A common feature of festive tables is a big roast. A sofa-sized turkey; a pillow-sized capon; a rib of beef too huge to fit into your largest roasting pan. Imposing, delicious and, dare I say it smack in the middle of the holiday season, monochromatic. Along about the third helping of roast pork leg, some people may get a hankering for something - anything - else. But they're generally out of luck.
In northern Italy, in the shadow of the better-known bollito misto (which offers platters or carts laden with three, four, five, a dozen different simmered cuts from beef brisket to capon to calf's head), you sometimes see its roasted counterpart, the arrosto misto. With its built-in variety, it is a certain cure for gastronomic boredom (even if some would criticize it as an unfocused miscellany). Of course, in a restaurant specializing in such things, each roast will indeed be gigantic, but at home, with careful shopping, a miniature version is easy to put together and even easier to cook. To retain the spirit and simplicity of this one-pan dish, think of meats that will be tender when roasted but that have enough fat and connective tissue to remain moist when left alone in the oven to cook until well-done. Lamb shoulder? Pork butt? Poultry legs? Breast of lamb (possibly boned and rolled)? Veal shank? And do spend a few moments considering whether your selection will somehow create havoc on the plate.
For just a few people, you don't need too much diversity, just enough to make it fun. Here's the one Jackie and I had a couple of days ago: a big moulard duck leg and a nice chunk of skin-on pork belly, both raised by favorite farmers' market vendors. The two meats differ but don't clash, and they taste delicious cooked well-done (as opposed to duck breast, which suffers when overcooked). I salted and peppered the meat a few hours before cooking, then patted it dry and browned it lightly, skin-side down, in a shallow roasting pan over medium-low heat. This started the fat running, which was crucial for the next step: I added chunks of potato to the pan - surrounding, not underneath the meat, the idea being that they would roast and brown, not get smothered under the duck and pork. What I did slip under the meats (now skin-side up) was a big carrot cut into 3/8-inch slices; it acted as an edible roasting rack.
I seasoned everything - more salt and pepper, plus thyme (rosemary or sage would have been other options) - and put the pan into an oven pre-heated to somewhere between 375 and 400 degrees F (190-200 C), where I left it alone for two hours. Well, almost alone: every half hour or so, I turned the potatoes and marveled at how nice everything was looking and smelling.
The result was crisp, deep broun skin on both the pork and the duck, with sufficiently tender, still-unctuous, exceedingly flavorful flesh beneath it. The potatoes could be described in the same way, and the carrots were almost confit after their two hours under the roasting meat: slightly chewy and intensely flavorful. (The carrots might have been the best part of this dinner, but then I often think that of carrots, which I adore.)
It also looked great when transferred to a more presentable dish, leaving the fat behind in the roasting pan. If we had had a dining room full of guests, an expanded version of the same dish (figure half a duck leg and a chunk or two of pork per person) would have been an impressive thing to bring to the table. And no one would have staggered home whispering to his partner, "Oof, if I never see another leg of lamb it'll be too soon."