26 August 2010

Roasting Veggies for a Summertime Side

So I have a little more spare time on my hands these days, thanks to a little "re-structuring" of the workplace where I've been on contract for 8 or 9 months. My head was first on the block when the axe fell, and for the last four weeks I've been one of the percentage points in our rising unemployment rates here in Canada.

Ah, well. We're cinching our belts and trying to get by while I work at getting hired into a new position...and on the up side, a definite plus is that I have more time for cooking (and grocery shopping, and laundry, and cleaning, and tending to everything else on our to-do lists!).

So in the last four weeks, my hard-working wife has come home to spectacular and inspired meals just about every evening. She's certainly not complaining. And frankly, neither am I! With a custom-designed and practically brand new cucina to play in, I've been wanting to get back into the "creative kitchen" frame of mind.

In fact, we had some dinner guests over a few weeks ago — and a pre-visitor Saturday morning trip to the Guelph Farmer's Market yielded the summer's bounty. WIth organic lamb in mind as a main, and a hankering for some uniquely flavoured mashed potatoes, I needed to come up with a side dish that wouldn't overwhelm the already crowded canvas of our palates.

Fresh seasonal vegetables were all around, and it seemed just perfect to take as many of those as I could fit into our eco-friendly-ever-so-trendy market basket. I knew I was going to have lots of basil on hand, as we'd picked up a nice big bunch of it for the Bruschetta I was planning as an appetizer. And when we saw the beets, it was a sealed deal — check out the photo above to see why. Candy-cane beets are something I've never seen before, and they're truly a showpiece when they're cut open. This is the kind of thing that turns a Foodie on, and as soon as I saw them I knew we had to have them!

Originally I thought I'd grill the veggies in our BBQ wok with some olive oil and garlic. But I had far too many veg, and I needed the grill space for the lamb. Besides, I've done that side dish far too many times to count. So then I decided to take advantage of the cooler temperatures of the day and roast those veggies up for a nice salad.*

You'll need to plan ahead for this one -- allow about 30 to 45 minutes for prep, depending how at ease you are in the kitchen. Allow another 45 minutes for cooking, and about 2 hours for cooling time. That last bit can be shrunk or stretched according to your day.

And of course, though it should by now go without saying, you can vary this up according to your personal preferences and the veggies available to you locally. I've given you an idea in this recipe of what I used, but you can always change up the ingredients so long as you keep the overall quantity about the same. If I've said it once I've said it a hundred times...mix it up, experiment, and have some fun with this. None of my recipes are really all that set in stone!


3 cups of cubed beets (yellow, purple, candy-cane, pink, orange, whatever!)
1 red pepper
1 orange or yellow pepper
1 green pepper
1 zucchini
1 summer squash (or yellow zucchini if you prefer!)
12-16 cherry or grape tomatoes
1/2 large eggplant or 1 medium eggplant
2 or 3 Portabello mushrooms
1/2 sweet white or red onion
3 or 4 cloves garlic
Black Pepper, Sea Salt
Dried Basil (or Oregano)
Fresh Basil (or Oregano)
Fresh Parsley
Olive Oil

Let's talk veggie prep. As you do each veggie, just toss it in a large steel mixing bowl. The only exception is the beets. They should be segregated in their own bowls until the last steps.

BEETS**: Scrub vigorously, then cut off the tops and the hairy tentacle on the bottom. Now cut into cubes about 1/2" wide and 1" long. Or whatever. Just keep'em sorta large but not too big to eat in one bite. Take each colour of beet separately and very lightly cook it - that means drop it in a pot of boiling water for about 3 or 4 minutes, then remove and strain off the water. You want them to get a bit tender but not cooked. You'll need a fresh pot of water for each set of beets, but it's worth the hassle, as it keeps the colours from bleeding. Think of it like laundry loads! Tip: If you use a very wide saucepan on your biggest burner you can just have an inch or so of water in at a time, and since it boils fast, that keeps this process from taking forever.

With your beets taken care of you can pre-heat that oven to about 375 degrees. To be fair, I used the convection roast feature. If you are so unfortunate as to not have convection, you may want to top it up to 400 degrees for the first 20 minutes, and then 375 for the remainder of the cooking time. Or keep it level at 375, and just add more time to the roasting overall.

BELL/SWEET PEPPERS: Rinse, pat dry, and remove those annoying stickers. Cut in half lengthwise, and take out the core/seeds. Now slice into 1" squares or so.

ZUCCHINI/SQUASH: Rinse and dry. Now cut off the ends, and slice into discs that are about 1/3 of an inch thick. Keep them round or in the case of the squash, whatever shape you get. Just keep them bite size.

TOMATOES: Just rinse'em and roll them around on a towel to dry off.

EGGPLANT: Give the skin a quick wash, then dry off. Leave the skin on. And don't bother salting the slices — eggplants nowadays are okay without that whole step. Slice a good 1/2 inch crosswise to take off the bottom and top, and discard. Now slice the rest of the eggplant crosswise into 1/3 inch slices. Take each slice (or pairs, stacked) and cut them up into about 6 triangles per round.

MUSHROOMS: If they have stems attached, twist the stems very gently at the tops to remove. Discard. Now, with a paper towel or clean cloth, gently wipe each mushroom top under some cold water. Pat dry, and then slice the tops into strips, about 1/4" thick. If they mushrooms are really big, cut the slices in half to make the pieces smaller.

ONION: Peel off the outer layer, and chop into 1/2 inch pieces.

GARLIC: Peel the cloves, and slice each into 2 halves. Don't worry — you want to keep these in larger pieces, as they'll bake up into something sweet.

By now your big bowl should be full of veggies. Add in the beets, and then toss all of this with a good couple of glugs of olive oil. Don't be shy, but also don't get these as greasy as the Thunderbirds' hair. The veg will let off their own juices as they cook, which gives the salad its "dressing".

Grind in a whack of black pepper, and add a very scant teaspoon of sea salt. Add a good heaping teaspoon of the dried basil or oregano. If you want a bit of heat in there too, toss in a good pinch of red pepper flakes. Mix gently with your hands to coat everything, then dump the lot into a big casserole or roasting pan.

Cover very loosely with foil, and bake for 20 minutes. Then pull the foil off, give a gentle stir to get everything turned around, and put back in uncovered for another 25 minutes or so. The veggies should be nice and tender — you don't want them crispy or al dente. If you need to cook them more, turn the oven down about 25 degrees, and add time in 7 minute increments. [Why 7 minutes? Why not?!]

When done, remove from the oven and set on a cooling rack. As it's all cooling, wash and pat dry your fresh basil and parsley, and chop roughly to get at most 1/8 cup of the basil (or oregano) and a few tablespoons of the parsley. When the veggies are not too hot to touch, mix the herbs in gently with your hands. Transfer to a large bowl for serving, and allow to continue cooling.

Before serving, grate over some fresh parmesan or romano cheese, and throw just a bit more of the chopped fresh herbs on top for the colour. Don't go too heavy on the cheese!

So far as I could tell, this went nicely with the mashed potatoes, and particularly with the lamb, which was coated in pesto and grilled on the 'Q.

Pair it up with any good wine, but I recommend that you try to avoid anything too heavy on the tannins, as they tend to make the bitterness pop out from eggplant.

And yeah, Einstein, if you didn't let this cool and skipped the fresh herbs and parmesan you'd have a good winter side of roasted veg.

PS: Those candy-cane beets cook up to just a uniform shade of pink, so enjoy the effect of the cool stripes while they're raw!

* If you have enough grill space and it's too hot for the oven, you could easily do this on the BBQ too, so long as you could keep the heat indirect to avoid burning the vegetables. You wouldn't want to be stirring and turning the roasting veg too much, as they'll get beat up a little too much.

** If you want to use carrots, you can prepare them in the same way as the beets. No segregation required, though, as they won't bleed quite like beets do!

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