Though it is usually a poetic season, autumn seems to be straggling in this year. Summertime was a season of atmospheric turmoil as a history-making drought scarred the western landscape while in the northeast, the Susquehanna flooded its banks. My thoughts were with not just friends and family in these areas but everyone affected. A college friend posted photos of her flooded Pennsylvania hometown, while in upstate New York, a dear friend posted photos of the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene. Relief efforts are ongoing in all areas; to learn how to help, click here and here.
One way we can all help is to patronize farmer’s markets. These institutions give a region’s farmers a crucial forum for their work with the land. This is always important, for many farms rely on such venues as farmer's markets as a source of the funds that allow their farms to operate, but after this summer of weather extremes, it is more important than ever. During drought and flood, not only do crops suffer but so do the stewards of the land.
At Urban Home Blog, we have always done and will continue to do our part. We have championed the farmer's market from the sunny expanses of its expression in Los Angeles to the tightly controlled real estate of Union Square. We always cook with the freshest ingredients possible, obtaining them whenever we can from a source as close to the grower as possible. Really, it's no sacrifice, for who wouldn't want to eat the healthiest, freshest food grown by loving hands and collected via a lovely walk through those rows of stalls?
We gather the freshest, tenderest lettuces for our salad bowl, the crispest apples and juiciest pears for our pie plate and canning jar, the most fragrant herbs for our soup pot. And it doesn't stop there -- at most farmer's markets, there is space for local craftspeople from the creamer to the vintner to the knife sharpener. While you're gathering fruit for pies and jam and cider for boiling, don't neglect your veggies. Along with tree fruits and grapes, root vegetables, crucifers, lettuces, chiles and mushrooms are peaking right now.
Something about these first crisp nights draws us back to the hearth. No dish is more fundamental to the spirit of the embers, for a vegetable is one of the most elementary expressions of cultivating our own food, and roasting is the most elementary expression of the urge to cook itself. Once, as a species, we moved from gathering food to growing it, we learned that we have to nurture a plant to get it to bear forth. Once we learned to heat our food in the bane-fire, we learned that roasting is a form of nurturing.
The charred skin and creamy flesh of a roasted vegetable connects us with distant, vital memories of gathering around the fire at dusk, of a hot bite of something good to eat, of knowing that the earth's generosity is a sign of love. With autumn on the ascendant, with roasting vegetables coming into their own and with farmer's needing our support, there is no better time to prepare a pan of roasted vegetables. Here is an original recipe for you to add or perfect this fundamental skill that should be in every cook's repertoire.
The spirit of this dish is best served by being flexible about its construction. This dish should highlight the best available produce on the day it was prepared. Accordingly, though this recipe reflects the mix of vegetables we like to roast in our urban home, the best mélange of vegetables is simply the best of the day's offerings. These could include turnips, celery, fennel, firm-fleshed squash such as butternut or acorn, even beets (if you must). This recipe will serve 4 – 6 as a side dish.
3 - 4 medium carrots
2 - 3 medium parsnips
½ pound baby potatoes, such as Yukon Gold or Red Cloud
1 medium sweet potato
1 – 2 large leeks
1 medium firm sweet apple such as Delicious, Gala or Winesap or firm sweet pear such as Anjou, Bosc or Bartlett
4 - 6 sprigs fragrant, woodsy herbs, such as thyme, oregano or rosemary, or a mix of the three
Non-stick cooking spray
Walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
2. Line an 11- or 13-inch metal or ceramic baking pan with a layer of aluminum foil, shiny side up. Spray the foil with non-stick cooking spray. Pull a length of foil long enough to cover the top of the pan; spray the shiny side with non-stick cooking spray and set aside.
3. Drizzle the bottom of the pan with oil. Sprinkle the bottom of the pan with kosher salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper.
4. Position an in-sink colander in place. Place a scraps bowl, a clean cutting board devoted to vegetables, a peeler and a sharp knife on your work surface.
5. Align the leeks side-by-side on the cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut off the root ends of the leeks; place them in the scraps bowl. Moving up the body of the leeks, cut the white and pale green parts of the leeks into coins about 1/4" inch wide; stop when you get to the rough dark green upper leaves. Set the dark green upper leaves aside to clean and use for sachets des epices or place them into the scraps bowl.
6. Scrape the white and pale green leek coins into a bowl. Do not worry if they are gritty. Cover the leeks with cold water and set the bowl aside. As you work, check the water every few minutes. When it is cloudy, empty the bowl of water by tilting it toward your hand and using your hand as a dam to keep the leeks from tumbling out. Refill with water and check again a few minutes later. Within two or three changes of water, the water should stay clear and the leeks will be clean of grit.
7. Empty the potatoes into the colander and rinse the potatoes thoroughly. Pick through the clean potatoes, using the tip of a paring knife to remove eyes or brown spots if any; deposit imperfections into the scraps bowl.
8. Rinse the cutting board. Use a peeler to peel each carrot and each parsnip, letting the peels fall into the scraps bowl. Working one at a time, cut off the top and bottom tip of each carrot and parsnip; do not use the large, tough top of the vegetables. Place the cut tops and tips of the vegetables into the scraps bowl.
9. Working one at a time, cut across each carrot, parsnip and potato to form coins approximately ½ inch thick. Return the cut vegetables to the colander. Rinse again with cool water and leave to drain while you prepare the sweet potato.
10. Peel and rinse the sweet potato. Use the tip of the knife to cut away any tough eyes or brown spots; add these and the peel to the scraps bowl.
11. Lay the sweet potato on the cutting board; cut the sweet potato in half lengthways. The flesh of the sweet potato will be tougher than that of the other vegetables, and will require stronger pressure so be extra careful that the knife doesn't slip. Cut each half in half to form quarters. Align the sweet potato quarters and cut across them to form half-coins ¼” thick. Add the sweet potato to the vegetables in the colander.
12. Peel the apple or pear. Working quickly, place the peeled apple or pear stem-end up on the cutting board. Cut the fruit in half from top to bottom. Halve each half to form quarters. Use the tip of the knife to remove the stem, seeds with their hard core, the blossom end, and any bruised or discolored areas and add them with the peel to the scraps bowl. Cut each trimmed quarter in half; cut across each to form bite-sized chunks. Add the chunked apple or pear to the vegetables in the colander.
13. Pick up the colander and, holding the colander over the sink, give it a good toss to mix the contents well and to drain the last of the water if any.
14. Distribute the vegetable mixture across the prepared surface of the roasting pan. Drain the cleaned leeks, checking for any residual grit and re-rinsing if necessary, and add the leeks to the mixture in the pan.
15. Drizzle the mixture with oil and sprinkle it with kosher salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper. Working one stem at a time, hold each herb stem over the mixture in the pan. Strip down the stem in the opposite direction of the leaves’ growth, so that the leaves fall onto the mixture in the pan.
16. Position the length of prepared aluminum foil sprayed- and shiny-side down across the top of the baking dish. Crimp the edges of the foil onto the top of the dish, to form a tight seal.
17. Place the dish in the oven. Roast the vegetables undisturbed for 25 minutes.
18. After 25 minutes, remove the dish from the oven and pull back a corner of the foil, being careful of escaping steam. Use the tip of the knife to test one of the carrots; it should be soft and well on the way to tender but not cooked through. If the carrot isn’t ready, recrimp the foil and return the pan to the oven for 5 more minutes.
19. If the carrot is ready, or after 5 more minutes of roasting, remove the foil from the dish, being careful of escaping steam. The vegetables should be nicely cooked through and should have expressed a flavorful liquid.
20. Use a silicon spatula to stir the vegetable mixture, to coat it with the pan juices. Taste the mixture and adjust for seasoning if warranted.
21. Return the pan to the oven and roast the vegetables until they are well-cooked and slightly charred, approximately 10 - 15 more minutes. Serve immediately – and don’t forget to compost the contents of the scraps bowl!