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Roast the garden

Thursday, June 28, 2001

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Everybody loves a platter of brilliantly colored, heat-kissed veggies to serve beside the steaks, burgers and chicken at next week's mother-of-all-picnics.

This Roast the Garden Platter features any assortment of summer vegetables and a kiss of olive oil. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette, food styling by Marlene Parrish)

Usually, they're grilled. Delicious as they are, grilled vegetables need to be dealt with. Slice, marinate, baby-sit on the grill, flip, flop, oops, another one falls through the grids. Time, time, time.

There's another way to make an array of vegetables. It's fast, can be done in advance and takes minimal watching on the part of the cook. Best of all, no grill is required. I call it "roasting the garden."

Let's say you want to serve six to eight people.

Gather the vegetables that you like. Red and yellow peppers, a couple of fat Vidalia onions, pear-shaped tomatoes, one or two slender zucchini, a yellow squash, a half-bunch of fat asparagus spears and several heads of garlic. To figure the amounts, mentally eyeball and estimate servings to include a little of each.

Now get out your biggest casserole dish, and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Move the baking rack to a low position. However, if you have a convection oven, preheat it to 375 degrees. The convection oven's air will heat up and circulate and the dish will be done sooner, about one-third less time than in the conventional oven. Just peek in the oven window from time to time to see how things are coming along.

Prep is minimal. Rinse everything to clean. Peel and remove tops and bottoms of the onions, then cut the surface criss-cross about 1/2-inch deep. Cut the tops off the garlic heads to expose the cloves. Everything else can be left whole and uncut. Take care to arrange the pieces in an attractive way because you can serve in the same dish you bake in. All the juices will meld and the browned patches on the dish are attractive.

If you like roasted beets, roast them separately. Just wash and remove leaves, leaving about two inches of stems and the tail. Wrap well in metal foil and place the package on the oven rack to the side of the main dish.

Brush surfaces of all vegetables with olive oil and pop the dish into the oven. After about 35 to 40 minutes, check progress. The garlic, asparagus and tomatoes will be the first to be done, and you may want to remove them to a plate.

When everything is somewhat caramelized and a bit scorched, remove the platter from the oven. Cover with a clean tea towel and allow to cool at room temperature. Remove the package of beets, if using, and allow it to cool without unwrapping.

When ready to arrange the vegetables for the table, do this. Remove the peppers to a separate plate, pull off the stems, drain and discard the internal juices; remove seeds and parched skin with fingers. Place thick strips of peppers back on the platter. Slice the zucchini and yellow squash into biggish chunks and leave them in place. Leave the onions whole (cut them into quarters at serving time, if you like).

Place the tomatoes and asparagus back onto the platter and nestle the heads of garlic into the arrangement.

If using beets, open the package and slice off the stem and root ends. Slip off the skin with your fingers. Cut beets into slices. Arrange them in a corner of the platter because they love to bleed their bittersweet goodness into the juices.

Drizzle everything with your best fragrant olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Garnish the platter with squiggly sprigs of thyme or a bouquet of basil leaves.

Good bread is essential. BreadWorks makes many good country loaves, and its rustic sourdough is especially good. Allegro Hearth Bakery in Squirrel Hill makes a really good San Francisco-style sourdough loaf. The bakery is an offshoot of Cafe Allegro and the inspiration of chef Joe Nolan.

Slices in a breadbasket are fine, but the whole dish is, to quote Emeril, kicked up a notch if you either make Texas toast on the picnic-site grill or saute slices in olive oil in advance, and those are good keepers that can be served at room temperature. At serving time, squish out some soft and sweet garlic cloves from the roasted head on the veggie platter onto the toasts.

Herb-caper mayonnaise is a wonderful partner to this dish, but not essential. For the short version, chop fresh herbs and drain and mash capers, then blend them into Hellmann's mayonnaise.

The longer version by a few minutes requires making a recipe of homemade blender mayonnaise. When the egg, vinegar and oil are emulsified, blend in a tablespoon or two of capers, a chopped scallion, two of the roasted garlic cloves and a hefty sprig of parsley. After resting for an hour to marry the flavors, the mayo makes a wonderful dollop for any of the vegetables.

And I'll leave you with a mystery and a dilemma of Catch-22 proportions. Many of us buy pasteurized eggs these days for the times when we want to use raw eggs in salads, sauces, dressings and such. But for reasons I have yet to research, pasteurized eggs don't "work." They won't foam. Expect the consistency of your raw egg-mayonnaise to be loose and refuse to hold a shape.

Back to you later on this. I'm on the case.

Roast the Garden platter

1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, peeled and scored
1 whole red pepper, stem removed
1 whole yellow pepper, stem removed
1 medium zucchini
1 yellow squash
4 plum tomatoes
3 carrots, peeled
6 thick asparagus spears
1 head garlic, top sliced off
Olive oil
Coarse salt
Thyme and basil sprigs for garnish

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Get out an ovenproof platter or baking dish that is pretty enough for the table. You will bake and serve in the same dish.

Wash all of the vegetables and arrange them attractively in the baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil.

Roast on a low shelf in the oven for about 50 minutes to an hour until edges of the vegetables are somewhat browned. Remove baking dish and allow the vegetables to cool.

When cool, finish the dish. Be sure to save all of the accumulated juices.

Peel the onion and cut into quarters. Peel the pepper skin off with your fingers and cut the flesh into large segments.

Slice the zucchini, squash and carrots into chunks or strips.

Before serving, drizzle again with virgin olive oil and coarse salt.

Garnish with herb sprigs.

Serve with toast made from a hearty bread. Serve at room temperature or warm. Serves 4.

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