(THE GUARDIAN) - There is something grand about vegetables roasted whole. All the food I make celebrates vegetables in some way, but cooking them whole takes it a step further. A complete vegetable, served up all golden and crackling, its colour intensified, makes a wonderful centrepiece that can be lacking in some meat-free cooking.
These recipes find their way into our kitchen on most weeknights with a simple salad, or at weekends as the focus of a lazy lunch or dinner with lemon and coriander seed roast potatoes, steamed lemon-dressed greens and honeyed parsnips with a few cumin seeds.
Whole, roasted cauliflower has been a mainstay on restaurant menus for the past couple of years. It looks and tastes brilliant – burnished and browned, its buttery clean white inside offers a sharp contrast to the crisp and highly flavoured exterior. It’s so easy to do at home and is a really pleasing thing to put on the table with a sharp knife for everyone to cut big wedges for themselves.
Roast squash is something that I have returned to after a few years of doing without. Along with the other vegetarian stalwarts of mushroom risotto and stuffed peppers, there was a time when roast squash was the offering of choice and we all overindulged. But it’s time to welcome it back – it’s an amazing, nurturing vegetable, generous in flavour, and comes in a ton of varieties. And now is the time to get your hands on more unusual specimens. I used onion and kabocha squash here, stuffed with plump grains and sweet roast fennel, some good sharp cheddar and topped with toasted buttery oats. A butternut would work too, though you won’t get quite as much of a hollow for stuffing.
Whole roast squash
I used a mixture of two, bright-orange onion squash, big enough to serve two, plus two smaller green kabocha or acorn squash each big enough for one. Both roast in about the same time, though huge pumpkins would take longer.
A mixture of whole squashes: about 750g squash per person (I used 2 onion squash and 2 smaller kabocha squash)
4 fennel bulbs
1 garlic bulb
Salt and black pepper
250g freekeh or pearl barley
125g sharp cheddar or other cheese
1 lemon, zested
1 bunch fennel tops or dill
1 red chilli, deseeded if you like
A knob of butter
50g rolled oats or barley flakes
1 tsp fennel seeds
1. Preheat the oven to 180 deg C/350 deg F/gas mark 4. Use a big, heavy knife to cut off the base of each squash, so they sit upright on a tray. Cleanly cut the top off each one in a single piece (you are going to put the tops back on) about 3-4cm from the top. Use a metal spoon to scoop out the seeds and the fibres until you have a neat hollow.
2. Trim the fennel, removing any tough outer leaves, then cut the bulb into a few big wedges.
3. Put the squash in a large roasting tray or two. Scatter the fennel wedges around and put the bulb of garlic on too. Drizzle the lot with olive oil, making sure you get inside the squash, and season with salt and pepper. Pop the tops back on the squash. Roast for 45-60 minutes, or until the squash are tender and the fennel has started to soften and brown. If your squash take a little longer, you can remove the fennel once it’s nicely soft and brown around the edges, as you don’t want it to overcook.
4. Put the freekeh or pearl barley in a medium pan and cover with cold water. Add a big pinch of salt, then bring to the boil and simmer until al dente (about 12 minutes for freekeh and 25 minutes for pearl barley). Drain and transfer to a large bowl.
5. Remove the garlic and fennel from the roasting dish. When cool enough to handle, squeeze the roasted garlic into the freekeh. Roughly chop the fennel and add it to the bowl along with the cheese, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Chop the fennel tops and chilli and add these too. Taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning, if you like.
6. Divide the mixture between the squash and return them to the oven for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat some butter in a small pan, add the oats, fennel seeds and a little salt and pepper. Stir to coat in the butter, then toast the flakes until golden (this will take about 5 minutes). Drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper.
7. Once the squash and freekeh are out of the oven, sprinkle over the toasted oats and put in the middle of the table for everyone to dig in.
Turmeric and coconut baked cauliflower
This is my favourite way to eat cauliflower, the sweet note of coconut milk, the punch of ginger and green chilli, earthiness from mustard seeds and the clean, spiced note of turmeric are soaked up by the vegetable. Other days I roast it with lemon, bay and saffron or cover it in a green herb pesto.
2 large cauliflowers
4 tbsp coconut oil
A thumb-sized piece of ginger
4 green chillies
4 garlic cloves
1 tbsp black mustard seeds
2 tsp ground turmeric
Salt and black pepper
400ml tin of coconut milk
1 lemon, halved
Thick Greek or coconut yoghurt
Almond flakes, toasted
Small bunch of coriander, leaves picked
1. Set the oven to 200 deg C/400 deg F/gas mark 6. Boil the kettle. Cut the large leaves and stalks away from the cauliflower. Leave the little ones close to the florets – they will go nice and crisp when roasted. Turn the cauliflowers upside down. Using a small paring knife, carefully cut hollows in the stalks, so they cook evenly. Take a saucepan big enough to hold both cauliflowers, otherwise do them one at a time. Half fill the pan with water from the kettle, then bring to the boil. Add salt, then immerse the cauliflowers and simmer for 6 minutes. Drain. Put the lid back on. Let the cauliflower steam in the residual heat for a further 10 minutes.
2. Take an ovenproof dish or pan (that can go on the hob and in the oven) large enough to take the cauliflowers, with just enough room for you to get a spoon in to baste. Spoon in the coconut oil, and grate the ginger into the oil. Finely chop the chillies, discarding the seeds if you wish, then add to the pan. Peel, crush and add the garlic, then put the pan over a moderate heat and let the spices and aromatics cook for a few minutes, until fragrant. Stir in the mustard seeds. Cook until the garlic has softened, then add the turmeric and a big pinch of salt.
3. Pour the coconut milk into the spice mixture, stir well and season with a little ground black pepper. When it starts to bubble gently, turn off the heat, put the drained cauliflower in the dish, then baste it with the coconut-spice mixture. Throw the lemon halves into the side of the dish too.
4. Bake the cauliflower, basting now and then with the spiced sauce in the roasting tin, for 40-45 minutes. You want it to catch a little on top. To test if the cauliflower is cooked, insert a small sharp knife into the middle: it should be really tender. Once it’s perfect, take it out and squeeze over the roasted lemons. Serve in the middle of the table with spoonfuls of yoghurt, almonds and green herbs for sprinkling on top of your plate.
Anna Jones is a chef, writer and author of A Modern Way to Eat and A Modern Way to Cook (Fourth Estate). Follow her on her website or on Twitter @we_are_food