If you're planning a casual but festive evening at home tonight but still haven't come up with a menu, here's an easy, low-maintenance one that might fit the bill.
Roasted root vegetables and fish make few demands on the cook and fit in with one of New Year's most popular resolutions: to keep an eye on the waistline.
A platter of roasted vegetables might include carrots, beets and potatoes -- white and sweet -- plus baby versions of turnips and parsnips, all touched with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper, and cooked to a caramel sweetness.
Roasted roots are so easygoing, you can roast them ahead of time and reheat them in the oven or microwave. For your New Year's Eve spread, try herb-roasted salmon with a wild %o mushroom medley, the latter also made ahead and reheated while the salmon cooks.
Add a green salad and rolls, warmed at the last minute, and you've got a meal that's done entirely in the oven.
"Root-type vegetables are more conducive to roasting because they have a high starch content," says chef Mark Morrow. "Something like a yam or potato has a lot of starch. It breaks down into sugar."
"With roasting, you cook long enough so that the sugar starts being drawn out and the vegetable browns," says cooking teacher Jane Smith. "You're baking, but you want the vegetables to be browner than if you were doing a vegetable casserole."
The heightened flavor makes sauces, fats and butters less necessary.
"It's great for the health-conscious," says Mr. Morrow. "Just think of when Mom roasts beef, and she also puts in turnips, celery, potatoes. Everybody wants to eat the caramelized carrot off the bottom. It's an all-natural flavoring -- the vegetable flavors itself."
Faye Levy, author of "Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook" (Warner Books, $29.95), likes roasting roots because they're worry-free.
"When you're cooking green beans, if you overcook them by two minutes, they get sad-looking," she says. "If you roast parsnips and carrots an extra five or 10 minutes, it doesn't matter."
Roasting is unbelievably easy, Ms. Smith says. Her basic recipe is to cut the vegetables into slightly large bite-size chunks, then toss in oil -- "maybe a teaspoon per cup of vegetables, just enough to cover them" -- plus salt and pepper. Spread them on a cookie sheet or other flat pan and roast at least an hour at 375 degrees to 400 degrees. While they're roasting, stir them around once or twice; if they stick to the pan, loosen them with a spatula.
"They're done when you can prick them with a fork," she says, "but there's a color change, too."
Mr. Morrow cuts his vegetables larger than bite-size.
"When you're going to cook something for a long time, it's better to keep them in bigger pieces," he says. "You want integrity."
To vary your root vegetable medley, Ms. Smith suggests new red potatoes. Mr. Morrow uses baby carrots and baby turnips as well as unusual-colored turnips.
Ms. Levy suggests using olive oil for its flavor. Other seasoning extras include garlic cloves and pearl onions. Mr. Morrow likes to sprinkle in chopped sun-dried tomatoes.
Roasted root vegetables stay firm and flavorful, making them one of the all-time great leftovers. Here are some suggestions for how to use them on New Year's Day.
* Saute the roasted vegetables in a little butter. Add a spicy Creole-type seasoning or Parmesan cheese.
* Make a broth-based soup: Heat canned chicken broth and add your leftover roasted roots. Season with salt, ground pepper and dried herbs. For a heartier dish, add cooked chicken or sliced sausage. For a vegetarian soup, use canned vegetable broth and add extras such as cooked pasta and croutons.
* Make a cream-style soup: Puree leftover vegetables with chicken broth and/or cream to the desired consistency. Slowly heat in saucepan. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped parsley.
* Make a casserole. Mash leftover vegetables, dust with cheese and bake at 325 degrees until heated through, approximately 15 minutes. For a richer casserole, add a beaten egg or two with a small quantity of milk, and bake until set, approximately 20 to 25 minutes.
Herb-roasted salmon with wild mushrooms
Makes 8 servings
8 salmon fillet pieces, skin on (about 6 ounces each)
1/2 pound mixed herb sprigs (parsley, thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, oregano) (divided use)
2 onions, thinly sliced
1 3/4 cups white wine or water (divided use)
salt and pepper
1 pound mixed wild or common mushrooms such as shiitake, morel, cepes, chanterelle or oyster
1 tablespoon olive oil
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Set salmon pieces on a cutting board and slit skin with tip of sharp knife.
Rinse herb sprigs and pat dry. Pull off about 1/2 cup of the leaves and set aside. Lay sliced onion and herb sprigs in the bottom of a shallow baking dish and pour 1 cup of wine over.
Set salmon pieces, skin side down, over herbs and season with salt and pepper.
Bake until salmon is just opaque through the thickest part, 10 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of fish.