Flavor and comfort all in one dish

Preparation: Meals that are cooked in the oven can offer tastes and textures that you just can't get from a microwave.

January 23, 2002|By Carol Mighton Haddix | Carol Mighton Haddix,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Let us pause and praise the oven meal. Meat, vegetables, seasonings and sometimes a grain - all nestled together like so many peas in a pod. Happily heating away, mingling their essences until the whole takes on new flavors and textures not possible in stove-top or microwave cooking. It is miracle cooking.

The oven meal also is comfort food personified. And now is the time to take advantage of its charms.

"Oven dishes are typically what we do at home in the winter," said cooking teacher and chef Peggy Ryan of Evanston, Ill. "We have a few favorites like my braised lamb shanks with fennel, potatoes and lentils, or what I call Sicilian grandma food, like braciola - round steak stuffed and rolled with sausage and oven-braised in a red wine-tomato sauce."

And oven meals often mean fond memories.

"When I was a child, I remember my mother, who is Pennsylvania Dutch, would make white beans with ham hocks, with onion, celery, carrot," Ryan said.

Beans also bring memories for Kocoa Scott Winbush, a cooking teacher and cookbook author in Chicago.

"As a child, the oven dish that really stands out was my mom's pork and beans. She would season them like baked beans with mustard and all, and then - though I don't recommend anyone really do this today! - she would sear slices of Spam just enough to get a crust on them. She would either put the Spam into the beans or just leave it on top to heat through. My sister and I loved that."

Today Winbush prefers slightly more sophisticated oven meals, including some vegetarian options. "I like making a tofu casserole with broccoli, an Asian satay sauce and cilantro. I think some of the better oven meals are totally vegetarian."

Whether vegetarian or for meat lovers, oven meals mean freedom for the cook. After putting ingredients together in a pot, casserole or roaster, you are free to pursue other interests as the food bubbles away for hours. This cooking style is perfect for weekend cooking, but is not out of the realm for weeknight meals when you choose recipes with shorter cooking times.

You can mix and match ingredients in one or two pots: rice or pasta for the grain; pork, beef, lamb, chicken or duck for the protein; potatoes, carrots or any green vegetables; herbs and spices; and water, wine or broth.

It's the oven's radiant heat that cooks the food from the outside in. If you leave the pan uncovered, you are roasting. If you cover the pan, you are braising or baking. Any of these methods can be used for oven meals.

Though the indoor, nonwood-fired oven is relatively new (the first gas oven was commercially produced in England in 1836, according to The Food Chronology), the notion of long, slow cooking is not.

Stone Age clay pots buried in hot ashes may have been the first kind of improvised oven cooking. In the Middle Ages, when cooks had no ovens in their homes, they would trundle their pot of ingredients to the local baker with his huge, wood-burning oven, for all-day slow cooking, then fetch it back that night. American pioneers perfected cast-iron Dutch-oven cooking in the ashes of their hearths. Even the early custom of burying food underground with hot coals (think clambake or Hawaiian luaus) was an early sort of oven.

Today it is much easier. Turn the oven dial to a selected temperature. Combine ingredients in an ovenproof roaster, casserole or Dutch oven. Insert into oven. And wait.

But some tips help ensure success. Most oven meals need a liquid "and enough of it for long cooking, so the foods don't dry out," Winbush said.

Meat cooked in liquid needs to sit in that liquid after the meat is removed from the oven. Ryan added: "Let it rest for about 20 minutes. Or better yet, let it cool completely, maybe overnight, and then reheat it. It really reabsorbs the liquid and all of its flavors."

Ryan also cautioned about what herbs you use and how much of each. "You don't want to overpower the dish. Bay leaf, for example, can get strong over a long cooking period. Hot spices such as fresh or dried chili peppers or cayenne also will increase in potency over the cooking time."

"To make sure things get evenly cooked," Winbush added, "cut all the vegetables into one consistent size."

Linda West Eckhardt and Katherine West Defoyd, the authors of Stylish One-Dish Dinners (Random House Inc., 1999, $25), agree.

"We prefer large chunks so that the vegetables have plenty of surface for crisp bites, but creamy centers for all the comfort that brings," they write.

Winbush suggests a medium heat (350 degrees) for most dishes. "You are not trying to brown everything."

For some recipes, though, such as those that include a roast beef or lamb, you may want some caramelization to occur, so you will need a higher temperature to start. Or brown the meat on the stove top first. Authors Eckhardt and Defoyd believe in the high-temperature start.

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