Roast your damn vegies

[Vegans, heads up, there’s a picture of roast meat about halfway down.]

This is my true ideology — I evangelise roasting your damn vegies. It is not without peril: as a clumsy person, running my oven full blast is a recipe for first-degree burns, and the PM 2.5s are not to be sneezed at (except I do). But the risk to deliciousness ratio makes it a winner.

Roasting in general makes food more appetising. It dehydrates food, concentrating flavours, and it adds texture by generating an exterior crust with a tender interior. Maillard reactions also generate lovely caramel flavours.

I personally find caramel a bit boring; it’s the reason dishes cooked in a slow cooker often end up tasting the same. My rule of thumb is cook until cooked and where vegies are concerned, cooked to me often means burnt around the edges — that lovely char adds bitterness, complexity and additional texture.

Roast vegie salad

When I worked at a weird little offshoot of Latrobe University in Melbourne CBD, I used to walk with my friend and colleague Nat to a nearby resto that served salads for lunch made from vegies roasted in their wood-fired oven, and I’ve been a salad person ever since.

You want a mix of hard and soft vegies, like carrots and zucchini, to create a pleasing textural contrast. That means roasting the hard vegies for 20-30 mins before adding the soft ones, and you can also chop the soft vegies in larger chunks, because they will shrink as they dehydrate in the oven/on the barbie.

Here’s a roast veg salad I made for a recent dinner with friends in Tassie. Too simple — just carrot, parsnip, zucchini, and red onion, served over a thick schmear of tahini mixed with Greek yoghurt and microplaned garlic, lemon juice, and finely chopped carrot fronds for a pleasing bitter note.

Transforming a roast

For the same meal, I added baby truss tomatoes, still on the vine, to the roasting pan about an hour before the lamb was cooked. They burst in the fierce heat and let go their liquid, turning a dry roast into more of a daube — my favourite way to roast lamb. In the last ten minutes, I added pearl cous-cous to the pan to soak up all the lamb-y, tomatoey pan juices.

Roast your brassica!

If you’ve ever eaten pan-seared or oven-roasted brussel sprouts, you already know that brassica — the mustard plant whose variants include broccoli, kale, cabbage, cauliflower and brussel sprouts — loves to be roasted.

I am a huge fan of Deb Perel from Smitten Kitchen and also Justine Doiron and their genius came together in this recipe for a roast cauliflower and cabbage salad. Now hold up a second, I hear you thinking, those are not charismatic vegetables. They go soggy and unpleasant at the drop of a hat!

This is where roasting comes in — it dries them out and gives them those delicious charred edges. Deb reassures her readers it will taste good rather than burnt. This is the ‘trust me’ aspect of roasting your damn vegies.

I’m extending the salad by adding oven-roasted chickpeas that I have roasted with a coating of harissa paste rather than serving the harissa on the side.

This is how the key ingredients look before I roast them. Pallid all round.

The after pics show how far you can push them without any unpleasant burnt flavours:

As you can see they shrink down a lot. I’m cat-sitting at a friend’s place right now, but at home, I own a bunch of cheap baking sheets, so I can roast three trays of vegies at a time. Just lay down baking paper on each tray to make clean-up easier and keep in mind the top-most tray will cook faster.

Give it a go

Fold up some teatowels or bust out your oven mitts, dial up your oven as hot as it will go, and your tastebuds will thank me.