Wonderful aromas waft from the oven Roasts : Slow cooking makes for old-fashioned satisfaction.

October 01, 1997|By Bev Bennett | Bev Bennett,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

The scent is a heady blend of rosemary, thyme and olive oil. There's a sizzling sound as chicken skin renders its fat. And you're unwinding, reading a book.

This scenario does not come from a microwave meal. And it certainly isn't something you're going to experience when you open a carry-out bag.

As for relaxation, how enjoyable can standing in line at your local roast-rooster joint really be?

You're more likely to achieve dinner-time serenity by preparing an oven-cooked meal. Think of how pleasurable it would be to forgo the kitchen timer as the fragrance wafting through the house tells you your food is ready. Imagine how satisfying it is to do something creative. It's almost impossible to experiment when you're cooking as fast as you can. No wonder chefs, cookbook authors and even home cooks are rediscovering the oven.

"With lifestyles so frantic, it's so wonderful to have something you can walk away from," said Linda Griffith, co-author with her husband, Fred, of "Cooking Under Cover" (Chapters Publishing Ltd, $29.95, 1996). Although the Griffiths love to throw something on the grill, that's not the inspiration for their food memories.

"Most of my comfort foods are slow simmered," said Linda, who still remembers her grandmother's stuffed cabbage rolls and her chicken fricassee. "Oven-cooked recipes take little preparation. But the rewards are so wonderful. The house smells so good. Realtors say that baking cinnamon buns will fill the house with an appealing smell [for prospective buyers]. Oven-cooked entrees are even better," she said.

The couple travels frequently, and even then they're drawn to oven entrees.

"Slow cooking may be a lost skill, so it's inspiring when we see it," said Fred. "Even in restaurants, I love seeing old-fashioned dishes such as venison stew or bigos [a Polish hunter's stew]."

Chef Jean Joho's Brasserie Jo in Chicago is one place to go for robust oven-cooked food. Joho is chef/owner of Everest restaurant, the ultimate in fine French dining in the Windy City. But when he wanted food that reminded him of his native Alsace, he opened a brasserie featuring Alsatian choucroute, roast leg of lamb, beef tongue, cassoulet and braised lamb shanks.

"When I was a child, we didn't have gas tops in Alsace. We had wood-burning ovens, which everyone used. The first course went in the top of the oven, the second course in the bottom. We used the entire oven at the same time," said Joho.

An American home cook might think of roast chicken as a big-deal Sunday night meal. In Joho's home, roast chicken and a salad were fast food.

"It was light and it was easy cooking. No one thought of buying a roast chicken," he said. He enjoys oven roasting large cuts of meat or poultry. "I make every kind of roast imaginable: pork, beef, veal, lamb, chicken, turkey, duck and goose. I like roasted foods. You keep the whole pieces and slice as you serve. Meat with the bone on has more flavor and more moisture. I would never buy boneless chicken to roast," Joho said.

But don't think that oven cooking is only for carnivores.

Dara Goldstein, who is as drawn to a snowy winter day as some people are to a Caribbean beach in January, loves a meal of oven-roasted vegetables.

"I cook vegetables long and slow in the winter so their aromas fill the house," said Goldstein, author of "The Vegetarian Hearth" (HarperCollins Publishers, $26, 1996).

Winter vegetables, such as turnips, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, parsnips and celery root are "caramelized, sweeter, transformed heat," said Goldstein, who keeps a root cellar with potatoes and carrots from her garden. "Old carrots that are woody and don't look so good can be braised with maple syrup or brown sugar and are delicious."

Goldstein, a professor of Russian, was strongly influenced by simple peasant dishes when she developed her recipes. The challenging difference for her was to prepare vegetables that are long cooked but still have texture. Her basic directions for winter vegetables produce a feast that's as satisfying as the finest roast.

Here are the experts' suggestions for getting the most from oven-cooked meals:

* Use heavy-weight cookware. Cast iron is a favorite. It retains heat, so a covered pot can keep dinner hot for 30 minutes or so. Enamel-on-cast-iron has the added advantage of being attractive enough to bring to the table.

* Choose cookware that is only slightly larger than the food in it.

* Cook vegetables at a high temperature to caramelize them and bring out their sugar.

* Use a high temperature for meat. "You'll sear the meat and retain the juices in it. High heat gives chicken a wonderful golden brown color," said Joho.

* Always let roasted meats rest. If you cut into a chicken or beef roast immediately, the juices will drain out and the meat will be tough. Allow about 15 minutes for the juices to settle in the meat.

Jean Joho's roast chicken Brasserie Jo

Makes 4 servings

1 (4-pound) free-range chicken

1 cup olive oil plus 2 to 3 tablespoons for pan

1 garlic clove, lightly smashed

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