When cooking seasonally, it's not just the ingredients that follow the weather. Techniques do, too. Speedy methods such as steaming, searing, and blanching seem too fleeting and insubstantial for the heft of dense winter turnips and compact Brussels spouts. Instead, come December, I crank up the oven and hardly turn it off until March, roasting everything that can't protest.
My foolproof, basic roasting recipe-which works with nearly every vegetable I've tried-involves nothing more than coating an ingredient with a generous gloss of olive oil, seasoning it well with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and whatever other spices are within arm's reach, and subjecting it to my oven's high heat (generally set between 400 and 450°F, depending on the density of the vegetable and my hunger level). (For more information on Roasting see Notes).
Broccoli works stunningly well. In warmer months I'll savor it raw in salads or steam it lightly to accentuate its grassy green flavor. But in winter, I want it slow-cooked, caramelized, and thoroughly soft. Roasting gets me there with a minimum of fuss.
I've served roasted broccoli florets, strewn with whole coriander and cumin and maybe a pinch of chili, as finger food at fancy parties. I've eaten heaps of it for supper with nothing more than some bread and cheese on the side. I've pureed it into soup thinned down with chicken broth.
But one recent evening, I was itching to try something a little different, and hungered for a meal more substantial than just a bowl of vegetables, no matter how savory.
I wanted to add protein, some quick-cooking ingredient I could roast along with the broccoli, preferably in the same pan.
Tofu would work. But even the firmest of the firm would need pressing and draining before it could be roasted, and I didn't want to wait that long.
Boneless chicken thigh meat was another possibility. Cut into bite-size pieces, it would roast in about the same time as broccoli florets (breast meat would also work, but I don't like it as much). But roasted chicken is always tastier after even a very brief stint in an intense marinade or spice-and-garlic rub. And I was after instant post-supermarket gratification.
So in the end I chose plump pink shrimp. They required no advance preparation, and the color would be gorgeous with the broccoli.
Having roasted shrimp on their own before, I knew their cooking time would be about half that of the broccoli, especially if I wanted supple florets.
So I slicked the broccoli with oil and seasonings and set it to roast. Ten minutes later, I tossed in the shrimp. After twenty minutes altogether, I ended up with juicy, meaty shrimp tinged with lemon zest, and spice-infused, tender, golden-edged broccoli. Perhaps best of all, there was only one dirty pan; easy cleanup is welcome in any season.
Yield: Serves 4
2 pounds broccoli, cut into bite-size florets
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
½ teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon hot chili powder
1 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
1¼ teaspoons lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
Lemon wedges, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a large bowl, toss the broccoli with 2 tablespoons oil, the coriander, cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, and the chili powder. In a separate bowl, combine the shrimp, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, lemon zest, and remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper.
2. Spread the broccoli in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 10 minutes. Add the shrimp to the baking sheet and toss with the broccoli. Roast, tossing once halfway through, until the shrimp are just opaque and the broccoli is tender and golden around the edges, about 10 minutes more. Serve with lemon wedges, or squeeze the lemon juice all over the shrimp and broccoli just before serving.
More than braising, baking, sautéing, and even simmering, if there is one fallback technique that I use on a near daily basis in my kitchen, it's roasting.
You can roast almost anything to delectable results. Just take whatever it is that you want to eat, toss it with loads of olive oil and more salt than you think you need, and put it in a low-sided pan in a hot oven. While you unload the dishwasher or mash some garlic for a vinaigrette, your dinner will soften on the inside and caramelize on the surface, taking on that characteristic roasted, sweet flavor. It will condense and deepen in the heat, becoming more intensely itself in taste. Beets get beetier, broccoli gets broccolier.
Because the process is the same for nearly every vegetable, meat, fish, or fowl, you can set your brain on automatic when you roast; all you need to do is watch carefully so you can judge when dinner is done. It helps if all the ingredients are cut into the same-size pieces so they cook at the same rate, though if some end up darker brown veering on black and some more golden, that's okay too-especially if you adore the burned ends of roasted carrots, potatoes, and Brussels sprouts as much as I do.
One thing I've learned through trial and error is not to crowd the pan. Leaving space between all the chunks is what gives the heat a chance to envelop and brown them. Squishing them all together will steam them and make everything mushy, which is not terrible, but probably not what you wanted when you decided to roast. I use large, industrial baking pans (called sheet pans) that I picked up at a kitchen supply store. Jelly roll pans work well too, but are a little smaller.
When I'm feeling completely sapped of all my creative juices, I roast. As long as you start out with something fresh and preferably seasonal, it won't need any bells and whistles to make it taste good. Sure, you can do things like substitute nuggets of butter for the olive oil, though I don't usually bother, since cutting butter into bits is more fidgety work than overturning a bottle of oil. But swapping in smoked salt for plain sea salt will give your food a hot-off-the-grill flavor without having to go outside and battle mosquitoes.
If you happen to be feeling creative, you could sprinkle on spices and nuts, as I do here. They turn plain-Jane cauliflower into a kicky dish suitable for company, though for a marvelous, minimalist version, stick to the basic trio of cauliflower, oil, and salt. The nutty browned flavor of the heat commingling with the sweet earthy essence of vegetable is all you really need. Ditto the carrots and eggplant variations, though the green goddess dressing on the eggplant is a gem of a recipe in its own right, and worth the five minutes it takes to whirl in the blender, Make it even if you skip the eggplant; it will be terrific as a dip for chips, carrots sticks, your fingers.
But back to roasting. I learned about roasting from chef Waldy Malouf, with whom I wrote a cookbook called High Heat. The trope was that every recipe could either be grilled or roasted depending on the season and your mood, and that application of high heat brought out the best flavors in nearly every ingredient.
After testing my way through 125 recipes both in the oven and on the grill, I can positively say that I prefer the oven. It's not just because I find roasted foods slightly more delicate and compelling than the brawniness of grilled foods. It's because I like keeping busy inside the kitchen, washing the salad greens or opening the wine while the fish roasts, rather than standing around outside just waiting for it to cook but doing nothing else besides (though I suppose I could weed the garden). Unitasking, my husband calls it. And he is the champion of it. Which is why, when it comes to the few things that are better grilled than roasted-burgers, ribs, steak-he mans the grill. And I roast the side dishes, happily ensconced inside.