If there is one thing that our friends at America's Test Kitchen know is true, it's that you can roast almost anything. In fact, they are putting the finishing touches on a cookbook focused solely on roasting. Their many hours spent in the test kitchen included roasting not only classic large cuts of meat, but foods like fish and vegetables. Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Julia Collin Davison and Bridget Lancaster, hosts of America’s Test Kitchen. They talked about how they love roasting for both convenience and flavor. They and also shared the recipes for Roast Cod with Artichokes, Olives, and Sun-Dried Tomatoes and Bulgur-Stuffed Roasted Eggplant from the forthcoming ATK cookbook How to Roast Everything.
Sally Swift: I want to talk about roasting things that we don't often roast – things like fish and whole vegetables. But before I have my pointed questions, will you tell us what roasting really is?
Julia Colin Davison: Roasting is a magic combination of food with a little bit of fat and heat. It can happen in the oven or on the grill. The idea is that it’s an ambient heat that cooks food through; the caramelization that happens on the outside of the food is what gives it flavor. You can roast anything. Obviously, beef and pork, but vegetables taste better when roasted. I think everything tastes better when roasted.
Bridget Lancaster and Julia Collin Davison
Photo: America's Test Kitchen
SS: It’s that dry heat, right? Roasting means being surrounded by dry heat.
JCD: That’s it. Again, dry heat can happen in many different ways – whether it's in the oven or on the grill.
Bridget Lancaster: I think what Julia just said about it being a magical thing that happens, it really is. My kids will actually eat Brussels sprouts like popcorn because of roasting; it's a game changer. You get caramelization on foods that you don't necessarily think that's going to happen to. It’s pretty awesome.
JCD: It's funny you called popcorn, because we call the roasted broccoli “popcorn broccoli,” probably because it has that little bit of roasted flavor to it that tastes like popcorn.
SS: You two are a sneaky mothers. That’s all I have to say.
JCD: Desperate mothers.
SS: Bridget, let’s talk about equipment. There are roasting pans; some are sold for ungodly amounts of money. Then there are simple jelly roll pans that work as well. Do they work as well? What would you have us roast in?
BL: It depends on the food itself. If it's something that's super heavy in weight – like a turkey or a big roast beef – and you want to collect a lot of drippings from it, I'd definitely say a good roasting pan is perfect for that. Also, a cast iron skillet or a regular oven-safe 12-inch skillet is one of the best things you can roast. And a rimmed baking sheet. Julia and I love to use them for one-pan dinners. You're roasting not only the main course – the chicken parts, the pork tenderloin – but also the vegetables and sometimes the starch – potatoes or sweet potatoes – that go with it as well.
JCD: Do you have a dedicated sheet pan?
BL: Yes, and it’s tarred. Black as night!
JCD: I have cookie sheet pans; they're new, spanking, and good for baking. Then I have the roasting sheet pans that looked like they've been through a million wars; we don't even bother scrubbing them. They’re all black in the corners, but they're perfect for roasting.
BL: They’re burnished!
SS: Julia, I want to talk about fish because I think people don't roast it very often. Can you tell us what we need to think about when we roast fish – both filets and doing the whole fish?
JCD: Roasting fish is one of the best ways to cook fish because it gives you a little bit longer – than, say, a sauté – to get the doneness right. Nobody likes overcooked fish; it just doesn't taste good. Roasting gives you just a little bit longer. You don't want to use really delicate fish like tilapia. You want to go with snapper, haddock, cod – salmon is perfect. We used to never do recipes for whole fish in the test kitchen because we didn't think they were available that people could find them except on the coasts. But now, with the way that fresh food is available all over, people have the option to buy a whole fish. It tastes amazing because the bones and the skin add a lot of flavor. The trick is to score the skin a little bit on a whole piece of fish before you throw it in the oven. That helps some of the moisture evaporate, and then you can get some browning.
SS: And when you're doing filets, it’s important to have them be the same size.
JCD: That’s true no matter if you're sautéing, roasting, or grilling them. If they're the same size they’ll cook at the same rate. We were talking about sheet pan dinners; one of my favorite is cod because I have a nine-year old, and the only fish she likes is cod. You put them on shingled pieces of russet potatoes that are tossed with garlic, and the piece of cod on top with butter on top of that, and the whole thing is like perfection. You’d think those fish juices would be too strong to put on vegetables, but that’s not the case. The juices that come out of the fish add a nice nuanced flavor to the vegetables underneath – whether it's potatoes or roasted artichokes.
SS: Bridget, give me an idea of a main dish vegetable roast. You know that has the same kind of oomph as a roast beef or a big piece of chicken.
BL: Eggplant. Roasting does something perfectly suited to eggplant. Eggplant can turn soggy when you try to fry it. Roasting it does two things. It deepens the flavor of the eggplant. It also uses the texture of the eggplant. It is almost custard-y after it's cooked via roasting. There's a great recipe that we have where you halved the eggplant, then score it in these beautiful diamonds. After seasoning them, you put them face down on a hot sheet pan – like a regular jelly roll pan. You're going to get great caramelization there. In the meantime, while it's cooking you soak bulgur, so you've got this toothsome, wheat-y, hearty, caramelly flavored grain there. Sauté the aromatics with some spices. Add the bulgur and tomatoes, and cooked this mixture until a lot of the liquid in it has evaporated. The inside of the eggplant is now very tender. You take two forks and scrape it so that the eggplant flesh goes to the sides; it's almost like mashed eggplant inside. Then you stuff it with the bulgur and tomato filling. Add a bit of Pecorino on top, and it goes back into the oven for about five minutes so that cheese melts on top.
JCD: When you think about roasting and vegetables, it works because of the dry heat. The one thing is to get rid of the moisture so you can get browning. The other thing is to get nice, big flat surfaces so that you can rest on the pan and get some color. Between those two things – which are the problems with most vegetables – roasting does a great job.
SS: Particularly with the recipe when you're roasting the cut side of the eggplant, you're getting all that brown that just sounds delicious.
BL: It caramelizes beautifully and intensifies the flavor in a vegetable that might otherwise be mildly flavored.
SS: That's right. Heat up those ovens everyone.