need to give them long enough in a very hot oven to fry through and char a little at the edges. It’s time that hardly demands your attention, so be patient.
When cutting them, keep them in shapes similar to the whole vegetables they came from. I see roasted vegetables on salad bars cut into tiny little squares so that one cannot distinguish e.g. between a carrot and a piece of butternut squash and a golden pepper. Cut carrots into thick slices on a diagonal. Cut mushroom caps once into two large pieces. Divide a red onion into heavy cubes, divide a cauliflower into large bouquets, and halve baby potatoes and cherry tomatoes.
For cooking, use a large baking sheet. Called a “half-plate pan” in the trade because it is half the size of full-plate pans that go into professional ovens, it is an essential piece of kitchen equipment. It measures about 18 x 13 inches (sometimes an inch smaller on both sides). It is strong enough so that it does not strain in the oven. You can also use a frying pan, but the high sides will inhibit the caramelization.
Sometimes you see instructions for blanching vegetables before frying, which prevents the vegetables from shrinking in the oven as they cook through. Honestly, it’s a nuisance and another pot to clean. Instead, place hard vegetables in the center of the pan and cover them loosely with foil. This allows them to steam a little when they start to fry. You remove the foil halfway through the frying.
Vegetables that can withstand high heat are placed at the edge of the pan. Here it is mushrooms and onion boats. In the empty rectangle in the center of the pan, put the cauliflower, potatoes and carrots. Other solid vegetables for the center can be celery root, sweet potato, parsnip, rutabaga, turnips and winter squash.
Then a splash of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Do not throw away the vegetables yet because you have spent all that time placing them where they belong. Cover the center with a rectangle of foil and send the dish into a hot oven. If you know that your oven has hot spots – that is, if you bake something and it gets much browner on one side than on the other – you can advantageously set your oven 25 degrees lower than the 450 oven I prefer. Do not forget you want a little char on the vegetables.
Allow 1½ hour to get the very sweet taste. Start with 45 minutes under the foil. Once you have removed it, you can gently flip the vegetables with a wide metal spatula; you want to move things around without smashing the pieces. Sprinkle cherry tomatoes here and there to add their juice to the tray. You need another 30 to 40 minutes without lids to make them golden and tender.
For serving, add another dash of olive oil and a generous sprinkle of the fresh herbs that look good on the market that day.
And here’s how to shop: Buy vegetables that look good. Use this recipe as a guide and stick to the powerful under-foil technique in the middle of the pan. Serve roasted vegetables next to fish or poultry (more vegetables, less meat!) Or pour them over rice or another grain. One of these years we get it under control.
Sheryl Julian can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.