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Last week Jason and I took five days and four nights out of our schedules in order to get out of Los Angeles. Four nights and five days for what seemed was just a minute.

We packed a cooler, a change of underwear, our camera, an ipod worth a decade of continuous music, Cosmo’s squeaky toy, and a liplube, and off we drove to New Mexico.

There, Jason’s best pal, his soul brother, his BFF Paul welcomed us at his log cabin hidden amongst sky-reaching pine trees on top of a mountain. Fourteen glowing eyes, twenty-eight legs and six tails total, all of which belonged to Paul’s cats, froze motionless behind his back at the threshold of the house upon our arrival.

If you’re quickly doing the math in your head, and 2 plus 2 just won’t make 4, know that one of the seven felines was a Manx. Ah… six tails indeed.

And then Cosmo appeared. Out of the car he sprang and around the house he span sniffing the ground and learning about his new circumstances. He spotted a cat, one of the seven that had dispersed in the darkness, and set his aim. Little did he know, the cat (all of them) moved with the speed of light (from his perspective) and flew through four bedrooms, the kitchen, and a vast living room in the same time poor Cosmo was still trying to find a way out of the first room alone. The three of us stood there, the speechless spectators, and quickly came to a conclusion that no intervention was required. Cosmo would never catch up with any of the kitties, hence no threat was posed.

The cats watched Cosmo's every move.

Cosmo had his eye on the cats.

Sequestered within the heart of the forest, wild coyotes crying in the distance, we set by the fireplace and exercised our brains talking for hours on about life and humanity, ecology, the origin of Homo Sapiens, Terence McKenna, fire fighters, the stars above and the volcano nearby. At sunset, we drove to the peak of the mountain and watched the sky.

We walked through the woods for hours, down to the river and up, by the Aspen girls. Then, in complete darkness we found the way out onto the highway and back to the house.

We cooked all meals, from breakfast through dinner. Well, I cooked, but always surrounded by eager and willing helpers. All it took was a hundred dollars that we stretched between four people and three meals a day over the July 4th weekend.

Five days away from home, from my kitchen, and from my computer turned into a full week of catching up. Not only did I not have time to write, but also I had to gear up for a whole lot of cooking for my upcoming Lunch Deliveries.

Before I withdraw back into my kitchen chambers, I want to share with you a dinner idea. Something different. It’s a simple peasant food with a smoky twist I put together one day recently–ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES WITH SMOKED MACKEREL.

There’s such a colorful and flavorful variety of root vegetables you can make this dish every time anew. Pick three veggies at a time and reinvent the meal over and over again. You could do carrots, turnips and kohlrabi. Add potatoes for extra body. Next time try diced rutabaga, parsnip, and squash. Add Brussels sprouts for color. Then you still have beets in various colors, same as carrots, plus a celery root, and a fennel bulb to twist it all together. Roasted onion never disappoints either.

To roast your medley, first preheat the oven to 400ºF. Wash, peel and dice all veg keeping them all more or less same size. Toss the bunch into a roasting pan, sprinkle with olive oil, add a bunch of fresh thyme (leaves picked or whole brunches scattered around), half a spring of fresh rosemary (or leaves picked and scattered around), a few crushed garlic cloves, and 1-2 bay leaves. Season generously with salt and pepper and mix everything about making sure all pieces have been treated justly. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 of a cup of veg or chicken stock to the bottom of the pan, and slide the dish into the hot oven. Roast for 30-45 minutes (depending on your veg and the dice size). Half way through, dive in with a long spoon and toss the medley about.

When finished, scoop as much as your hungry soul desires onto thy plate, top with chunks of smoked mackerel (that you had previously scraped with a fork from the fish itself, leaving the bones and skin behind), and freshly picked dill. Treat the fish with just a few drops of lemon juice, sprinkling from up high. That simple touch thus turns the meal automagically into a hedonistic thrill.

I can’t even describe the pleasures you are to experience upon the first nibble. The creamy flesh of the oily fish melts together with the savory vegetables producing a carnival of joy in your mouth. Don’t just take my word for it. Try it at home, I dare you.

I hate for you to think I’m neglecting my JOURNALISTIC duties of logging in the nuts and bolts of the culinary ventures I participate in. Nothing further from the truth. My heart aches for the lack of time, and my fingers itch to type away such succulent words and directives as STIR, MASSAGE, RUB (my roasted chicken), TENDERIZE, ROLL OUT, STRETCH (that bread dough AND my back after 17 hours of hustling in the kitchen…), SPREAD (the vegetables on a roasting pan), BEAT, PRESS, SQUEEZE, and POKE (no fun!).

It’s day 2 of the production of this very article I kid you not. I sneak in a word or even a complete sentence between various tasks that are being thrown at me at work. The satisfaction from such naughty behavior tickles me inside, adrenaline sprints through my veins, and the mischievous brat inside imitates a sinister laughter.

There’s no story to share, no juice or dirty laundry to expose, no beans to spill. Life goes on oblivious to all circumstances and doesn’t pause for a minute. Thus imagine what a Herculean effort it is for me to rewind time and bring you back to my kitchen last Sunday, where Leslie was plotting to stock her purse with my POTATO SKINS while I wasn’t looking. (Check the comments section if you believe me not!)

Speaking of the devil…

It is a true American Comfort Food, and a virgin territory for me. You know how I feel about doing a research and digging out recipes for dishes I attempt to make. I’ll be blunt – I’m too lazy for that extracurricular activity and so I merely cut to the chase of figuring out the jest of the dish at hand on my own. Most of the time I’m exploring foreign culinary grounds in order to learn and thus expand my repertoire. Just like with those guys above – The Russetts.

Leslie said:

“I’m severely craving baked potatoes.”

Agi thought:

“Bring it on!”

I got a bag of medium Russet potatoes, cleaned and baked them in a preheated oven (at 400°) for an hour. Next, I cut them in half (after they cooled off a little, hello!) and scooped out most of the potato leaving the skins still strong and intact. About 4 oz of pancetta landed in a hot skillet, fat rendered, pancetta was rescued into the bowl with the potato “meat”, and onion slices caramelized in the same skillet. I sprinkled crashed dry marjoram (I’m in love with that herb, no question) all over softened onions, seasoned with salt and pepper and set aside.

The potato “meat” mixed with crisped pancetta was then seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika, nutmeg and chili powder. One teaspoon of butter gave it the moisture of a tropical forest. The green ribbons of basil chiffonade interlaced the filling like lianas in a jungle.

Drum-roll, please! The hero(in) of the dish arrived – Gruyere cheese, grated and generously added into the mixture. Once coherent, the mass was then scooped back into the potato skins, topped with more cheese, drizzled gently with olive oil, and baked in the oven for another 25 minutes at 350°.

We served them instantly, garnished with a tart tip of sour cream, and washed down with a glass of cold Chimay.

Need I say more?

Hello, my name is Agi and I’m a dooce‘oholic. The last 72 hours I have spent on the couch, laptop resting under my chin, while browsing through the archives and flickr files uploaded by the Armstrongs for the world to see and get ADDICTED! I haven’t slept, eaten, brushed, or shaved. I may have cut some cheese here and there, but was too busy to acknowledge it. Here’s a proof of the madness found after I had finally scraped my rear end off of the above-mentioned piece of our household.

Seriously, I think I should quit dooce, you know, the most popular mommy blog on the face of the Earth. My maternal instincts have been howling for quite some time now. Hence, Cosmo. Hence, the girls and boys names’ lists. Hence, dooce… The problem with the latter is that every time I visit the website and watch some 30 second video of the Armstrongs’ older offspring, or a picture of their joyous 6-month old dumpling with those HUGE blue eyes, it’s as if I was tossing shots of grain alcohol into a fireplace while standing right in front of it.

It’s not the lack of practice that stops Jason and I from procreating, oh no. On the contrary, we have been practicing with such intensity and devotion that we discovered we possessed skills previously unbeknownst to us. I shall elaborate on that…NOT.

There are several reasons preventing us from making babies, however. The most immediate one is made of lubricated latex. Next, there are several existential circumstances, if you will, that are still amiss for us to start talking family. And if I am to point fingers, a steady income and health insurance, or rather a temporary lack there of must take the blame.

In order to expedite the process of getting our shit together and organizing our lives, I’ve been proactive securing our best odds. Not only have I been flipping coins into the local WISHING WELL, rubbing Buddha’s belly right before bed, offering an innocent lamb to Zeus and the rest of the Olympian gang on every full moon, but also I’ve been trying to start my own business and work as a Personal Chef. Considering how brand new the idea is, I’m proud to say the first clients arrived.

Let me share with you my joy of cooking for people who love the food I make for them. Cheers to the very simple GREEN SALAD WITH MAPLE ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES.

What you do is you go to a store and pick up a bunch of fresh, organic root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, red and golden beets, and maybe some butternut squash to finish the patchwork of colors. Peel ‘em and cut ‘em in even chunks. Preheat your oven to 400°. Spread the colorful joy of nature flat on a baking sheet, then season it all with kosher salt and black pepper, drizzle with olive oil and then maple syrup (Grade B, always). Roll your sleeves up and get your hands dirty mixing all veggies and spreading the love evenly. Shove the pan into the oven and let them ROAST for 25 to 40 minutes (depending on the size of your chunks, and I’m not talking dirty here).

While the root vegetables are getting their sins forgiven within the hell of your oven, fetch your greens (e.g. arugula, chopped collard greens, spinach) – wash ‘em, spin ‘em dry, and place  ‘em in a BIG bowl. Add a handful of chopped toasted pecans, drizzle with a simple BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE (you know: balsamic vinegar, good olive oil, salt, pepper, Magic Bullet or a whisk in a fast hand), and toss around. When your veggies are done, let them cool for a minute and then add to the bowl. Once again, shake ‘em up a little with your salad spoons. Last but not least, crumble just a touch of goat cheese all over the bowl for that extra creamy texture. It’s optional, however, as the salad will be just PHENOMENAL without the cheese as well.

Believe it or not, this very SALAD WITH MAPLE ROASTED ROOT VEGETABLES makes for a delectable, healthy, balanced, and perfectly satiating dinner. If there is anything else to do that evening it’s to enjoy a glass of wine and shag your better half.

Before we met, both Jason and I were dining out most of the time. Jason had memorized all the taco, burger, and sushi joints on Ventura Blvd and beyond, while I was hooked on Whole Foods and their salad and hot foods bar.  Needless to say, we were spending a fortune on our meals – in our world it translated into eating away a medium-sized car a year. One day we did the math, and between the two of us we were trashing about $1800 a month on the “fuel for our bodies”. Multiply this by 12 months and you have just burped a brand new Honda Civic with a built-in GPS and Satellite Radio.

Many people ask me how old I was when I started cooking. While I made a few simple dinners here and there as a teenager to give mama a hand, the whole love affair with pots and pans bloomed when I started dating Jason. Our courtship period was marked with his long and romantic letters text messages while traveling solo in Guatemala, homemade salads, and a barley-mushroom soup I’d make after his return. It wasn’t until a few months into our romance when we collected all our receipts to calculate our food expenses that the alarm bells began to ring. Our jaws dropped, broke into a million pieces, and scattered all over the floor when we saw the mind-blowing amount of almost two grand on the calculator.

That was our “Aha! Moment”. That was a turning point toward our future lives. More importantly, it was the time of my creative liberation when the cooking beast within was unleashed.

We started a regimen of regular escapades to the local Trader Joe’s for a weekly supply of groceries. Week after week the tab was coming to about $100. Another $20-$40 smackers were dropped at a Farmers’ Market in exchange for organic carrots, leeks, seasonal fruit and veggies along with a variety of aromatic, fresh herbage. Next, we invested in a pair of twin lunch boxes (It’s sickening sometimes how cute we are!), a set of good knives, pots and pans, and our love boat set sail.

Lunch Boxes

Are you following? Are you breaking your fingers trying to add it all up? Are you smashing those beads on your granny’s abacus? No, you’re not crazy. We cut down our food expenses by 2/3rds! So now, even though we don’t eat out as much anymore, and meat shows up on a plate no more than 3 times a week, we haven’t seen the same meal on our dinner menu in a few months.

Having said that, I will admit we’re a part of that lucky, sun-burnt whassup-dude-nation of Southern California. Not only do we have 70-degree weather all year round on average (which allows for a variety of fresh, organic produce), but we also have Trader Joe’s – the main source of affordable, healthy and organic yummers. It seems the guys are scrambling though to bring the goods to more Americans. You can check here if your city has also been blessed with its own TJ store.

A few days ago, I found a new “delicacy” within the depths of the store’s freezers. It is an extreme rarity to catch me using any pre-made frozen dinner thingies so abundant in every grocery store in America, but after having scouted the frozen Chicken Cilantro Mini Wontons, a bulb lit in my head. “What if I take the leftover roasted root vegetables from last night’s dinner, use them to make a soup, and dump the frozen wontons inside…?”

TJ Wontons

And so she did.

WHAT I USED FOR THE DISH:

-       roasted root vegetables (see below for details)

-       1 medium leek (only the while and light green part, thoroughly cleaned – muy importante!), chopped

-       1 medium onion, diced

-       garlic (CAN YOU HANDLE THE TRUTH?! Ok, 6 or 7 cloves)

-       4 oz package of diced pancetta (from Trader Joe’s)

-       1 carton of low sodium chicken broth (also fathered by TJ)

-       2-3 dry bay leaves (remove before serving!)

-       5-6 whole peppercorns (same here, out before serving)

-       1-2 tsp of dry marjoram

-       2 tsp of lemon juice or vinegar

-       half a bag of fresh arugula

-       handful of fresh dill, roughly chopped

-       spices (eyeballed…sorry): red curry powder, garam masala, cumin, nutmeg

-       kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

First, I diced a peeled onion and chopped my CLEAN (I can’t emphasize it enough) leek. Into a hot pan I threw a handful of diced pancetta, let the fat melt and the meat get crispy, then fished the cracklings out and set them on a plate for later. Into the greased pan I threw the onion and leek, and let them sauté for about 5-7 minutes. Next went chopped garlic, salt, dry marjoram and black pepper.

At this point, a neighbor passed by our open back door and shouted: “Mmmm, something surely smells GOOD!”

My roasted veggies got really excited and all jumped into the pot at once. To help everyone inside bond, I poured about a half cup of chicken broth, stirred the party around collecting all the flavors from across the dance floor, then turned off the heat – time to get serious. I emptied the content of the pot into a food processor, and… pushed the ON button.

The whirlwind of events that followed is too graphic to describe. Know that at the end of the night, I was left with a creamy and smooth veggie mass, which was returned to the pot. To turn it into a soup, I added the rest of the chicken broth from a box, the bay leaves, peppercorns, more salt and pepper, a touch or two of red curry powder, garam masala, cumin and nutmeg. The lemon gave its juice. The cracklings were also ready to get back in the game. I left it all to simmer for about 30 minutes, covered with a lid.

Half an hour later the wontons were ready to join the party. I emptied the bag into the soup to let everybody mingle and phone numbers were exchanged. Next, I turned the heat off and added the arugula, which instantly wilted in the temperature of the goods it swam in. The final touch was a dust of chopped dill sprinkled over a serving of Roasted Vegetables Soup with Chicken Wontons.  God, bless its soul, for it was heavenly! Jason had two helpings.

Chicken Wontons

Hmm… where was I? Oh, right, the mere memory of the dish throws me off track. Before I move on to the roasted root vegetables part of my story, let me just take a deep breath and compose myself again.

Alright.

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED:

-       3 medium to large parsnips

-       4 medium to large carrots

-       1 celery root

-       kosher salt + black pepper

-       Herbs de Provence

-       Extra virgin olive oil

Wash and peel your veggies, cut in 1/4” strips and spread on a sheet pan. Sprinkle with olive oil, herbs and seasoning. Using your hands, massage the goods into the veggies, and thus prepared, throw them into a 400˚ oven for about 30 minutes. THAT’S IT!

Just make sure the veggies are soft before you allow them out for some fresh air. Each oven is different, so you may need 5 minutes less, or 10 minutes more to turn your root vegetables into that beautiful and delicious patchwork of roasted carrots, parsnips, and celery root.

The sky is the limit – or the ground rather – when it comes to vegetables you could be roasting: butternut squash, acorn squash, potatoes, Brussels sprouts, beets, garlic – I’ve done them all. Don’t limit yourself. Be bold. Experiment. Follow your instincts. The pleasure received from such trials will be that much greater!

Amen.

Earlier this year, in the spring, Jason and I worked together on a pilot for Fox, called “Sons of Tucson”. Jason is a freelance producer working on various TV shows for different networks. He’s given the industry over a decade of his life, and paved his way with sweat and blood. He got on board of SOT excited to be working once again with the Emmy-winning director, Todd Holland, and started building his department.

Since I had recently been laid off from my previous job, and was ready and eager, he hired me proudly as his Bitch. Well, my deal memo called the position “Post Production Assistant”, which didn’t bother me. One of the crucial tasks I was entrusted with was keeping everybody in the house fed. I was armed with a folder full of menus to keep things colorful and versatile. However, it was Healthyca, a little gem of a restaurant in the Valley, that became a main source of our lunches till we wrapped the pilot. It was then that I rediscovered QUINOA. I hear some of the members of our crew got quinoa-obsessed ever since.

Quinoa [keen-wah] is a grain native to South America; it’s the sacred crop of the Incas, also considered a Super Food for its nutritional value. 100 g of uncooked quinoa contains 14 grams of protein, plus significant amounts of B-vitamins, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, and Zinc. It also carries a balanced mix of essential amino acids making it a delicious source of complete protein.

I’ve used quinoa for years, cooking it on its own and serving it with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts, or steamed and sautéed broccoli, or inside tomato soup. I’ve had it a few times cold as a salad, and it was good, too. Nothing beats though Quinoa Salad made at Healthyca. Great job, guys! Keep it up.

After the pilot was over, and we returned home for good, away from the Valley, I got inspired to recreate the dish that rocked the worlds of so many. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am about to share with you the fruits of my labor, my little secrets that make THE difference. It is highly valuable information, hence consider it CONFIDENTIAL. And even though it’s not exactly the same as Healthyca’s, it is damn good every time I fix it.

Quinoa is cooked in 2:1 ratio, where you take 2 cups of liquid for each cup of grain. SECRET #1: flavor the quinoa while cooking, either with a few bay leaves dropped into cooking water, or substitute your H2O for chicken stock (low sodium). {The same rule applies to rice and other grains you may want to cook} It’s done when all liquid is absorbed. Remember to discard the bay leaves before mixing your salad. They are not edible. Set the quinoa aside to cool, and mix it a few times around so it doesn’t dry on the surface.

Now the fun part begins – you get to invent your very own Quinoa Salad. You can make it a Crunchy Quinoa Salad by adding finelly diced Persian cucumbers, radishes, red or yellow bell peppers, and heirloom tomatoes, say 1 cup of each, plus a handful of chopped scallions and fresh herbs (dill comes to mind instantly, then parsley, basil…). You can get a more meaty texture and make it a Quinoa a’la Mexicana by mixing black beans, yellow corn kernels, red bell pepper, red onion, cilantro (chopped appropriately) into the salad. Think about color combination and texture. Feel it on your tongue as you create. Smell the goods. Another idea would be Quinoa with Roasted Vegetables, where roasted halves of Brussels sprouts, chopped carrots, parsnip, and garlic cloves make the “filling”. It doesn’t have to be vegetarian either. Throw in some roasted chicken breast cut in bite size chunks. Maybe add a handful of baby spinach leaves and let them wilt in the warmth of quinoa and veggies. Be creative. Be daring. Be wild!

SECRET #2 lays in the dressing. Aha! You definitely want your quinoa salad moist. A dry salad is a waste of time. It’s just wrong. Period. For the cold version the best and easiest choice is a lemon dressing (these proportions are good for 1.5 cups of cooked quinoa, adjust as desired):

-       2/3rd of a cup of GOOD extra virgin olive oil

-       1/3rd of a cup of freshly squeezed lemon juice

-       1 tbsp of lemon zest

-       1-2 tbsp of honey or agave nectar (start with 1 tbsp and taste)

-       a solid pinch of sea salt

-       a healthy pinch of freshly ground black pepper.

Whip it good into a coherent mixture, taste, and pour over your salad. Mix well, set in the fridge in a closed container, and let all the flavors get to know each other. You may enjoy it on its own, or serve it as a side to a rock-and-roll sandwich you’ll put together in the meantime.

If you take the warm route with roasted veggies (and chicken), I would start with sautéing diced slices of pancetta on a skillet with onions and garlic (salt & pepper!) over a medium heat. Once the fat from the pancetta is melted, I would add a can of diced tomatoes (low sodium) and simmer over a low heat for a minute or two. I want enough liquid to combine the quinoa with the veggies, but I don’t want it soggy. Take it off the heat, again pour over the grain, add the spinach and voila! You made yourself a royal dinner, just as – if not better – the Incan monarchs used to dine.

red quinoa din3

I know you’re all suddenly hungry now, and drooling over the computer screen, so go, go play in the kitchen. Take a bowl full of this ambrosial meal and lure your mate, date, neighbor, or friend. Report back to me when you recover your senses after the feast.

Oh, Yes!

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