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Vegetables on sheet pan before roasting. [123RF.com]

Sheets full of flavor

Practically perversely, I cast seasonal vegetables in the starring roles of a January menu.

Designed for a cooking class, the focus on seasonally fresh vegetables is too easy, I reasoned, too obvious during the height of the growing season when tomatoes, summer squash, peppers, green beans and more all beg to be eaten.

But in the depths of winter? The approach gets quite a bit trickier.

Of course, cooks are compelled to consider what’s left in the fields locally and how much and which parts of the fall harvest remain in storage. Members of the cabbage family are cold-tolerant, as are root vegetables that nestle snugly underground. And in the cellar? Onions, garlic, potatoes and winter squash.

This backdrop was the basis of a class presented at Rogue Valley Family YMCA in Medford in partnership with ACCESS, for which I volunteer as a cooking skills educator. Part of a series dubbed “Kitchen Wisdom,” the concept of planning meals around seasonally fresh vegetables was presented in concert with a jump-start-your-health program at the Y.

Here are my strategies for making seasonal vegetables mealtime stars:

There's plenty of locally grown fare to eat in winter, whether cold-tolerant vegetables or storage crops. The former includes root vegetables, such as beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas, as well as members of the cabbage family, including cauliflower, broccoli, kale and collard greens, which, along with chard, also are known as “field greens.” Common storage crops are potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic and winter squash.

Winter is the season for citrus, although it hails from points farther south. Still, it pays to use both citrus zest and juice liberally. The bright flavors can substitute for excess salt.

Many leafy herbs, such as parsley, cilantro and mint, also are better in winter because they’re sweeter, more substantial and discouraged from going to seed.

Warming spices, such as cinnamon, cumin, chili powder, paprika and more, are comforting and add interest to plain foods. Toast them to bring out the flavors. Make your own blends from individual spices and buy in bulk sections for best prices and freshness.

Use smaller quantities of better-quality meat, but maximize its flavor by sautéing other ingredients in the fat (bacon or sausage) or combine strong flavors like tuna with mild ones, like potatoes or beans.

Compose filling salads with protein, beans, whole grains and starchy vegetables. Make your own dressings for more vibrant flavor with less fat, sugar and salt, as well as lower cost.

Use leftover roasted meat and veggies in another meal, such as soup, stew, salad, fried rice or a bean and grain bowl.

The last in that list is relevant season in and season out. Cooking enough meat and vegetables, as well as beans and grains, to repurpose later in the week is simply a smart strategy. But I find it particularly appealing in winter, when considerable comfort can be derived from food that’s already on the hob, so to speak. It also compensates for my lack of kitchen motivation in winter, when my own garden is mostly barren earth and local farmers markets have yet to reconvene.

The trick, of course, is starting with a simple enough preparation that herbs, spices and other seasonings don’t deter use in another meal, hopefully one with completely different tastes, textures and visual appeal. There’s nothing worse during the monotony of winter than eating the exact same soup or stew or casserole day in and day out until it’s gone.

Enter the sheet-pan supper, a simple, mostly hands-off approach to getting dinner on the table with minimal fuss and maximum flavor. It’s an updated take on the old Sunday roast that renders juices onto a bed of potatoes, carrots, maybe cabbage, for richer flavor than steaming, sautéing or roasting on the side.

Using a sheet pan, instead of the traditional roasting pan, not only speeds up cooking. The method caramelizes both meat and vegetables, along with any other accoutrements, intensifying flavors and yielding more toothsome textures.

For my “Kitchen Wisdom” class, I put a Latin spin on chicken and winter squash with a spice blend of cumin, chili powder, cinnamon and cocoa powder, mixed with the salt. Students sprinkled the mixture onto bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs and also wedges of acorn and butternut squash, arranged on sheet pans.

The meat and veggies needed only about 30 minutes in a 375-degree oven. When it was done, we tossed the squash with a lime vinaigrette and garnished it with chopped, fresh cilantro.

To reinforce using leftovers in another meal, students took home the following “bonus” recipe for quinoa salad. The salad dressing is the same one prepared in class.

Try all of these “Kitchen Wisdom” recipes for seasonally smart menu planning.

Collard Greens, Potato and Chickpea Salad With Lemon-Thyme Dressing

Kosher salt, as needed

1 pound fingerling potatoes, scrubbed well

1 bunch collard greens (about 1 pound)

1 garlic clove, peeled

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or rosemary or ½ teaspoon dried

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon honey (optional)

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup cooked or canned and drained, no-salt-added chickpeas

1 can water-packed, solid white tuna, drained

1/3 cup fresh parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)

Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of the kosher salt, then add the potatoes. Reduce heat to medium; cook uncovered just until potatoes can be easily pierced with sharp tip of a knife, for about 15 minutes. Drain and cool.

Cut ribs from the collards by slicing along both sides of stalk from top of leaf to stem end; discard or reserve ribs for another use. Stack halved leaves and cut them into thin ribbons. Rinse in a bowl of cool water, spin dry and transfer to a medium bowl.

If collards are not particularly tender, blanch or steam them first, just until tender, then drain them thoroughly before tossing with dressing.

Mince the garlic with a pinch of salt and, using flat side of knife blade, smash it and smear it onto cutting board until garlic is reduced to a paste. Scrape garlic paste into a small bowl; add the herbs, mustard, lemon zest and juice, ¼ teaspoon salt and the honey, if using; mix until salt has dissolved. Slowly whisk in the oil to form an emulsified dressing.

Once potatoes are cool, cut them into bite-size chunks. Add to bowl, along with the drained chickpeas and tuna. Cooked potatoes, chickpeas and tuna can be dressed and refrigerated 2 days in advance; bring to room temperature before serving.

Add half of dressing to bowl of collards; use your hands to toss gently until well incorporated. Pour remaining dressing over potatoes, chickpeas and tuna, seasoning with a bit more salt. Use a spatula to fold it in until well-coated.

To serve, scatter potatoes, chickpeas and tuna over bottom of each plate. Mound collard mixture on top, and garnish with the parsley leaves, if using. Season lightly with the black pepper. Serve right away.

Makes 2 to 4 servings (4 appetizer or side-dish servings or 2 main-course servings).

— Recipe adapted from the Washington Post.

Bacon-Sauteed Beans and Greens

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

4 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 small yellow onion, peeled and chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/8 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes (optional)

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 cups coarsely chopped, lightly packed greens (chard, kale or collards)

2 (15.8-ounce) cans reduced-sodium Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed

1 (15.8-ounce) can crushed or chopped tomatoes

In a large skillet over medium heat, toast the cumin seeds, stirring, until brown and fragrant. Remove from skillet and set aside.

Increase heat to medium high and fry the bacon pieces, stirring occasionally until crisp and brown. With a slotted spoon, remove from pan and set aside. Do not clean skillet.

Return pan of bacon fat to medium-low heat, add the onion, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes until softened. Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the red-pepper flakes, if using, and salt and pepper to taste.

Increase heat to medium and stir in the chopped greens. Saute for 5 minutes until greens are wilted. Add the canned beans and stir to combine. Add the canned tomatoes, increase heat to medium-high and simmer for several minutes until ingredients are fragrant.

Stir in the crisp bacon and cumin seeds and serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Cumin-Chili-Roasted Chicken and Squash With Lime Vinaigrette

1 medium or 2 small winter squash, such as butternut, acorn or delicata

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, finely crushed

1 teaspoon cocoa powder (optional)

1½ teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1½ pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken parts, preferably organic (any combination of breasts, thighs, wings or drumsticks)

Lime vinaigrette, for serving (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons minced, fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 375.

Using a sharp knife, insert point into the squash rind; using firm pressure, cut squash in half. Pare or snap off squash stem. Using a sturdy metal spoon, scrape out squash seeds and strings; discard. Using knife, slice squash into 1-inch-wide wedges or slices.

In a small bowl, combine the spices and salt, stirring to mix. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the olive oil onto a baking sheet. Toss squash in oil, flipping slices over to coat both sides. Sprinkle with one-third of spice mixture, reserving the rest for chicken.

On a second baking sheet, or other side of same baking sheet (if large), drizzle remaining olive oil. Toss the chicken in oil, turning to coat. Sprinkle with remaining spice mixture and arrange chicken, skin-side down, on baking sheet.

Roast squash and chicken in preheated oven for 20 minutes. Using tongs, flip squash and chicken onto other side. Depending on squash’s moisture, and size of chicken parts, cooking time may take only another 5 minutes or as long as 20. Check doneness and remove squash when lightly caramelized and tender. Chicken is done when it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees, is cooked through to the bone and skin is crisp.

Serve squash drizzled with the lime vinaigrette. Garnish squash and chicken with the cilantro, if desired.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

LIME VINAIGRETTE: In a small bowl, whisk together ¼ cup cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 teaspoon honey, 1 peeled and minced garlic clove and salt and pepper to taste. In a slow, steady stream, whisk in 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil.

Grain Salad With Roasted Squash and Lime Dressing

2 cups peeled and cubed winter squash, such as butternut (or use leftover roasted squash)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1½ teaspoons cumin

1½ teaspoons chili powder

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, finely crushed

½ teaspoon cocoa powder (optional)

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

4 cups cooked quinoa

1 cup peeled and chopped red onion

1 cup peeled and chopped carrot

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup diced cooked chicken (optional)

½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped

Lime vinaigrette, as needed (recipe follows)

Pepper, to taste

Mixed greens, for serving

Preheat oven to 425.

On a baking sheet, toss the squash with the olive oil. In a small bowl, combine the spices and salt; stir to mix and sprinkle over squash. Roast squash in preheated oven until tender, for about 15 minutes. Remove and set aside. Alternatively, skip this step and use leftover roasted squash.

Reduce oven temperature to 350 and toast the pumpkin seeds on a baking sheet in oven until lightly browned, for about 7 minutes. Remove from oven.

In a large bowl, combine squash and pumpkin seeds with the cooked quinoa, red onion, carrot, celery, cooked chicken, if using, and cilantro. Dress with desired amount of the vinaigrette (or serve it on the side); season with salt and the pepper to taste.

Serve salad on a bed of the greens. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

LIME VINAIGRETTE: In a small bowl, whisk together ¼ cup cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons lime juice, 1 teaspoon honey, 1 peeled and minced garlic clove and salt and pepper to taste. In a slow, steady stream, whisk in 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil.

— Adapted from a recipe courtesy of Inn Season CafE in Royal Oak, Michigan

— Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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