Our basil plants have been the saving grace of our garden this year. Poor, first-year soil? Check. Drought? Check. Heat wave? Check. Rampant insects? Check. This summer has felt like the...
Summer presents unique challenges. Keeping cool and hydrated is a big one around here, where even my hearty and intrepid chickens spend the hottest part of the day beneath the house.
Insect management is another. Between the mosquitoes, biting flies, chiggers, and ticks, we're always on insect damage control. This goes especially for the garden, which is under a constant state of siege by insect warriors, biting and gnawing and tunneling their way to the ultimate destruction of my beloved garden.
There are positive challenges, too. Finding the best swimming hole, making sure a vase of fresh cut flowers is always on the table, and, my favorite, finding new ways of using summer produce.
Between our CSA, my farmer's market finds, and the bounty from our own garden and flock of chickens, summer is a parade of wedging things into the fridge until they just barely fit. Bags of okra, braids of garlic, bushels of tomatoes, and baskets of squash seemingly fall from the skies and into our kitchen, leaving us excited and...well...a little bit breathless at the effort of using everything.
Overall, it's a good problem to have, even if you do wind up playing host to your own private midnight canning party, where tomatoes spontaneously generate and jars disappear. However, the problem with diverse plenty is that every vegetable needs to be prepared in a different manner. You can easily spend a half hour devoted exclusively to okra, but then the remainder of the plethora of vegetables in your fridge simply looms larger.
There is one method, however, that is a busy cook's boon in times of plenty. It is straightforward, almost foolproof, and, unlike many cooking methods, yields results that improve upon a vegetable's raw state. Behold the roasting pan.
The beauty of the thing is that there is no recipe. The ingredients will guide you.
I usually preheat the oven to 400˚F. Then, I prep my vegetables in the manner they require. I almost never peel potatoes unless they have gnarled and thick skins. For celeriac, I always peel. Summer squashes need only to be rinsed and chopped roughly. Onions should be peeled and cut into large-ish wedges. You see the pattern. Let your vegetables tell you what to do.
This is almost a wholly intuitive process. You will learn as you go. Not all vegetables cook at the same rate. If you roast sweet, tender summer squash alongside the stolid, impassable beet (which I have done many times), bear in mind that you will need to cut the beets into smaller pieces than the squash if they are to cook to doneness at the same rate. The idea of this preparation is simplicity itself. You do not want to have to tweeze out limp bits of squash when your beets are only halfway done.
Toss the prepared vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Sometimes I add red pepper flakes, sometimes sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Roast them until they are fully tender, not crisp tender. Browned bits, even charred bits, only add to the vegetables' depth of flavor. If things start to stick to the pan, simply use a metal spatula to prise them off and enjoy the crisp surfaces created by your momentary neglect. As I said, nearly impossible to fail.
Almost all vegetables may be roasted. I have used carrots, all manner of squashes, onions, shallots, garlic, scallions, potatoes and sweet potatoes, eggplant, cherry tomatoes, turnips, rutabaga, green beans, beets, brussels sprouts, parsnips, and even wedged cabbage. Roasting not only accomplishes the obvious, but it also condenses and sweetens the vegetables, making them indispensible in a number of applications.
Roasted vegetables are not just a side dish, although they certainly excel at that particular application. See them as your secret ingredient. With a container of roasted vegetables in the refrigerator, you are capable of any number of feats. Cook a pot of brown rice and season it with tamari. Scatter roasted vegetables on top and sprinkle with crumbled feta and perhaps a few golden raisins.
Make a simple soup. Start with good chicken stock. Cook some small pasta (orzo is especially nice) in the stock and add the vegetables just to warm them. Serve with crusty bread and butter.
Compose a quiche or frittata. Add the roasted vegetables just before cooking and serve with a simple salad.
Slice up any sturdy root vegetables (beets come to mind, but turnips, carrots, rutabaga, and celery root would do just as well) and tuck them into a sandwich on good bread, with some potent, preferably gooey cheese and perhaps whole grain mustard.
Throw them on top of a bistro salad with crisped bacon, goat cheese, and a fried or poached egg.
Prepare roasted vegetable lasagna, alternating layers of veggies, pasta, and ricotta with some fresh basil leaves added for good measure.
A bit unorthodox, but tried and true nonetheless, are roasted vegetable tacos. Warm corn tortillas and stuff them with roasted vegetables, salsa fresca, queso or a little sour cream, and cilantro.
Roasted vegetable galettes make an elegant meal. Simply have on hand your favorite pie dough, whether store bought or homemade, roll it out, pile on roasted vegetables, dot with some luscious, melting cheese, fold the edges of the dough over, and bake until deeply browned.
I could go on. My point, I suppose, is that with one little trick up your sleeve, dinner becomes a simple matter of assembly. Of course, you may not want to have such a ready and willing crutch in the kitchen. That much is up to you. Should you, however, find yourself engulfed in vegetables, simply breathe deeply and unearth your roasting pan.