Roasted Mess

It will come as a surprise to no one, I’m guessing, that I love a good story about making dinner. A perfect recipe, a revolting mistake, something surprisingly easy yet creative – I like them all, but my very favorite stories involve some measure of wacky desperation.

When I was in college, I had this hilarious roommate who would tell us a story about her father’s favorite dinner, something referred to in their family as “Stewpot”. (The mere mention of the word would make her eyes roll and me crack up.) Her mother, who was a photographer and who really didn’t like to cook much, kept a big covered casserole in the freezer and every evening she’d scrape the leftovers into the pot. On Sunday night the whole thing got pushed in the oven and half an hour later: voila! Stewpot, a steaming mystery mess. Always different and yet somehow always the same. The astonishing part is that my roommate’s dad was a true gourmet, passionate and really knowledgeable about food.  He introduced me to bread pudding with creme anglaise at their country club – a revelation! (What can I say?! It was 1991). He planned my roommate’s lavish wedding feast with great attention to every detail. He knew his way around elaborate French menus and could order wines from around the world with aplomb. And yet he still craved Stewpot on Sunday night. I have to wonder though, did her mother ever have a big pile of leftover spaghetti bolognese to mix in? Or the blackened end piece of a grilled salmon? Hopefully any leftover kung pao chicken was left out, that would be too crazy. If it were only meat and potatoes maybe Stewpot would actually be okay.

When I was in my early twenties and had first moved to San Francisco, my friend Sarah’s mother tried out a recipe on us. If she’d actually followed the recipe, a  heap of roast vegetables and Italian sausage would have been served with waffles and maple syrup for breakfast. Sarah’s mother served it with scrambled eggs which was delicious and made a lot more sense to me. Years later, I recreated the burnt edged tangle of roast fennel, peppers, potatoes and Italian sausages. Instead of serving it for breakfast, we eat it for dinner. I imagine that between the name I coined for it: “Roasted Mess” and the picture above, this will not be the most popular recipe I’ve written about. It does look pretty messy and not enticing like the lovingly photographed, artfully arranged pictures on most food blogs. It’s a little Stewpot-y looking. Could that be the last contents of the crisper and the meat drawer hacked up and tossed thoughtlessly into a roasting pan?!!

Fear not. I haven’t lost my mind. I know it’s not the prettiest thing I’ve written about. Aside from requiring no special cooking techniques or equipment and very little in the way of time, Roasted Mess is delicious. I love the crisp, salty, slightly burnt edges, the sweetly velvet peppers, the floral fennel, the caramel-crisp onions. I love how you just throw it together and push it in the oven. The potatoes practically become french fries if you don’t overcrowd the pan. (Don’t!) And don’t be tempted to use a glass roasting dish like Pyrex. It won’t work. Nothing will brown properly on glass. Use a steel or aluminum sheet pan for this recipe.

Roasted Mess – serves 4

  • 1 bulb fennel, cored and sliced into 1/4″ wedges
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ wedges
  • 4 Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and sliced into 1/4″ wedges
  • 1 red pepper, cored and cut into 1″ pieces
  • 4 fennel spiced Italian sausages cut into 1″ pieces
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp fennel seed, crushed
  • 3/4 tsp kosher sea salt, several grindings black pepper
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley (I really don’t see this as optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. In a large bowl, or directly on a large rimmed cookie sheet, toss  the vegetables with  the olive oil, crushed fennel seeds, salt and pepper. Spread over the pan in one layer, do not crowd. Place in the oven.
  3. After 20 minutes, turn the vegetables.
  4. After 15 more minutes add the sausages and raise the oven temperature to 375.
  5. Roast another 25 minutes or until toasted and caramelized. A few little burnt bits are highly desirable – I eat those in the kitchen on my own.
  6. Scrape everything onto a large platter and scatter with parsley.
p.s. Leftovers are excellent in a fritatta with a little goat cheese.

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