Southerners have been turning garden fresh vegetables into casseroles and delicious side dishes for generations.
In days gone by most folks, even those who lived within the confines of a town grew their own, but that is hardly the case anymore.
With the spread of certified farmers markets most people have access to fresh vegetables again. When made with care, these dishes are nutritious and relatively inexpensive to make. Nutritionists say we should have three to five servings of fresh vegetables a day, so they are obviously important for a healthy diet.
I do not know the Southern genesis of this issue, but we have also been overcooking our veggies and turning them into mush for countless years.
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The problem is so systemic that many Southerners refuse to eat vegetables that are not overcooked. Vegetables have the most flavor and nutrition just at the moment of being done and the flavor only degrades the more they are cooked. Remember a well-cooked vegetable should still have some crunch to it; al dente the Italians would say; tender and crisp, but still offering resistance to the bite.
Most commonly we like to sauté our vegetables in a little oil (it was lard for my grandparents and Crisco or bacon grease for my mom). Adding onions, garlic and other flavorful elements can enhance veggies like yellow squash, fresh-shelled corn or asparagus. But there's another option that is healthier -- roasting vegetables in the oven with a small amount of oil not only reduces the caloric count, but also imparts a wonderful flavor sautéing just can't match.
I am not sure why roasting enhances the flavor of so many vegetables, it would seem that applying the right amount of heat along with a few herbs and spices and a little oil would produce the same results whether in a pan or in the oven, but it doesn't. The only difference is that roasting is a dry heat method of cooking that cooks evenly all the way around, while sauté
ing uses a little more oil typically and cooks one side at a time.
OVEN-ROASTED GARLIC WITH ROSEMARY
4-6 whole garlic fists or heads
2 rosemary branches
1 fresh bay leaf
1/2 cup good quality olive oil
1 loaf crusty French bread
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
This works best if you use a small clay pot of the sort you can find in an Asian market that is glazed inside. If you don't have one (but you should!), you can wrap the garlic in tinfoil.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. With a sharp knife cut the top 1/2 inch off of the garlic, exposing the top of the garlic cloves or toes. Toss all of the ingredients together, place in the clay pot cut side down, and close the lid; roast for 20 minutes or until the garlic is soft and fragrant. Remove the garlic from the oil and let cool. To serve place the infused oil in a wide shallow bowl, add the balsamic in the very center of the oil and with a toothpick or small stick give it a swirl. Give the garlic a squeeze and the toes will slide out. Serve with sliced French bread topped with the garlic and use the oil as a dip. This small first course goes extremely well with a little grated Parmigiano Reggiano and a white Bordeaux.
Note: a fist of garlic is the entire garlic, but it is also often called a head or a bulb. A clove or toe is the individual segment.
ROASTED ASPARAGUS, FRIED EGGS AND PROSCIUTTO DE PARMA
1 bunch green asparagus
Salt and pepper
1-2 slices prosciutto de Parma per person
1 egg per person
2-3 toes of garlic, crushed
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Remove the tough ends of the asparagus with a sharp knife. If you are not going to cook them right away stand them up in a cup of water; they will stay fresh longer. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper if you have it, if not just lightly oil the bottom of the pan. Arrange the asparagus evenly, drizzle with the oil and lightly season. Roast for 10-12 minutes, but don't overcook, they should be just tender. Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan, add the garlic and cook 2-3 minutes, but do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and fry the eggs in the infused oil. Plate the asparagus, add the prosciutto and top with an egg. Garnish with the lemon peel and Parmigiano Reggiano. Pair roasted asparagus with a good Sauvignon Blanc or one of the new craft beers now available in Mississippi.
Note: craft beer is made in a small, independent and traditional brewery that has limited production.
OVEN ROASTED SWEET POTATOES AND THYME
2-3 pounds Mississippi sweet potatoes
3-6 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 tablespoons dried thyme
1-2 pinches red pepper flakes
4-6 cloves garlic
Salt as needed
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut the sweet potatoes into large cubes, chop the garlic roughly, add olive oil, red pepper, black pepper, thyme and salt, if desired and toss well. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until tender, but don't overcook. Roasted sweet potatoes always go well with pork, so pair this recipe with a pork roast, loan or even pork chops.
Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste. You can contact him at email@example.com.