The following is the first part of our Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooking School, an explanation of which can be found here.
The Cheap-Ass Gourmet is a cooking series that looks to provide a starting point for readers who are on a tight budget, want to eat healthy, and are a little intimidated about setting foot into their own kitchen. Each recipe in the series has three things in common: each is inexpensive, each is well-suited for those who say “But I don’t know how to cook!,” and each is delicious.
All right, are we ready for Week One’s Roasting Class? Excellent!
Our goal for Week One is simple: By the end of this class, you should know the basics of roasting, and have a few quick and simple recipes under your belt. Better still, you should be able to improvise on your own, to your own tastes and preferences.
A Quick Note on Roasting vs. Baking
Today the word “roast” and “bake” are used somewhat interchangeably, since each uses indirect dry heat in an enclosed space. Historically speaking, however, the difference between roasting and baking has little to do with the cooking method and more to do with the chemical change in what was being cooked: When we bake, we are taking a non-solid group of ingredients and making it more solid. (Think: bread dough into bread, or wet ingredients into a casserole.) Roasting produces the opposite effect: taking foods that are too solid to easily chew and digest, and making them more tender and easier to eat.
Some may ask why I am concentrating on roasting rather than baking in this section, and the answer is simple: Most people, even those who rarely venture into their kitchen, already know something about the basics of baking. After all, a basic baking recipe is set out in very simple and exact steps, which — unless you really know what you’re doing — you need to follow to the letter. And most people have, at least once. I know a ton of people who have never roasted their own tenderloin, chicken, turkey, leg of lamb, whole salmon or root vegetables; I don’t know anyone who’s never baked cookies. This is not to say that baking is easy. People who excel at baking — who can create their own recipes with new ingredients on a whim — are mother-fishing kitchen ninjas. But that level of expertise is way beyond the purpose of this series. So instead, we’ll focus on roasting.
A Few Notes On Roasting
Of all the cooking methods we’ll learn in the Cheap-Ass Gourmet Cooking School, roasting is by far the youngest. It was, in fact, developed at least hundreds and probably thousands of years after the others. The reason for this is simple: in a non-gas & electric world, roasting requires extravagant quantities of fuel. You needed to build an entire civilization capable of regularly harvesting and storing a tremendous amount of wood to even try it. A staple anachronism in movies set in various ye olde times is commoners in taverns and homes eating various roast meats. Those people never ate or prepared a roast anything, because they simply couldn’t afford to do so. Even in the wealthiest of aristocratic households, being served roast food was a reward of rank. In the England of Edward II, for example, workers and servants below the rank of esquire were not permitted roast food at all, ever. (In case you’re wondering, everyone else primarily ate raw or boiled food.)
Roasting vegetables is somewhat less complex than roasting meats, and to a great extent is done to taste. For example, when I roast potatoes I often take some of them out of the pan 10-15 minutes earlier than the rest. This is because the rest of my household like their potatoes roasted until they are crispy and slightly charred, while I prefer them slightly browned. I enjoy the subtle, creamy taste of a potato that can get lost when they become crispy. On the other hand, when roasting broccoli and cauliflower, I want the tips to be charred.
Meat is a different ball game. One of the things we all look for when we roast meat is juiciness, and any exposure to heat dries out the meat’s moisture. This is especially true of meat that comes from an animal’s muscles, which is most of the meat we consume. Proteins found in an animal’s muscles are 75% water, and they shrink as they are cooked. Until the meat itself reaches 120° F (49° C) these proteins shrink in diameter only, and very little moisture is lost. Once you move past 120°, however, those proteins begin to shrink lengthwise as well, forcing the meat’s moisture out. Therefore, what we’re trying to do when roasting is to try to find a perfect balance of juiciness and tenderness, two coveted qualities that in fact compete against one another. And as you might well imagine, cuts of meat that are quite tender by nature (say, a filet mignon) are often cooked to a lower temperature so that they will lose less moisture. And those less tender (say, a flank steak) are almost always cooked more thoroughly to make them more tender, even though doing so makes them less juicy.
Because of this, having a meat thermometer is helpful when roasting. A meat thermometer has a pointy end that you stick into the piece of meat so that you know how hot or cool it is inside. If you’re just learning how to cook, it takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. If you don’t have one, don’t worry — except for turkey, which I only roast once a year, I never really use one. Just know that you’re more likely to over- or under-do meat at the beginning of your learning curve. If you do have one, here is the benchmark to shoot for that you get in most high-end restaurants:
Chicken, Turkey, Duck, & Other Poultry & Fowl: 150° in the breast, 170° in the thigh.
Pork, including Loin & Tenderloin: 145°
Looking at that list, there are two things you might have noticed. The first is that red meat is the only type that we do to various degrees of “done-ness.” This is because the density of red meat allows a greater degree of variance based on taste while still being safe to eat. The second thing you might have notices is that roast fish is nowhere to be seen. This is because fish cooks so quickly compared to its land animal brethren that simply setting a timer will suffice.
The last thing to note before we get into some recipes is that there are two schools of thoughts on roasting: the High-Temp School, and the Slow Roasting School. High-Tempers point out that meat roasted at higher temperatures cooks more quickly, and that it is more likely to have that coveted and delicious browned edge than slow-roasted meats.
Slow-Roasters point out that by cooking more slowly, the fats do a better job of caramelizing, muscles break down more thoroughly, and less water is lost. In fact, barbecue is simply a form of extreme slow roasting done outside with coals instead of gas or electricity. Barbecue (not to be confused with grilling, which is a very different thing) uses very low heat over a loooong period of time, but it is still cooking using indirect heat in an enclosed space.
So which side is right, the High-Tempers or the Slow-Roasters? Both, actually. Which is why I highly recommend adding both high-temp and slow-roast into your repertoire.
Some Cheap-Ass Suggestions Before We Begin
In the introduction to this post, I noted that cooking is cheaper than buying convenience food, but only if you really know how to cook. So before we get to the recipes, let’s take a look at some quick tips to make roasting more affordable.
Cheap-Ass Tip #1: Be Fearless — Even though I’m offering you specific recipes as a jump off point, I want you to always be thinking about what ingredients you like, what things you already have in your refrigerator or pantry, and what is on sale at the market. So in our pork tenderloin recipe below, for example, one of the ingredients is Worcestershire sauce. This is because I always have Worcestershire sauce in my cupboard. If you don’t have any, there’s no need to go out and buy a bottle. Instead, try adding a teaspoon of honey in its place and making the sauce sweet. If you don’t have honey, try adding a spoonful of raspberry preserves. If you don’t have preserves, then maybe just a little more mustard and a teaspoon of sugar. Experiment with things that you know you like that are already in your kitchen. Remember: the cheapest ingredient in any recipe is the one you already have.
Also, the best way to make sure something that’s fresh in your refrigerator today doesn’t become something you have to remove with a blowtorch and a hazmat suit in six months is to use it in what you’re already making. (Trust me on this last one. I have had fridge-cleaning expeditions where I’ve discovered long-forgotten vegetables that have evolved to the point that they probably had opposable thumbs.)
Cheap-Ass Tip #2: Buy Your Spices in Bulk — The jars of spices you buy in supermarkets are expensive, especially if you’re just starting out. Were you to go out and buy a new jar for each spice in the chicken thigh recipe below, for example, you might have to shell out close to $30. If you go to a store that sells those same spices in bulk and get the amount you need plus extra for later, you’re looking at a dollar or two.
Cheap-Ass Tip #3: Eat Healthy Portions — If I’m at a point where my cash flow is a source of stress, I change the portions of my meals. Which is not to say that I eat less, but rather more economically — and, by odd and happy coincidence, more healthy. So if I’m making a roast chicken, I serve myself and my family less chicken on the plate and increase the amount of rice, potatoes, and other vegetables, and put the rest of the chicken in the fridge in order to get another dinner (or two) out of it. Rice is an especially economic food, though in order to have it be healthy you should be eating brown rice where you can.
I’ll add some additional roasting recipes this week (including one BBQ); there is also a previous post on how to roast a chicken that you can find here. (You can also try to add “bread drippings” to that roast chicken recipe if you wish.)
For now, let’s look at four simple, basic roasting recipes: Roast Pork Tenderloin with Herbed Butter Sauce, Roast Broccoli and Cauliflower, Roasted Potatoes with Onions and Rosemary, and, for those who are to try something simple but a wee bit more complicated, Roast Chicken Thighs and Rice with Asian Spices.
Roast Pork Tenderloin with Herbed Butter Sauce
In this recipe, you will brown the meat on the stovetop before putting in the oven to roast. This is not, as you might have heard, to “seal in the juices.” “Sealing in the juices” is a myth; browning meat does no such thing. Instead, we brown the tenderloin because browning makes a delicious crust. Added bonus: the juices that escape during browning will end up being part of the sauce, which will make the entire dish that much better.
If you’ve never seen a raw pork tenderloin before, let me offer a quick word of warning. It’s about as unappealing a thing as one might imagine. It looks like a giant, alien slug, slimy and cold to the touch. They’re usually about one-two pounds. Know also that if you get them in a package, there will probably be two of them. So if you’re eating on a budget and not feeding a lot of people, ask your butcher to get you a single tenderloin.
You will need: Frying pan for your stove, roasting pan for your oven, foil.
A Pork Tenderloin
Olive or Canola Oil
2 Cloves of Garlic, crushed or minced
1 Teaspoon Mustard of your choice
2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
3 Tablespoons unsalted Butter
1 Tablespoon of dried herbs of your choice (I like oregano and thyme, but you should use whatever you like)
Salt & Pepper
1. Preheat your oven to 350°
2. Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a pan on the stove that’s heated to medium high. Let it sit for about 1 minute, then put tenderloin in. Using tongs or two long spoons, turn the tenderloin every few minutes, until each side is nicely browned. Then remove and set aside.
3. Reduce the heat under the pan to medium low. Mix the garlic, mustard, Worcestershire and butter. Stir a couple minutes, until the butter is melted and all the ingredients are well mixed. Remove pan from heat.
4. Sprinkle the herbs onto the tenderloin. Pat with your hands so that they stick. Then put the tenderloin onto a sheet of foil. Drizzle sauce from the pan over the tenderloin, and wrap with the foil, crimping the edges tightly.
5. Place foil-covered tenderloin in roasting pan, and place in oven for 30 minutes.
6. Afterward, remove foil. Let stand for 10 minutes, then slice and serve.
Roast Broccoli and Cauliflower
Boy, this one is so easy you’re going to wonder why you ever feared your kitchen. I make a head of each at the same time and have leftovers the next day, but you can scale down and make as little as you want. The recipe won’t really change. Obviously, you can try other vegetables as well so long as they are firm and non-leafy such as carrots, beets, or turnips.
You will need: Roasting pan.
Head of Broccoli
Head of Cauliflower
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes (Optional)
Salt & Pepper
1. Preheat oven to 450°.
2. Chop each head roughly. Make the pieces as big or small as you want, but remember that they will lose a lot of water and shrink during the roasting process.
3. Drizzle a very small amount of olive oil in the bottom of the roasting pan, and then toss in some salt and pepper, and (if you wish) a small amount of red pepper flakes. Then put the chopped broccoli and cauliflower in and toss with a metal spatula, until all the veggies are slightly covered in oil, salt, pepper and pepper flakes.
4. Put roasting pan in the oven. Every five minutes or so, take pan out and use the spatula to re-mix the veggies. When they begin to look the amount of done you prefer your veggies, take them out and serve.
Pretty damn easy, yes? And this next one is just a variation on that theme:
Roasted Potatoes with Onions and Rosemary
You will need: Roasting pan.
Potatoes, preferably Yellow or Red (but not Russet), roughly chopped
Onion, roughly chopped (optional)
Leaves from a fresh sprig of Rosemary, chopped (optional)
Salt & Pepper
1. Preheat oven to 450
2. Follow the exact steps you followed with the Broccoli and Cauliflower recipe, except don’t put the onion in at first. Instead, wait until the potatoes look like they are almost done; then stir the onions in with the spatula before putting pan back in the oven. (This is because the onion will cook far faster than the potatoes.)
3. When they look the amount you like potatoes done, take out of oven and serve.
Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Wait, why can’t I add onion or rosemary to the other recipes? Why can’t I add some other herb I like instead? Why can’t I use sweet potatoes or yams instead of red potatoes?”
Why indeed? (Although if you use another fresh herb that is more leafy and delicate than Rosemary, such as tarragon, dill, or oregano, put it in at the end with the onions.)
Roast Chicken and Rice with Asian Spices
For our last roasting recipe today, let’s try a variation on the tenderloin. However, in order to make this dish you will need a chef’s pan, a skillet, a Dutch oven, or some other type of pan with a cover that can both go into your oven and be used on a stovetop burner.
[Important Note: If you aren’t sure if your pan can go in the oven, don’t put it in the oven. It’s unsafe, and can damage the pan, the oven, and even you — some stove pan coatings release toxic gases if exposed to the kinds of high heats you get with roasting.]
And if these spices aren’t your cup of tea, you can use different spices that are. Experiment! Be bold! Remember, you’re not just reading a recipe — you’re learning how to really cook.
You will need: Chef’s pan, dutch oven, or skillet with a cover.
Chicken thighs, with skin and bone intact
1 1/2 cup white rice (I like basmati)
1 ¾ cups chicken broth, vegetable broth, or water
3 whole cardamom pods
2 pieces of cinnamon
1 Teaspoon each Coriander and Cumin
1 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
Salt & Pepper
1. Preheat oven to 550°
2. Heat about a tablespoon of oil in a pan on the stove. Let it sit for about 1 minute, then put thighs in. Using tongs or two long spoons, turn the thighs every few minutes, until each side is nicely browned. Then remove thighs and set aside. (You will notice that you have a lot more liquid than you did when you started. Do not drain.)
3. In the same pan, add the onion and the rice. Stir over heat for 4-6 minutes, until onions begin to become translucent.
5. Put chicken on top of rice/broth mixture, cover, and place in oven. Roast for 30 minutes.
6. Remove from oven, take out chicken. Stir rice just a bit to make fluffy. Serve.
As I said, we’ll look at more roasting recipes and tips over the next week. Until then, bon appetit!
 But seriously, not beets. Beets are terrible, an affront against all that is good and decent, and should be struck from the Earth. I hate beets.