THE GOCHISO GOURMET: Veggies and the art of dry cooking

OK — that was my take on “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values,” which really didn’t translate too well. Oh well! But unlike Robert Pirsig, who states in his introduction that despite the title, there is no factual information on Zen Buddhism or motorcycles, this article does contain pertinent information regarding vegetables and the application of dry heat cooking.

Why dry heat? For starters, dry heat cooking removes moisture from any food substance, thus concentrating natural flavors and sugars, intensifying both sensations. Secondly, dry heat cooking allows browning to occur, or that basic organic chemistry reaction; the Maillard reaction. You know, when the carbonyl group of a sugar reacts with the nucleophilic amino group of an amino acid thus creating complex molecules that create desirable browning along with additional flavor components. Or were you sleeping in organic chemistry class?

Anyway, oven-roasted veggies are one of my favorite cooking applications, especially if I am using the oven for other applications, like baking bread or muffins or making pizza. There’s no sense in wasting that valuable heat. And since we’re now into the New Year and might have to shed a few inches from the excesses of November and December, consuming more veggies are a good way to accomplish those “inch” goals. Please note that I only try to reduce inches, and that I could care less about my actual weight, since weight is simply a number. I would rather be a “heavy” person with lots of bone and muscle mass then a “light” person composed mainly of fat. Of course, at my age and genetic makeup, I trend more to the “heavy” person, composed of fat, and couldn’t pack on the muscle, even using “the cream” and “the clear.” But I digress, so let’s get back to roasted veggies.

Crucifers
I have previously mentioned that one of my favorite veggies is oven-roasted cauliflower. I simply cut them into evenly sized pieces and toss them with olive oil and minced garlic, then roast for 10 to 20 minutes, or just until the edges start browning. These morsels can then be served as is, or finished with a little more flavored olive oil, citrus zest or parsley. And they are just as good hot or cold! Or you can even prepare cauliflower “steaks” by slicing vertically through the whole head and roasting then serving with your favorite dressing, pesto or sauce for a vegetarian main course.

Roasted Broccoli. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Roasted Broccoli. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Or how about roasted broccoli? I know that the elder President Bush despised broccoli, but it’s probably because he never had them roasted. Most cooking applications call either for steaming, boiling or pan-frying, but oven roasted broccoli takes it to another level. Simply slice them lengthwise through the floret and stalk, trying to keep each piece the same thickness for even cooking (or to prevent thinner slices from burning). In a small food processor, pulverize one part bread crumbs (leftover panko is great) and two parts lean salami, pepperoni or bacon with one or two cloves or raw garlic and salt and black pepper. Brush the cut side with a little mustard then press into the bread crumb mixture and roast with the cut side up until the crumb mixture browns. This application kicks up your broccoli several notches!

And last but not least, the humble Brussels sprout, which made its first appearance on my Thanksgiving table several years, ago and now has a regular place on the table (as long as it’s less than $3.99 per pound). When boiled or steamed, Brussels sprouts tend to give off more of those sulfurous qualities (which is why children probably don’t like them) but when roasted in dry heat, the sweetness really emerges. Add a little flavored olive oil and garlic and you have a perfect side dish — I even have leftovers as my lunch!

 

Celery Roots, Carrots and Fennel. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Celery Roots, Carrots and Fennel. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Roots and Bulbs
I used to pack plain carrot sticks for years in my daily brown bag lunch, until I first roasted them as a side dish for Thanksgiving. These days, carrots don’t enter my lunch bag unless they’re oven-roasted with flavored olive oil and smoked sea salt. Roasting highlights the inherent sweetness of the carrot and softens them just a bit — I never roast until they are mushy, but just until you see faint browning on the edges, which leaves them with a “bite.” I also add other root veggies, depending on what’s in season and what’s on sale. Parsnips add a contrasting color, while cubed celery root mixes up the flavors, and, just for flavor contrasts, I’ll often add some fennel bulb to the party. This enhances the licorice-like sweetness of the bulb, while also complementing the flavor profiles of the other root veggies.

 

BETTER THAN A HOLLYWOOD ROAST ­— Gochiso brings out the flavors of veggies through a light roasting. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

BETTER THAN A HOLLYWOOD ROAST ­— Gochiso brings out the flavors of veggies through a light roasting. photo by Ryan Tatsumoto

Roasting Tips
As you’ve already noticed, I haven’t included specific recipes when roasting veggies, as oven temperatures vary from oven to oven and also how well an individual oven retains its heat. The actual size and shape of the veggie also is a major factor, which determines how long it needs to roast. Therefore, you should try to keep the pieces about the same shape and size … unless you have both soft and hard veggies. Obviously, even a large piece of fennel will cook faster than a small piece of carrot, so try to roast the hard veggies together and the soft veggies separately. And there is no one ideal temperature to roast veggies because temperature is determined by how soft or hard you want the finished product. For more char and bite, use a higher temperature. For a soft and silky texture, go low and slow. And remember that frilly parts of the veggie, like broccoli florets, can burn even at low temperatures, so keep an eye on your roasted broccoli!

Be a Multitasker While Baking
So the next time you’re baking bread, muffins or cookies, or simply making a pot roast, take advantage of that oven heat by roasting some veggies. You often can roast them at the same time on a shallow cake pan and you’ll be using the same amount of electricity or gas and most importantly, you’ll be able to coax a lot more flavor out of your veggies than by simply boiling, steaming or pan frying.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at gochisogourmet@yahoo.com.

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