Food: Spring bulbs

Some vegetables are just too good to eat with meat. By Simon Hopkinson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
One sees a lot of "roasted" vegetables these days (I even saw a roasted strawberry offered on one jolly menu), the most chic being the wood-roasted variety. But can vegetables truly be roasted - apart from spuds and parsnips?

Take carrots. Roasted, they simply blacken at the edges, but remain limp, sort of sweet and orange and not really ever cooked enough for me without some water somewhere. I feel much the same about parsnips, too, to be honest, but they at least possess a more interesting taste once the sugars carbonise. Roasted carrots simply taste like burnt carrots and there's an end to it; better utilised in a stock that requires a little colour. If I liked pumpkin more than I do (pumpkin pie remaining the very worst of American cooking), I might entertain the idea of a wedge of singed butternut squash. I prefer it, however (and then only just), in soft wet lumps in risotto, or mashed and enclosed within ravioli, further sweetened by the bizarre inclusion of crushed amaretti.

Fond as I am of a nicely crusted wedge of bubble and squeak, a burnished sprout when caught by too severe a heat is not a pleasant thing. But bits of cauli missed by their blanket of bechamel and cheese and touched by the grill are surprisingly delicious. (Roast potatoes still winning so far.)

I have a problem with the use of the term "roasted". It smacks of things to be basted, with necessary natural layers of lubricating fat or skin. There will be a good smell emanating from an oven of familiar juices periodically being exuded (a few potatoes help here). Most vegetables don't do this. Vegetables do not graze, fly or strut in farmyards. I have seen roasted squid, too. Perhaps the unfortunate cephalopod was served up with those strawberries ... (I really like roast potatoes, don't you?)

The most common "roasted" vegetable of all is the scarlet pimiento. But it is never roasted, it is grilled. Or charred, or held over an open flame, or put into a tray in a very hot oven. Moreover, all four of these cooking processes are employed simply to ease the removal of their resultant scorched, blackened and papery skins. The very best "cooked" (now there's a novel description) pimientos are imported from Spain. They arrive in small jars, complete with authentic little black bits to prove they have been hand- peeled from the bars of a wood-fired grill following their cauterisation. Those who peel millions of Spanish peppers and Morecambe Bay shrimps should be both pitied and praised for ever more. (Roast potatoes are best, I think, cooked in hot dripping.)

The delicious and fragrant head of new-season's garlic often advertised as "roasted", is, in essence, simply baked or braised in unnecessarily virginal olive oil. At any rate, once you have infused a shallow bath of the finest oil with several heads of hot garlic, all traces of something so prim - and pricey - will have been penetrated by the rampantly overpowering allium. Even fennel, onions, celery, leeks, regularly seen among any mixture of roasted veggies, are much finer if initially braised before being burnished by a more butch heat. And all are very nice indeed eaten on their own. (Have you ever tried roast potatoes with roast beef?)

Braised chicory, serves 4

So, you look at the perfect photograph of a duo of endives here, all glistening and golden, and you want to say: "That looks like two nicely roasted pieces of chicory to me." (Chicory is simply the English word for the French endive, but the latter is not to be confused with curly endive salad.) Well it isn't. It is braised chicory, slowly stewed in the oven with butter, lemon juice and seasoning, tightly covered. The final burnish comes from them being gently turned over a moderate heat until an overall rich glaze is achieved.

75g butter

8 large endives, trimmed of any damaged leaves and the hard little core at the base removed with a sharp knife

salt and pepper

juice of 12 small lemon

Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. It is good to use a shallow and solid-bottomed dish here that will transfer from stove to oven, and eventually to table, too. If it has a lid, then all the better. Make sure the dish will take the endives in a single layer.

Melt the butter in the dish and cook until foaming. Put in the endives, turning them thoroughly in the butter, and season. Turn the heat down to low and gently colour the endives on all sides until glossy and tinged golden by the butter. Pour in the lemon juice and turn up the heat a little. Cover with foil - or put on its lid if there is one - and place in the oven for 40 minutes

Take out, remove cover and turn the endives over. Cook for a further 15-20 minutes over a very low light, on top of the stove, rolling them through their buttery juices from time to time. Ideally, they should turn out a bit sticky and have an overall crusted surface. I can eat these as a course all on their own. If you like that idea, too, serve with plenty of their juices and a generous sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley.

Baked fennel with white wine, garlic and Parmesan, serves 4

The Pernod in this recipe is optional, but it does make the dish taste especially good. Buy a few measures from the local pub if you don't feel like investing in a full bottle. Once again, I would prefer to eat this as a course in its own right.

4 handsome bulbs of fennel, trimmed of excess stalk and any unsightly brown parts

1 tbsp olive oil

salt and pepper

4 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in half

juice of 12 small lemon

100ml dry white wine

1 tbsp Pernod

25g butter

2-3 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

a little extra olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 325F/170C/gas mark 3. Cut the fennel bulbs in half lengthways. Heat the olive oil in a solid-bottomed dish that will accommodate the fennel snugly, and one that will also transfer happily from stove top to oven. Once the oil is medium-hot, put in the fennel halves flat-side down, together with the garlic and gently fry both until a pale golden colour. Turn over the fennel, season, and squeeze over the lemon juice. Add the wine and simmer until it has reduced, turned syrupy and started to splutter somewhat. Now spoon over the Pernod and set alight. Once the flames have subsided, introduce the butter and swirl around until melted. Cover, either with a lid, or a sheet of foil fixed tightly. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes.

Remove from the oven and check to see if the fennel is very soft by inserting a small, sharp knife. Any resistance will indicate a further cooking time, say another 20-30 minutes. There is little worse than a dish of braised fennel that is firm in the middle. Once you are satisfied that the fennel is fully fondant, sprinkle the surfaces with the cheese and a further meagre trickle of olive oil. Place under a hot grill until golden and cheesy-smelling. Eat warm rather than piping hot.

Red onions braised with chicken stock and garlic breadcrumbs, serves 4

I would have asked you to use beef, rather than chicken stock, for this recipe, but as beef bones are (supposedly) difficult to come by, then chicken it has to be. Of course, this is a matter for you and your butcher. Eat this delicious dish of onions with some roast beef or a nice rare-grilled rib of beef. That's off the bone, of course. Again, however, it is a baked vegetable dish that can hold its own.

4 red onions, peeled and cut in half crossways

1 tbsp melted dripping or half butter and oil

1 tsp sugar

salt and pepper

50ml red wine vinegar (the Spanish brand 'Forum', made from Cabernet Sauvignon wine, would be just the job here)

100ml chicken stock

4 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs

grated rind 1 small lemon

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tbsp chopped parsley

a little melted butter

Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Heat the dripping or oil and butter in a pan similar to the one in the fennel recipe. Once hot, put in the onions cut-side down. Gently fry until lightly coloured, sprinkle with the sugar and seasoning, and pour in the vinegar. Allow the vinegar to bubble away to nothing and then pour in the stock. Bring up to the boil and put into the oven - uncovered this time. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until soft. Turn the oven temperature up to 425F/ 220C/gas mark 7.

Meanwhile, blend the crumbs, lemon rind and garlic together in a food processor until pale green in colour. Sprinkle the crumbs over the surface of the onions, being careful not to let too many fall off. Put back into the hot oven, on the top shelf. Bake for a further 10-15 minutes, until the surfaces are crusted and blemished by greeny-brown blisters