A BED OF ROASTED VEGETABLES
We have all been there: Trying to plan a company meal around a guest who is—well, not a picky eater, exactly, but a staunchly unadventurous one. This can be especially fraught when your idea of familiar food is not your guest’s idea of same. Take roast chicken, for instance. One of my favorite things to do is cut up the bird into serving pieces, roast it with pancetta and olives, and serve it with polenta. I have made a successful version with prunes and another one with artichokes.
None of those preparations would do whatsoever for the dinner I had in mind, with a longtime friend and her college-bound daughter, whose culinary inclination is as conservative as her mother’s is experimental. I was still dithering about what to serve when another longtime friend rode to the rescue. “I had the same problem,” Monique said. “So I just cut up a vast quantity of vegetables, put two chickens on top, and roasted everything together.” She is a wonderful cook, and, having lived and traveled all over the world, a very sophisticated one, yet her ability to cut to the chase never ceases to amaze me.
“I used potatoes, red onions, parsnips,” she recited, counting them off on her fingers. “Carrots, of course. Garlic. And fennel, which was exotic to some at the table. But they could simply help themselves to whatever vegetables they wanted. It was lots of peeling and chopping, but that was really all I did. Oh, and I chopped some rosemary and scattered that over the vegetables. The only other thing you need is a big green salad.”
It sounded absolutely brilliant and so that is exactly what I did. Since I had some large Torpedo shallots on hand, I substituted those for the red onions; they taste more like mild onions than shallots, with their more complex flavor, anyway. My weekly expedition to the farmers market at Union Square yielded pretty much everything else on my shopping list.
The prep, as expected, was a no-brainer. All you really need to keep in mind is to cut up the vegetables so that they’re of a similar size, so they’ll finish cooking at the same time. And I found myself thinking that when I do this again, I’ll add a celery root or two. That vegetable has a lovely herbaceous quality that would play well with everything else.
Roasting two chickens on a big, knobbly bed of vegetables is extremely efficient, energy-wise: You’re making maximum use of the oven and the heat it’s generating, and, unless you are serving a crowd, there will be leftovers for another meal. “Those vegetables were even better the next night,” Monique said. “They had absorbed the chickens’ juices, and had even more flavor.”
My supper party was a smash success. The best part, though, was when the unadventurous eater happily scarfed down the last caramelized pieces of fennel. “I don’t know what some of this stuff is,” she said. “But it sure is good.”