Unearth a winter treat: roasted root vegetables

Winter root vegetables are ideal for high-heat roasting, which seals in delicious flavor.

I can almost say that I look forward to the dark, cold, winter months. I enjoy lighting a wood fire in the morning when the sun is still hours from lighting up the sky, and I look forward to winter dishes in the evenings.

Among my favorites is oven-roasted root vegetables. They are perfect for the winter months, when the produce section is filled with expensive and not-so-appealing vegetables imported from such faraway places as Chile and New Zealand. Root vegetables, however, are domestic - and plentiful. And when they're prepared with care and skill, they can be very pleasing to the palate.

The microwave oven was the worst thing that ever happened to vegetables. It heats so quickly that it's easy to overcook them. Even 30 seconds too long can adversely affect their texture, nutrition, and flavor.

But complex flavors do develop when vegetables are cooked in high, dry heat - such as frying, stir-frying, and roasting. High heat without moisture activates the browning, or Maillard reaction, caramelizing the surface of the food. This is the same chemical reaction that flavors roasted meat and poultry, toasted bread, roasted nuts, and other oven-roasted foods.

Only dense and relatively low-moisture vegetables roast well - others tend to shrivel and become leathery. Most winter root vegetables are ideal candidates for high-heat roasting. Instead of drying out in the heat, they develop a brown crust that seals in moisture and delicious flavor. The moisture that does escape during roasting only intensifies vegetables' flavors.

The best root vegetables for roasting are russet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and sweet potatoes. Peel all except for the russet potatoes, and then cut the vegetables into chunks. (Winter squash, though not a root vegetable, also roasts well.)

For a good mix of flavors, choose four or five different vegetables - not including onion and garlic, both of which are optional. Keep in mind, if you roast onions in large chunks and garlic in individual cloves, even people who dislike them can eat around them and enjoy the rest of the vegetables.

Some vegetables cook faster than others, yet you want all to be equally cooked by serving time. Cut fast-cooking vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, into larger chunks. Cut parsnips, turnips, and rutabaga into medium-size chunks, and cut slow-cooking vegetables, such as carrots and potatoes, into smaller chunks.

Leave the onions in large chunks because they burn easily, but you can easily peel off the outer layer after roasting. Leave garlic cloves unpeeled and whole. Once roasted, they easily slip out of their jackets.

Oil is absolutely necessary. Without oil, vegetables burn instead of brown, and their flavor doesn't develop. You need just about two teaspoons per pound of vegetables. Choose almost any oil, but avoid highly flavored ones, such as sesame, because they will muddy the vegetables' natural flavors.

For seasoning, the assertive- flavored rosemary is an excellent choice. Even though rosemary is a sturdy herb, be sure to add it late in the roasting process to avoid burning it.

The same idea applies to freshly ground pepper. Add the salt, however, before you put the vegetables in the oven.

This is an easy side dish to make. You can prepare your vegetables in less than 10 minutes while the oven is preheating, and they are ready to accompany your entree in less than an hour.

Roasted root vegetables

1-1/2 pounds root vegetables (Choose 4 or 5 from: russet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, and sweet potatoes.)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters or halves (optional)
8 cloves garlic, unpeeled, tips snipped off so they can be squeezed out after roasting (optional)
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted butter (Hint: if using butter, add some oil so butter won't smoke)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons fresh or 1 tablespoon dry rosemary, chopped

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Scrub, peel, and cut vegetables into chunks - larger pieces for fast-cooking vegetables, smaller pieces for slow-cooking ones. Leave russet potatoes unpeeled. (For more details on slow-cooking and fast-cooking vegetables, see main story.)

Toss vegetables and, if using, onion and garlic with oil or melted butter and oil in a heavy roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt.

Roast for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper and rosemary, and continue roasting and stirring for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until vegetables are nicely browned.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

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