- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Everyone loves a platter of brilliantly colored, heat-kissed vegetables to serve alongside steaks and burgers at summer cookouts. However, delicious as they are, the vegetables can be unmanageable on the grill. Flip, flop, oops, another one falls through the grid.

There’s another way to prepare an array of vegetables. It’s fast, it can be done in advance, and it takes minimal watching on the part of the cook. Best of all, no grill is required. I call it “roasting the garden.” Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you want to serve 6 to 8 people. Gather the vegetables you like: red and yellow bell peppers, a couple of fat Vidalia onions, plum tomatoes, 1 or 2 slender zucchini, a yellow squash, a half bunch of thick asparagus spears, maybe a carrot or 2, and several heads of garlic.

To figure amounts, eyeball it and estimate servings to include a little of each for each person. Now get out your biggest casserole dish and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Move the oven rack to a low position.

Preparation is minimal. Rinse everything well to clean. Peel and remove top and bottom of the onion and cut the surface crisscross about 1/2-inch deep to make a pretty design. Cut tops off garlic heads to expose the cloves.

Carrots and everything else can be left whole and uncut. Take care to arrange the pieces in an attractive way because you can bake and serve in the same dish. All of the juices will meld, and any baking splashes on the dish will be attractive.

If you like roasted beets, roast them separately because the color will bleed into the other vegetables. Just wash and remove leaves, leaving about 2 inches of stems and tails. Wrap well in foil and place the package on the oven rack to the side of the main dish. (If desired, place a cookie sheet beneath to catch any drips that escape the package.)

Brush surfaces of all other vegetables with olive oil and pop the dish into the oven. After about 35 to 40 minutes, check the progress. If the tomatoes, asparagus and garlic look done, remove them to a plate. They may cook more quickly than the other vegetables, and you can add them back to the dish before serving.

When everything is somewhat caramelized after 45 or 50 minutes, remove the platter from the oven. Cover with a clean towel and allow to cool at room temperature. Remove the package of beets from the oven, if serving, and allow it also to cool. Do not unwrap.

When ready to arrange vegetables for the table, slice the zucchini and yellow squash into chunks and return them to the platter.

Leave onion whole or cut it into quarters at serving time. Remove the bell peppers to a separate plate, drain and discard the internal juices, and remove seeds and parched skin with fingers. Place thick strips of peppers back on the platter. Place the tomatoes and asparagus back onto the platter, if necessary, and nestle the garlic into the arrangement.

If using beets, open the package and slice off the stem and root ends. Slip off the skin with your fingers. Cut beets into slices. Arrange them in a corner of the platter because they love to bleed their bittersweet juices into other juices.

Drizzle everything with your best fragrant olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt. Garnish the platter with squiggly sprigs of thyme or a bouquet of basil leaves.

Good bread is essential. Slices in a breadbasket are fine, but the whole dish gets better if you serve it either with Texas toast made on a grill or slices that have been sauteed in olive oil in advance. At serving time, squeeze soft and sweet cloves from the roasted garlic onto the bread slices.

Herb-caper mayonnaise is a wonderful partner to this dish but not essential. For a quick version, chop 2 tablespoons of fresh herbs and 2 tablespoons of drained, mashed capers, then blend them into about 1 cup homemade or good-quality commercially made mayonnaise. After resting for an hour to marry the flavors, the mayo makes a wonderful dip or sauce for all of the vegetables.

Roast the garden

1 red pepper, stem removed

1 yellow pepper, stem removed

1 medium zucchini

1 yellow squash

4 plum tomatoes

6 thick asparagus spears

1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, peeled and scored

3 carrots, peeled

1 or more heads garlic, tops sliced off

Olive oil

Beets, optional

Coarse salt

Thyme and basil sprigs for garnish

Bread or toast, optional

Herb-caper mayonnaise (see directions above), optional

Get out an ovenproof platter or baking dish that is pretty enough for the table. You will bake and serve in the same dish. Wash bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes and asparagus, and arrange in the baking dish. Add peeled onion, carrots and garlic.

Drizzle everything with olive oil. Wrap beets in foil packages, if using, and place in oven on baking sheet. Roast on low rack of preheated 400-degree oven for 50 minutes to an hour, or until edges of vegetables are somewhat browned.

Remove baking dish from oven and allow vegetables to cool. (You may want to remove any vegetables that are obviously cooked through a little in advance, such as tomatoes, asparagus and garlic.) When cool, finish the dish. Be sure to save all accumulated juices.

Cut onion into quarters, if desired. Peel off bell pepper skin with your fingers and cut flesh into large segments. Slice zucchini, yellow squash and carrots into chunks or strips. Return all vegetables to serving dish.

If using beets, open the package and slice off the stem and root ends. Slip off the skin with your fingers. Cut beets into slices. Arrange them in a corner of the platter.

Before serving, drizzle vegetables again with olive oil and sprinkle with coarse salt.

Garnish with herb sprigs. Serve at room temperature or warm with bread or toast and herb-caper mayonnaise on the side, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

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