Perfectly roasted root vegetables
The technique is an open secret among those who have the most to gain or lose from the optimization of food. Food professionals like chefs and caterers know it, because flavor is money. Savvy home economists, who make it their business to satisfy demanding palates on the cheap, know it, too. I learned the technique from a farmer who learned it from a farmer — the kind of farmers who make it their pleasure to enjoy their harvest prepared in a way that celebrates the local terroir.
Most recipes for roasted potatoes (and root vegetables) direct the cook to heat them until brown, but that's not enough. How it browns matters.
Many suggest stirring, or solving every problem with more oil. Even if they are brown and crispy on the outside, the interiors may be gooey, or chewy, or bland like a steakhouse baked potato. They may be dry, or mushy like a mashed potato. They all have the same thing in common: The right technique was not employed.
The heat produced by a load of roasting roots is dry, much different from the steam bath of the simmering soup pot. If all goes well, that dry heat helps create a crispy brown exterior. We want a roasted root to taste like a perfectly roasted potato.
To accomplish this, potatoes must be soaked or parboiled before roasting. This washes away excess starch and allows them to cook perfectly.
Soak it in
Given how foolproof a pathway it may be to carb-o-licious bliss, I'm baffled at how few cooks do the presoak. Google "roasted roots" and peruse the first page of results, recipes from the likes of Epicurious, Genius Kitchen, Food Network, Eating Well and The New York Times. Not a single recipe mentions the presoak. If you Google "roasted potatoes" it's the same: zero mention of soaking the spuds after cutting them.
When I have a big assortment of root vegetables, I parboil, because when they are all cooked together, it creates a starchy mix of all of the constituents, as if they had all been mashed together. This veneer absorbs the oil and spices, coats the pieces and cooks into a tasty crust.
But if I'm doing potatoes alone, especially purples, golds and russets, I do a presoak in cold water.
Each type of root vegetable is different. Within the potato category alone, starchy varieties like russets or Yukon golds will outperform waxy types, like fingerlings or reds. My favorite potatoes to use, in both soaking and parboiling contexts, are purple, the starchiest of all. When soaked, they blow up the fattest.
When it comes to choosing root vegetables, the earth is the limit. Use whatever you like, though be advised that some can be problematic. I avoid root vegetables that are too watery, like onions, or those that are bitter, such as garlic or rutabaga, as their bitterness can intensify. I also avoid red beets, which will stain the entire tray, even if you don't mix them in with the rest.
As for the honorary root squash, I like 'em starchy, like my spuds. Kabocha and Sunshine and Buttercup varieties are my favorites. Carrots, yams, sweet potato, parsnip and celeriac are all good choices, although many of these will stay moist inside and won't crisp up. Ditto for kohlrabi, another honorary root.
Roots that Rock
Serves: 4 to 6
3 tablespoons salt
2 pounds root vegetables, peeled and cut to roughly the same size
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 to 2 teaspoons ground cumin (to taste)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Ketchup, mayonnaise and red pepper flakes, for serving (optional)
Sliced garlic cloves, fresh herbs and unsalted butter, for serving (optional)
Place a baking sheet or cast iron skillet in the oven and heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Add 2 tablespoons salt to a gallon of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the root vegetables and let boil for 10 minutes. Drain, transfer to a large bowl, and let sit for about 1 minute.
In a small bowl, mix together the pepper, garlic powder, paprika, cumin and remaining tablespoon salt. Add two tablespoons of this mixture to the still-warm vegetables, and stir vigorously to help disintegrate the soft, starchy exteriors. Add the olive oil and stir until the vegetables are well coated.
Spread the vegetables across the hot tray in one even layer and hear them sizzle.
Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the tray and inspect. Turn each piece so a different side faces down and bake again, removing pieces periodically and testing them, until you decide they are done.
Serve with some kind of tangy sauce or dip. I like a mix of ketchup, mayonnaise and red pepper flakes. If I really want to impress, I melt some butter in a pan and saute sliced garlic and green herbs, such as parsley, sage, rosemary and/or thyme. Toss the vegetables in the garlic herb butter, and serve.
Pre-soak variation: Don't peel the root vegetables, but do peel squash, if using. Soak them in a gallon of water with 2 tablespoons salt. Cook until they whistle with the sound of 100 little blimps with pinpricks.