Sunday, November 9, 2008

Warm Up Your Holiday Feasts With A Roast

(My monthly food column for Heartland Women)
November 2008

Last week I enjoyed dinner with friends at a delightful new restaurant in Pinckneyville. Luke’s Shade Tree Café is a charming place with a decor that reminds me of upscale restaurants I’ve visited in much, much larger cities.
The menu offers many breakfast and lunch favorites, along with some unexpected choices like organic hot cereal, homemade pastries and preserves, duck confit salad and a “TBP” sandwich with roasted turkey, blue cheese and pear.

The dinner menu is a sophisticated take on seasonal foods. The night we were there the menu included Pumpkin Soup and a Duck Quesadilla for appetizers. Main courses were a Grilled Ribeye and potatoes, Grilled Pork Chop with Sweet Potato Corn Bread Pudding and Wilted Cabbage, Braised Short Ribs, Bacon Wrapped Duck Breast Stuffed with Apple, Pear and Cranberry Chutney, Chicken Pot Pie, and Braised Swordfish & Shrimp Over Hand Cut Fettuccini. I had the Grilled Pork Chop and thought it was delicious. The presentation was beautiful, the pork chop was big and juicy, and the sweet potato corn bread pudding over wilted cabbage complimented the pork perfectly. I also tasted the Duck Breast, which was beautifully presented and flavorful.

Chef Ryan Luke and his wife Zoe understand the importance a restaurant can have in a small southern Illinois community and have set out to offer that, and more, in Pinckneyville. How nice to have a warm and friendly place that serves breakfast, lunch and a fine dining dinner menu in a restaurant so close to home. Luke’s Shade Tree Café is open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. for breakfast and lunch. Sunday hours are 7 a.m. – 4 p.m. Dinner hours are 5 – 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday only. Beer and wine are available. And there are even tables on the front porch so you can enjoy the beautiful fall weather.

After the wonderful pork chop and bread pudding at Luke’s, I couldn’t stop thinking about the warmth and comfort of roasted meats and root vegetables flavored with aromatics and served with a hearty helping of stuffing or savory bread pudding. The first chilly morning usually makes my mind leap forward to preparing cozy dinners and huge holiday meals for family and friends. Immediately I start digging through my files for old favorite recipes and those I set aside to try.

Around my house, a roast is usually too big a meal for just the two of us. Most of the time, I like to pan roast chops or maybe a chicken, which will serve us for dinner and lunch the next day. But holidays are something special and a roast is the perfect choice for a big family meal, along with all the wonderful side dishes possible with fall and winter vegetables. And best of all, roasting meats is easy!

Roasting means to cook with dry heat, usually inside an oven and should not be confused with braising, which is cooking meats with liquid in a covered pot.
The great conundrum of roasting meats is whether to cook them fast at high temperatures, or low and slow. There are varying schools of thought on this matter but, as with most things, it depends on what you are cooking.

Shirley O. Corriher, the wizard of food science on Alton Brown’s Good Eats show, who wrote Cookwise, the 1998 James Beard Award winning book about the science of cooking, says long, lower temperature roasting is best for larger pieces of meat. Smaller cuts like steaks and chops do well when seared and then roasted at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time.

Large cuts of meat, some known simply as “roasts”, benefit from low and slow cooking to yield meat that is rarer on the inside than the outside -- think prime rib! It is also an excellent way to give less expensive and tougher cuts of meat the flavor and tenderness we love. Meats and poultry pieces can be seared on the outside and then roasted at a temperature of 200 degrees until the desired inside temperature is measured with a meat thermometer at the center of the roast.

Searing does not “seal in juices” as once thought, but it does give the meat a more appealing color and a crisp crust which is desirable as a flavor enhancement. The meat is then cooked to the desired degree of doneness, according to taste and safe cooking guidelines. Searing does bond the seasonings on the outside of the meat and produces a crisp, brown, caramelized crust, while leaving the meat tender and juicy on the inside. There is actually a scientific term for this, the Maillard Reaction.

Smaller cuts are best roasted by searing on the outside to caramelize the exterior of the meat to give it a more pleasing appearance, thus increasing the flavor and seasoning with the crisp crust, and then roasting briefly at a high temperature. Rotisserie cooking is also a dry roasting method, using a spit to turn meat throughout the cooking process. A slow cooker is another good way to prepare a medium size roast, by making use of the small amount of moisture from root vegetables to help cook the meat.

Any way you do it, roasting is a good way to serve a delicious meal without spending hours in the kitchen. Large roasts are easy to prep and the long roasting time leaves the cook free to do other things. Chops and steaks get a quick sear and can then be finished in the oven in about the time it takes to whip up a salad and steam some vegetables.

There are just a couple of other important things to know before roasting any meats or poultry:

Place large cuts of meat and poultry on a rack inside a roasting pan to cook.

Do not cover the meat while roasting, this traps moisture and destroys the crisp crusty exterior.

Always remove meats cooked at a high temperature when they are about 10 degrees lower than the desired temperature. The meat continues to cook for a few minutes out of the oven.

Allow roasted meats to sit for 10-20 minutes after removing from heat to finish cooking and allow juices to disperse throughout the meat, if you cut too soon, the juices will end up on the plate.

Adding fats to leaner cuts of meat during the roasting process will improve flavor. Fats can be rubbed underneath the skin or on top, and can be basted on during cooking.

Always use a meat thermometer and a temperature chart to guarantee your meats, especially poultry, are cooked to a safe internal temperature. Don’t guess!

Roasting is also a great preparation for root vegetables like celery root, beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and aromatic bulb vegetables like onions, garlic, fennel and leeks. Placed in the roasting pan along with the meat, these vegetables will impart delicious, subtle flavors throughout the roasting process. The natural vegetable sugars will also caramelize when cooking and the flavors will become rich and concentrated.

Seasonal roasted meats and vegetables are excellent choices for holiday or special event meals, but are also good for Sunday dinner because there are sure to be leftovers to transform into a simple dinner later in the week. I’m still thinking about that “TBP” sandwich at Luke’s. I see one of those in my future – perhaps the day after Thanksgiving. Now I just have to decide if I want the “B” part to be Blue Cheese or Brie. What do you think? Decisions, decisions . . .

Adapted from Gourmet magazine

1 large onion, peeled, quartered
1 large carrot, peeled, coarsely chopped
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves, peeled
2 shallots, peeled
1/4 c. olive oil
3 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 6-7 lb. prime rib roast

Puree onion, carrot, celery, garlic cloves, shallots, oil, flour, rosemary, salt and pepper in food processor. Place beef in roasting pan. Rub beef with vegetable and herb puree, covering completely. Let beef stand 1 hour at room temperature. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Roast beef for 20 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Continue roasting beef until thermometer inserted into center registers 130 degrees for rare roast beef – about 1 hour and 45 minutes longer. Remove roast from oven. Let stand 20 minutes. Slice and serve. Serves 8.

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