Roasting for Flavor & Sweetness

By Sally Bernstein

Like most people who rely on fresh produce, I sometimes find myself saddled with hard-as-a-rock fruits that never ripen and out-of-season vegetables that never develop any real flavor. I accept this outcome as part of the game of buying fresh fruits and vegetables: not every round is a winner. But I hate waste, and I love second chances, and so I started experimenting with ways to salvage my disappointing purchases.

I knew that roasting brings out a superb, mellow sweetness in peppers and garlic, so I decided to try my hand roasting other fruits and vegetables. Success! A friend's leftover black grapes, sad and sour the day he brought them over, were even more withered a few days later. But a 20-minute stint in the oven brought out a juicy sweetness that even the grapes forgot they had. I was further encouraged by another roasting experiment, this time with some rock-hard winter pears I had bought in a misguided fit of optimism. Roasted, they offered a melting sweetness. When I employed the same technique on a pound of mealy and insipid apricots, I ended up with a fruit that tasted like pie filling, good for topping pancakes but also delicious on its own.

When roasted, even the most stubbornly flavorless fruit can blossom to a lush sweetness. I was surprised by how well the technique works with a wide variety of fruit — bananas in their peels, peaches, pineapples, etc. — even when the fruits are not beauty contest winners. Roasting redeems fruit at almost any stage of distress — withered, aged, or bruised — as long as it isn't actually spoiled.

Roasting also mellows vegetable flavors that can be harsh. "Why would anyone eat a raw pepper when he or she could eat a roasted one?" one of my friends wondered aloud. I agree. The sweet, caramelized flavors of roasted peppers, onions, and garlic are much tastier than those of their raw counterparts. A few roasted onions or peppers are great additions to salads and sandwiches, or they can be served with crackers as party appetizers. At a recent visit to the local supermarket, I noticed I was not alone in my appreciation for roasted vegetables. The deli counter featured roasted Brussels sprouts, "Russian caviar" (a roasted eggplant dip), and focaccia with roasted onions and garlic. Cans of "fire roasted" tomatoes and jars of roasted peppers also graced the shelves. Most of these items can be made at home with no great fuss.

The basic technique of roasting is simple: line a cookie sheet or other oven-proof dish with foil (it's neater), place the item to be roasted on it, and blast the heat away. Some fruits and vegetables require oil or another liquid to keep in the moisture; others just need the heat. I was curious to see whether cooking authorities drew any distinction between "roasting" and "baking," two terms that can sometimes be used interchangeably. No real consensus emerged. Some cooks use the term "roasting" for cooking temperatures above 350 degrees and "baking" for lower temperatures; others reserve "baking" for desserts; and still others insist that the term "roasting" be limited to a type of baking done with a coating of fat. (Obviously I don't subscribe to this view!) In any event, both terms connote the application of heat to an item of food until it becomes as tasty as possible.

In most cases, I like to roast fruits and vegetables just until the point of being burnt, for maximum caramelization and sweetness. I like to keep the temperature moderate so that I don't have to guard constantly against scorching, but if this is not a concern of yours, there's no reason why you can't crank the oven temperature up to 500 degrees for any of these recipes. Your own tastes may vary, and so may your oven's temperament. Roasting encourages experimentation. So go ahead, try almost anything. You can roast kale into snack chips, and bananas into custard. And in almost every instance, the flavor will be improved. There is a small downside: you'll have to look elsewhere if you want some crunch. (A nice pickle is always good!)

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

(Serves 4-6)

What to do with those cherry tomatoes that aren't picture perfect? Try roasting them!

  • Olive oil spray
  • 3 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh oregano, basil, or parsley

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cover a cookie sheet with foil, and coat with the oil spray. Spread the tomatoes out on the cookie sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Roast for 15 minutes, remove from the oven, and toss to mix. Roast for another 5-10 minutes, until the tomatoes are soft and wrinkly.

Remove from the oven and toss with fresh herbs before serving.

Total calories per serving: 61 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 11 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 20 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Cinnamon Roasted Pears

(Serves 4)

Like poached pears, only much simpler! This recipe works well even with blemished, wizened, or under-ripe fruit.

  • 4 Comice or D'Anjou pears, cut in half
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1 Tablespoon cinnamon, or more to taste
  • 1/3 cup dessert wine or water

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Using the tip of a potato peeler, a demitasse spoon, or another appropriate tool, scoop out the seed pouch in each pear half and discard. Fill each pear's cavity with raisins and press down firmly so that the raisins lie flat.

Cover a cookie sheet with foil, folding up the edges to create a hedge at the border of the tray. Place the pears raisin-side down on the foil and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Roast the pears for 15 minutes, remove from the oven and add the wine or water to the cookie sheet. Return the pears to the oven, and roast for an additional 50 minutes, until the pears become soft and their peels become wrinkly. If the pears look like they're going to get scorch-ed, add more water or wine to the cookie sheet (it will soon evaporate).

Remove the pears from the oven and invert them onto a platter or dessert plates to serve.

Variations: Apples are considerably more fragile than pears, and should not be used as a substitute in this recipe. Any small or minced dried fruit, however, may be substituted for the raisins — try apricots, dried cranberries or cherries, etc. For an especially festive touch, serve on dessert plates decorated with a few drizzles of chocolate syrup.

Total calories per serving: 182 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 42 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 4 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Roasted Veggie & Tempeh Sandwiches

(Serves 4)

If you are pressed for time, you can roast the vegetables earlier in the day and refrigerate them. The actual sandwich assembly will only take a few minutes. The roasted vegetables will keep for days and can also be used in salads or with any type of grain.

  • Olive oil spray
  • 2 red peppers, cut in half, seeded
  • 1 small jalapeño pepper, cut in half, seeded (optional)
  • 1 large sweet onion, peeled and cut cross-wise into 1/4-inch sections
  • 6 smoked tempeh strips
  • 2 large crusty rolls
  • 1/2 cup bean dip, pesto sauce, or other sandwich spread
  • 1/2 cup mixed lettuces (mesclun)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cover a cookie sheet with foil, and coat with the oil spray. Spread the red and hot peppers on the sheet and roast for 15 minutes.

As the peppers continue to roast, prepare another cookie sheet for the onions. Add the onions to the oven. After 20 minutes, turn the onion slices once to roast their undersides. Continue roasting until the onions are evenly browned and the peppers' skins become wrinkly and separate from the pepper flesh. (If the onions look done before the peppers do, remove the onions from the oven and set aside until the peppers are ready.)

Remove the peppers and onions from the oven. Let the peppers cool, and set them on a bed of paper towels to drain for a few minutes. Remove their skins, and slice lengthwise into thin strips. Separate the onions into rings. At this point you can set the roasted vegetables aside and assemble the sandwich later.

Meanwhile, sauté the tempeh strips in a non-stick pan until they are browned and crisp, about 5 minutes.

To assemble the sandwiches, cut the rolls in half and spread each side with the bean dip, pesto, or sandwich spread. Building from the bottom, add the mesclun and layers of onions, peppers, and tempeh. Cover sandwich with the top half of the roll, cut in half, and serve.

Total calories per serving: 288 Fat: 17 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 478 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Garlic & Rosemary Potatoes

(Serves 6)

This fragrant dish is a big hit at parties. You almost can't add too much garlic!

  • 3 pounds red bliss potatoes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 6-8 peeled garlic cloves, or more to taste, cut in half if large
  • 3 Tablespoons dried rosemary
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cut potatoes into 2-inch cubes. In a large bowl, mix the potatoes, oil, garlic, and rosemary so that the potatoes and garlic are completely coated. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper and mix again.

Pour the potato mixture into a large cast iron skillet, casserole dish, or other oven-proof dish.

Roast the potatoes for 25 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove them from the oven, and stir thoroughly with a spatula. Return the dish to the oven and roast for an additional 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender.

Adjust seasonings and serve.

Variations: Substitute a few potatoes with a sweet potato for a change of color and flavor. (Don't use too many or the texture of the dish will be different.) Or mix in some other potato varieties, such as blue fingerlings. Small waxy potatoes such as red bliss work best for this dish, but other varieties, and for that matter, other root vegetables such as carrots or parsnips, can also be used in limited quantities.

Total calories per serving: 268 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 43 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 15 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Roasted Baba Ganoush

(Serves 4-6)

Serve this eggplant appetizer with pita wedges, crudite, or as part of a mezze platter with olives, tabouleh, marinated beans, and pickles.

  • 1 large globe eggplant, unpeeled
  • 1 onion, unpeeled and coated lightly with olive oil spray
  • 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and coated lightly with olive oil spray
  • 1/4 cup tahini
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup minced parsley or pomegranate seeds (garnish)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Pierce the eggplant and onion with a fork all over to let steam escape while roasting, and place them along with the garlic in a baking pan or casserole dish. Roast for an hour, until the eggplant's peel is completely blackened and the flesh has collapsed. Remove from the oven, and let cool. (You can run the cooked unpeeled vegetables under cool water or set in a bowl atop a dish of ice to speed this process.)

When cool enough to handle, peel away the blackened skin of the eggplant (you may need to rinse your hand to get rid of the residue). Peel the onion and chop it coarsely. Pop the garlic from its papery cloves.

Place the vegetables in a food processor or blender, and add the tahini paste and lemon juice. Pulse until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Scoop into a bowl and garnish with parsley or pomegranate seeds. The baba ganoush may be served warm, cool, or at room temperature.

Total calories per serving: 149 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 15 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 11 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

South-of-the-border Red Pepper Dip

(Serves 4-6)

A cheerful dip that captures the flavors that make salsa so popular.

  • Olive oil spray
  • 4 large red peppers, cut in half and seeded
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, cut in half and seeded (optional)
  • 3 cloves garlic, unpeeled and coated lightly with olive oil spray
  • Juice of half of a lime
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3 scallions, both green and white parts, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup cooked pinto beans (canned beans, rinsed and drained, are fine)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cover a cookie sheet with foil, and coat with the oil spray. Place the peppers, jalapeño, if desired, and garlic on the tray and roast until the peppers look cooked and their skins have become browned and loosened.

Let cool. Peel the peppers and pop the garlic cloves from their skins. Place the peppers on a bed of paper napkins and let them drain for a few minutes. You may wish to cut the jalapeño peppper into quarters and experiment with the flavor if you aren't sure you will want a full measure of spiciness.

Place peppers, garlic, lime juice, cumin, scallions, and beans in a food processor and pulse into a thick paste. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Pour into a bowl and garnish with cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips or raw veggies.

Total calories per serving: 103 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 9 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Sally Bernstein is a freelance writer living in New York City, and a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal.