Fall is the best season for cooks. It spans both warm and cool months, bringing a collision of pumpkins and apples, plums and zucchini
A Change of Appetite, Diana Henry
Harvest time here in the Midwest is the best point in the year to experience the subtleties of the season. Japanese chefs divide each season’s ingredients into three categories: hashiri, shun, and nagori. Food for those eagerly impatient for cool nights, turning leaves and sweaters are called hashiri. Think of pumpkins, sweet potatoes, or dried legumes served in early September. Foods that are perfectly in season, at the peak of flavor and texture, are called shun. For me, wild mushrooms gathered in October from the forest floor are shun food. Then there are the nagori choices, perhaps past their point of perfection, but the diner is reluctant to give them up. Stone fruits like plums, peaches, and the last pickings of blueberries and raspberries exemplify an unwillingness to let go of summer. All these tastes, textures, and colors explode together in our local markets in fall.
Cooking methods also reflect a respect for nature. In the Gazette, I’ve chosen a particular technique to highlight the best of each season. Roasting is the clear choice for fall. I’ve written before about roast chicken. The fragrance of the golden brown skin crisping as you baste with buttery pan juices, the carrots and onions caramelizing on the bottom of the pan as the bird roasts, and the moist, silky texture of the flesh are all irresistible, especially in autumn.
Serving a roast has long been the most inclusive, magnanimous, and welcoming gesture a host can make to friends and family gathered round a table.
The River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
The formal definition of roasting is rather sterile: uncovered food cooked by exposure to dry heat, most frequently in the oven. This falls far short of invoking the nuances of this cooking method. Here is Molly Steven’s description in her book All About Roasting:
The role of roasting is to elevate already delicious ingredients by giving them a savory crust and maintaining their own juices and tenderness…transforming them into the best expressions of themselves.
That’s more like it!
There are some basic guidelines whether you are roasting meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, or fruits. The rest of your success depends on experience, your familiarity with a particular kitchen, and of course, keeping a close watch.
You can use several different strategies with your oven temperature. High heat roasting (450°- 500°) works well with rack of lamb, whole fish, tender vegetables, and fruits. I also like to pan-sear fish fillets and chops, finishing them in a hot oven.
Low heat roasting (250°- 300°), “low and slow,” is great for large, tough cuts like bone-in leg of lamb or pork shoulders.
Moderate heat (350°) is perfect for whole chickens, turkeys, and loin roasts. I often start with a blast of heat, 450° – 500°, for ten minutes or so to brown the surface of the roast and get juices flowing and then reduce the heat to 350° to finish.
Always let your roast rest after coming out of the oven. Not only is this a nicety, giving you time to make a pan sauce, it is a necessity for the juices to be resorbed in the center of the cut and distributed throughout the roast when it is sliced.
There are many time charts available in cookbooks and online that list the type of ingredient, the weight, the oven temperature, and the timing depending on the degree of doneness you want to achieve.
However, timing depends on so many factors: the temperature of your ingredient before going into to the oven, the shape of the roast, the shape of the pan it is in, the peculiarities of your oven. The charts, while useful, can only give an approximation.
An instant read thermometer is helpful. Also, remember the concept of “carry-over cooking.” When you remove a roast from the oven, the internal temperature will continue to rise. The larger the roast, the more it will “cook” after being removed from the oven. You want to pull your roast from the oven before the desired internal temperature is reached. It will go up to temperature while resting.
There are endless options for seasoning an ingredient before it is roasted in the oven, but the choices fall into one of two categories: marinades or rubs, wet or dry seasoning. Pre-salting improves both taste and texture, especially with poultry and large roasts. I personally prefer rubs to wet marinades for meats and poultry. I like marinades on vegetables and fish. I’ve never been a fan of brining.
The roasting process can yield delicious pan sauces. You can use the drippings as they are, or you can deglaze your roasting pan with a flavorful broth or wine to scrape up the tasty bits stuck to the bottom. You can eliminate some of the fat in the pan or not; you can thicken the sauce or not. I leave this up to personal preference.
Brillat-Savarin, in his legendary The Physiology of Taste, wrote that chefs who could produce an excellent roast were born, not made. I wouldn’t go that far, but the chef’s experience and careful observation are essential. Use all of your senses. Food will smell done, look done, and feel done. The whole culinary world is open to you––meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits. In other seasons, ingredients that you enjoy grilled, smoked, stir-fried, or steamed take on another character altogether when roasted in a fall oven.