Whenever someone asks me for a great vegetable recipe, the answer is simple. “Roasted.” It doesn’t really matter what the vegetable is (broccoli, carrots, potatoes…) because the magic is in the preparation method.
When you roast vegetables, or really anything for that matter, a wonderful thing happens – it’s called the Maillard Reaction. In everyday kitchen talk, we call this browning or caramelization. There is some kind of chemical reaction that happens and it creates amazing flavor compounds. When you roast vegetables, the high heat of your oven elevates them to something even better than they were.
That being said, successful roasting depends on a few important steps.
1) Your pan.
I always use a sheet tray, like the ones you bake cookies on. If you use a Pyrex or something else with tall sides, the veggies steam a bit and you lose some of that nice browning. Important tip – keep in mind that dark sheet pans attract more heat (like if you wear a black tee on a sunny day) so check your veggies a couple times to make sure they aren’t burning.
2) Be consistent with your knife cuts.
If you chop your butternut squash a whole range of sizes and roast it, the smaller pieces will be overcooked by the time the big ones are halfway done. It seems obvious, but I’ve often been in a rush and failed to keep the sizes equivalent. It’s super annoying but luckily very avoidable. When you have your veggies all nicely cut, toss them in some olive oil, salt, and pepper and you are good to go.
3) Crank the heat up.
As the title of this blog post hints, heat is something to be embraced in the world of roasting. How hot is your oven when you roast? Some tell me they attempt to roast at temperatures of 350 or 400 degrees – it’s no wonder the results are disappointing. When I roast veggies, I have my oven at 450 or even 500 if I’m feeling adventurous. It’s good to play around with this, as you want to make sure the veggie is sufficiently cooked through by the time it starts browning (like broccoli, where the florets can start to burn while the center is still kinda hard). Before you embark on high temp, make sure your oven is as clean as possible. Those burned bits of quiche crust on your oven floor will come back to haunt you when they are smoking up your kitchen.
Lemme stop here to say, roasting at lower temperatures isn’t wrong. Of course, you can still roast things at lower temperatures (a process that nicely dehydrates the veggies, enhances flavor, but takes longer cooking time). But if you are looking to create those crusty, browned zucchini slices to enjoy with your steak, a high temp is your friend.
It’s a chilly Friday afternoon in Boston and I’m in and out of the kitchen, tinkering with recipes and techniques. But I’m also making some challah for Shabbat so there is a lot of downtime to let the dough rise – a perfect opportunity to talk a bit about my favorite new book and the food issues it brings to light.
“What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets” by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio is an impressive collection of portraits of people and the food they consume in a day. When I started leafing through it at the Brookline Booksmith, I was instantly drawn to the gorgeous photographs. Each image contains the featured person in his or her “element”, whether it is the Australian lifeguard Bruce at the beach or the Namibian diamond polisher Mestilde at her workstation. In front of each person, there is a spread that represents a typical day’s worth of food. Even though each image speaks volumes, there is also a significant amount of text detailing the exact kind of foods and their calorie count as well as a write-up about the routine and lifestyle of each person.
I really urge you to check out this book. As author and nutritionist Marion Nestle writes in the introduction, “… this book provides an incomparable documentary record of the stunning diversity of foods, diets, and occupations that sustain life in today’s world.” I couldn’t help but make the following observation:
We don’t eat as well as we think we do.
Go into any major supermarket in America and you will be presented with a mind-boggling selection of foods. I was especially aware of eating habits after spending a semester living in Italy. The supermarket near my apartment in Florence initially looked bare to my American flat mates and me. We were confused to find so much less available to buy. For instance, the bread offerings included some nice-looking fresh bread and maybe two options for sandwich bread. The cereal was incredibly limited as well. Sure, there were many kinds of pasta and cheese and other Italian staples, but you’d be shocked to see the tiny selection of cookies and crackers and other processed foods. At first look, we were underwhelmed – to make matters more confusing we didn’t even have a microwave in our apartment!
Upon returning home, I pulled the classic study-abroad-student move of feeling hypercritical towards American culture. I bemoaned the gigantic supermarkets with their row upon row of food options. Now that 5 years have passed, I can confidently say that I miss the simplicity of that Florentine market. There wasn’t always too much to choose from, but the foods were delicious and much healthier than what a typical American’s grocery cart might contain. I always bought produce, cheese, bread, and pantry staples like canned beans and rice. I ate well and drank well – and I didn’t gain weight because I wasn’t snacking on junk food and I was walking for miles each day. I miss it.
Now back to the book. In the many photos from around the world, the majority of the featured meals are easy to identify. There are fruits and vegetables, some kind of bread, cheese, meat or fish, and drinks like coffee and juice. In some cases, the featured person was surviving on a shockingly small amount of calories a day. It was humbling and painful to realize just how many people live off of a meager allowance of nutrients. For those who weren’t going hungry, even though they had limited budgets, their food looked really appealing. From a simple curry dish with naan to a plate of sliced meat with bread, the foods were wholesome and often locally grown. Contrast this to our Western diet where many foods come in packages with wild health claims – and make us fat and disease-prone. Americans worry the most about their diets, but get sicker than the rest of the world (thanks to Michael Pollan for such insights in his impressive body of work on food culture).
These are enormous topics that bring up all kinds of questions about culture, food policy, economics, agriculture, and nutrition. But for now, on this chilly Friday, I’d rather reminisce about the time when I ate so well despite fewer food choices – and be inspired by how humble ingredients can create beautiful meals that are even better when shared with family and friends.
Eggs are completely fascinating. This most basic of kitchen staples is easy to overlook. In a world of truffles and cinnamon oil, the common hen’s egg isn’t so cool. But when you take a second to consider its contribution to the kitchen, it is nearly unmatched.
First off, they are pretty cheap and easy to find. In addition to milk and bread, even a non-cook’s kitchen will have a carton of eggs. If you run out, you don’t need to fight the lines at Whole Foods – every market will have eggs. Secondly, the lowly egg is a real workhouse in the kitchen. In cakes, they give flavor. They get scrambled and tossed into a Pad Thai to add wonderful texture and richness. When you beat the whites up, they create a silky foam that in turn creates a gorgeous soufflé. Not bad for an ingredient you can find at a gas station, sharing real estate in the fridge with bricks of Velveeta.
Until culinary school, I didn’t give much thought to all this – why would I? Since I was a kid, I understood that you could break eggs into a pan and heat them until they turned solid. And they tasted good, especially when topped with a handful of cheddar cheese. That’s about all I could say about eggs. Many years later, on a cold day in January, I heard a 2.5-hour lecture about eggs in my Food Basics course at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts.
If you had told teenager Mikki that she would one day sit in one of those cramped student chair/desks at 8:30am and learn about measuring the height of an egg yolk to determine freshness… well, I’m pretty positive I would have RSVP’d “no”. But learning about the science behind a single, perfect egg was one of my best days in culinary school. It blew my mind.
Did you know that the yolk’s color depends on the chicken’s feed? A diet rich in corn yields a deep yellow hue. Did you know that the entire time from ovulation to laying is about 25 hours? C’mon, that is pretty cool. If you are interested in such things, check out food scientist Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking”, an unbelievable tome dedicated to the science and history of food. Warning – if you are like me and the chapter title “How Proteins Destabilize Foams” makes you nervous, you may be tempted to ignore this book. But even for non-science people, this book is really fascinating.
All academic science aside, eggs create culinary masterpieces. The next time you crack into a crème brulee and discover the golden custard underneath, you are experiencing something sublime. Props to you, little egg.