If you’re listening close enough, you’re always in position to learn something.
For instance, while Mario and I were on the book tour for “America: Farm to Table,” I wasn’t planning on picking up a new recipe. But I was listening at our events with fans, and one just happened.
It may not even be a recipe so much as a fall-back position: If you get a vegetable that you don’t know what to do with, Mario told the crowd at one of our events, chop it up into 1/2-inch dice, then roast it for 30-45 minutes at 450 degrees.
That’s it. Even better, though: that’s enough.
When I got home and went to my farmers market in the middle of winter, I was confronted with stacks and stacks of root vegetables. My standard repertoire, honestly, doesn’t include a lot of root vegetables. It isn’t that I don’t like them, because I do! It’s just that sometimes they seem like a lot of trouble, without a ton of payoff.
Then I remembered: Just dice and roast!
And so I bought some of each. Parsnip and rutabaga, celery root and sweet potato, beet and turnips. All in the bag.
I devised a plan to, over the course of a week or so, dice and roast each specimen and note the subtle changes and nuances that happen after exposure to heat.
But that plan required patience, and I don’t really have patience. So I chopped everything up at once and threw it in the oven so i could compare everything side by side. By side. By side. Etc.
I cranked up the oven to 450, tossed the cubes in some olive oil, hit them with a bit of salt and pepper and meticulously (for me) arranged them on baking sheets. Into the oven, and the wait was on.
After 20 minutes, I looked in on them and considered stirring them to brown evenly. Then I decided I didn’t want them to brown evenly. I liked that they seemed to be developing an interesting crust on the bottom and were just slightly browning on top. It was a texture variation which was achieved by sheer neglect … and genius!
I pulled them after 45 minutes and found that my 1/2-inch dice was probably more like 3/8-inch now, and I had six shades of golden brown delicious.
Here’s what happened: The rutabaga, which was the hardest thing going into the oven, came out the softest; the turnip, which started out with a sharp mustardiness, mellowed out but kept its character; the celery root developed a more distinct celery flavor; the parsnip got the crispiest; and the beet and sweet potato, both of which started off sweet, practically became candy.
I started thinking about how I could gild each one. Cinnamon-brown sugar on the sweet potato; feta with the beet; some cayenne with the rutabaga; honey and vinegar with the turnip; sherry-mustard vinaigrette on … well, everything.
But instead I just tossed them together in a bowl and called it lunch. Turned out the best complement for each of them was each other.
Jim Webster works at The Washington Post. “America: Farm to Table,” by Mario and Jim, is available on Grand Central Life & Style everywhere books are sold. Follow Jim on Twitter: @jwscoop.