To look in any dictionary under the word "roast" will most likely yield a definition such as "to cook foods using dry heat in a contained oven or near an open flame". Sounds simple, right? As with anything though, a roast can be made as uncomplicated or elaborate as one decides. I personally like to keep things simple. Once, while taking a course on French Cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, I witnessed a chef roasting three capon. As simple as it sounds it was one of the most beautiful yet laborious roasts I had ever seen. First he slid the thinnest slivers of black truffle under the bird's skin, and then lathered them with a mixture of butter whipped with lemon, fresh thyme and sel gris (gray sea salt). After trussing the capon he told the class that while it is the norm to roast a bird on a wire rack, he prefers to do so directly in the roasting pan—sans rack—and turn them every ten minutes. I felt as if he were telling us his deepest culinary secrets. After roasting and turning the birds for a mere fifty minutes he removed them from the pan and made a sauce with the drippings using vermouth and cream. The capon were crispy on the outside and tender as butter throughout. They were the most succulent birds I shall ever taste, but through the entire cooking process I couldn't help but think how not only was this roast taken to an extreme level of culinary refinement, it was also made overly complicated. Cooking is one of the most basic skills necessary in life and also one of the most personal. After all, one must cook in order to eat and it is only natural for a person to take pride in the food they prepare.
Roasting is one of the more fundamental and satisfying methods in which to cook, it's almost primal. Though with today's food media and countless chefs promoting the "thrill of the grill" roasting is often overlooked. In truth, not only is roasting a healthy cooking method, it is also one of the oldest and quite possibly the original way to cook. When humans first began to cook foods—intentionally or accidentally—they did so by resting it next to or in hot coals.
The word roast, of course, can be used as a verb or a noun; it can refer to the actual act of cooking and also the food that is cooked, i.e. a roast. Not surprisingly, the word roast and bake are often used interchangeably. The main difference between the meaning of these two words lies in the context in which they are used. A chicken, for example, is roasted whereas a pie is baked; bread is baked and beef is roasted. Though it does sometimes get a little confusing—while whole-unpeeled potatoes are baked, diced (and sometimes peeled) potatoes are roasted. To make matters even more complicated the influence from restaurants and food media have actually shifted some of the cooking terminology; it is now en vogue to "roast" certain foods which only a decade ago were called baked—fish and vegetables mostly. Both of these cooking methods though—baking and roasting—do exactly the same thing, they cook foods by surrounding them with dry heat. And there are actually two ways in which one can achieve this: with an open flame (spit roasting) or in an oven. While cooking foods next to an open flame sounds romantic and is considered superior by the professional cook, the average person roasts food using the contained radiant heat of a household oven.
Before you begin to roast there are a few guidelines to consider. First, remember that roasting is not a tenderizing cooking method—a tough cut of meat will still be tough after it is roasted. In such an instance braising would be appropriate. Food that is roasted should be done so on a wire rack or trivet, which elevates it slightly off the roasting pan, lest it sit in it's own rendered fat or juices and begin to fry or boil. Although, often a small amount of liquid can be added under the roasting rack, which will alleviate the rendered fat in the pan from smoking and also facilitate in making a sauce or gravy. And the pan that is used as the roasting vessel should have short sides as not to block the direct heat of the oven; it is this direct heat contact that produces a crisp skin or crust. Temperature is also a major factor—the oven should be preheated and the initial cooking temperature is often started at a high temperature (450-500F) to sear the meat, and then lowered to a moderate temperature (325-375F) to finish the cooking process. This method is especially effective when cooking sturdy types of meat such as beef, pork or lamb. And too low of a temperature should be avoided, the USDA recommends an oven temperature of no lower than 325F. Lastly, food needs to rest before it is cut into or carved, it will actually continue to cook for 5-10 minutes after being removed from the oven, this is referred to as "carry over cooking." This is a naturally occurring process wherein the juices are slowly forced to the center of the food as it cooks, then as it rests you are enabling these juices to disperse back into the meat, fish or poultry, thus creating a more tender and juicy meal.
On roasting chicken: There are numerous observations on this recipe, most of which carry truth. Many instruct to truss the bird while others do not; I prefer a chicken trussed—not only does the chicken hold its shape, it also makes a tight compact unit, which promotes even roasting. The problem that you may run into is overcooking the breast meat, but with a meat thermometer the temperature can easily be monitored (the USDA recommends cooking a bird until its thickest area [inner thigh] registers 165F). Two more areas of speculation as previously mentioned are temperature and whether or not to turn a bird during cooking. Again, I like to keep it simple and have had excellent results: roast the bird breast-side-up and do not turn it; season and butter the outside of the chicken prior to roasting, keep the oven temperature at an even 375F and baste it during cooking.
On roasting vegetables: When it comes to vegetables the cooking methods that most often come to mind are likely steaming and boiling, when actually roasting—particularly root vegetables—may be more appropriate. Roasting caramelizes the natural sugars which are present in vegetables and enhances their flavor; often thought of as a boring winter vegetable, root vegetables become something special simply by roasting them. The addition of a liquid such as stock, wine or fruit juice will enhance their natural flavor even further (even though this method is often labeled as roasting it is technically a form of braising).
One of the trendiest vegetables of today has got to be the roast red pepper. These may be prepared over a direct flame of a gas burner, outdoor grill or in a very hot oven. The skin is actually blackened, or charred, which creates a mild smoke flavor, and then left to steam in a paper bag using its own heat. Once the seeds and skin are peeled away the remaining silken flesh of the pepper is ready to be consumed as is, on a sandwich or salad, or puréed into a sauce—it's enough to remind one of warmer days even in the dead of winter.
Roast Whole Chicken
1 3-4 pound chicken
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken's cavity and reserve for when making stock or gravy. Rinse the chicken inside and out with cold water; thoroughly pat it dry. With the chicken lying on its back and legs away from you, truss it by looping kitchen twine around the ends of the legs, pulling the string taut around the tail area and tying securely. Melt the butter and brush it over the chicken, and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. Choose a medium-sized roasting pan and wire rack that are slightly larger than the chicken; place the chicken breast-side-up on the rack in the pan. Place the chicken in the preheated oven.
As the bird cooks baste it with additional butter, olive oil or rendered fat from the bottom of the pan. If the fat and drippings in the pan begin to smoke too much, add a small amount of chicken broth or wine to the pan under the rack. Roast the chicken for approximately 60 minutes, or until the temperature of the thickest part of the thigh reads 165F. Remove the roasted bird from the oven and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before carving.
Roast Chicken Pieces with Rosemary and Garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 chicken legs
2 chicken breasts, skin on and bone in
In a medium bowl combine the olive oil, vinegar, rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper. Whisk the marinade together until well blended. Add the chicken to the bowl and toss until thoroughly coated with the marinade. Refrigerate for at least 1/2 hour.
Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit; fit a medium-sized roasting pan with a wire rack. Place the chicken legs on the rack and cook them for ten minutes, then add the chicken breasts onto the wire rack and cook for an additional 35 minutes, or until the internal temperature of the legs reaches 165F. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Roast Sweet Bell Peppers
Place fresh sweet bell peppers directly on the burner of an indoor gas stove or on a grill out of doors, or alternately, on a sheet tray in a 500F oven. Turn the peppers often and cook them until the skin is almost entirely black, then place them in a paper bag. Seal the bag closed so the skin will loosen with the aid of steam created by the heat of the peppers. After the peppers have been resting in the bag for 5 minutes, rinse them under cold running water and rub the charred skin away. Gently tear open the peppers and remove and discard the seeds and stems. They are now ready to be eaten as is, or utilized in any recipe calling for roast peppers.
Roast Beets with Cabernet Sauvignon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the stems from one or two bunches of fresh beets and peel them. Place the peeled beets in a low-sided pan or skillet that is just large enough to hold them in one layer. Drizzle the beets with a tablespoon of olive oil and season both sides with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Add enough red wine to the beets until it is approximately 1/2 inch deep. Place them in the preheated oven. Roast the beets for 45 minutes, or until they offer only slight resistance when pierced with a small knife. As the beets roast turn and baste them every 15 minutes—the wine will evaporate, and combined with the existing olive oil, make a delicious glaze. Serve whole or sliced, they are also delicious cold the next day.