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For many home gardeners growing their own nutritious vegetables from seeds, it’s not just the excitement of growing the biggest melon or the earliest vine-ripened tomato; it’s also how those fruits of our labors reward our taste buds at the dinner table. Noted cookbook editor Andrea Chesman, author of more than a dozen cookbooks, recommends that we roast our vegetable harvests to bring out their best flavors, and she figures she has roasted at least a few tons of vegetables to prove it!
In her cookbook, The Roasted Vegetable: How To Roast Everything From Artichokes To Zucchini For Big, Bold Flavors In Pasta, Pizza, Risotto, Side Dishes, Couscous, Salsa, Dips, Sandwiches And Salads, Chesman demonstrates just how simple it is roast vegetables in the home kitchen.
“There is nothing difficult about roasting vegetables,” she says, “All you need is an oven to supply heat, a pan in which to spread out the vegetables, some vegetables (of course), and a little oil or butter to encourage browning. It is that simple. Over the course of roasting a few tons of vegetables, however, I have picked up some techniques that guarantee success.”
But first, Chesman provides her definition of roasting: “Roasting is a dry-heat method of cooking,” she notes, “The food is usually cooked at fairly high temperatures in the oven and without the addition of a liquid or sauce. Roasting is quite similar to baking, but generally roasted vegetables are cooked with a light coating of oil or butter, which helps to brown the vegetables and speed the cooking.”
She notes that “All foods lose volume when they are roasted. But since vegetables are mostly water, they lose a great deal of volume. The first time you roast, you may be dismayed by the sheer amount of vegetables being loaded into the oven. Don’t worry—they will all cook down. Forkful by forkful, you will eat more vegetables when they have been roasted. This is a good thing, yes?”
Chesman begins with your equipment needs: “Because you are working with such large volumes of raw vegetables, you will need pans big enough to accommodate them,” she says, “The pans you use should hold the vegetables in a single layer. If the vegetables are stacked on top of each other, they will steam rather than roast. The texture will be mushy, not tender-crisp, and the flavor will be lacking the caramelized sweetness typical of roasted vegetables. Lightly oiling the pan before adding the vegetables aids in browning the vegetables, prevents them from sticking to the pan, and eases cleanup.”
Her recommended preparation techniques include: “Generally all the vegetables should be cut to the same size,” she says, “whether you are dicing, slicing or cutting into matchsticks. Generally smaller pieces roast better than large ones. I have been served roasted vegetables that have been cut into large chunks, and I have found them unpleasant and unevenly cooked.
“The vegetables are usually lightly coated with oil or melted butter, which may or may not be flavored with herbs, spices, or garlic,” she adds, “This fat helps the vegetables to form a crispy outer coating that seals in flavor. This fat also helps the vegetables to brown. I usually prefer to combine the vegetables in a large bowl with the oil and flavoring ingredients, because it is easier to coat them evenly this way.”
Chesman stresses that for roasting success, “Timing is everything. All times in the recipes are approximate, and how quickly the vegetables will actually roast depends on many factors. Stir the vegetables or shake the pan every 10 minutes or so as the vegetables roast. Generally, the vegetables at the edges of the pan will cook more quickly than those in the middle, so stirring is necessary for even cooking. Use a metal spatula and turn the vegetables over as you stir.
“The vegetables are done when they are fork tender, but still juicy, and lightly colored,” she notes, “They should not appear burnt. The flavor of burnt vegetables is acrid and bitter. The flavor of well-roasted vegetables is nutty and sweet. So use your judgment to determine when the vegetables are done, and use the times in the recipes as guidelines.”
Here’s Chesman’s recipe for Roasted Eggplant with Tomato-Basil Relish:
Serves 4 to 6. “Eggplant is an agreeable candidate for roasting—very willing to absorb flavors from the oil it is brushed with. The only trick is to slice it evenly and to a thickness of about 3/8 inch.”