The sheet-pan meal, flat-out delicious

The Italian Tray Bake from Nigella Lawson's "Nigellissima" features chicken thighs, Italian sausages, rosemary, and potatoes. (She has also worked up a Spanish version with chorizo and orange zest.)
The Italian Tray Bake from Nigella Lawson's "Nigellissima" features chicken thighs, Italian sausages, rosemary, and potatoes. (She has also worked up a Spanish version with chorizo and orange zest.)
Posted: May 23, 2014

Every so often, you stumble on a recipe with a technique so brilliant, so obvious, and so winning that you wonder why you don't cook every single meal this way. Such is the case with the one-tray meal, my most recent kitchen obsession.

Not to be confused with one-pot stews or skillet bakes, or that covered standby of community cookbooks, the one-tray meal is something altogether more elegant by design, and arguably even simpler to make: a combination of protein, starch, and vegetables, scattered evenly across a half-sheet pan and roasted in the oven.

In most cases, there's no prep other than cutting the ingredients. There's no parboiling or browning necessary. Aside from the pan itself, there are no other dishes to wash, and if you use parchment or foil to line it, cleanup is a snap.

"The definition of easy cooking is a recipe with a small number of ingredients that are easy to assemble, and a method that takes less than 45 minutes from start to finish," says Hope Cohen, local TV cooking host and author of Fast, Fresh + Simple. The sheet-pan meal deftly fits all of these criteria.

Like all great culinary ideas, the idea of the shallow roast is gaining traction in the world of food writing. Martha Stewart's website has a nice collection of sheet-pan supper recipes, including a baked crumbed flounder with roasted tomatoes, and ribeye steaks with horseradish butter, roasted with carrot coins and celery root half-moons. Tyler Florence's Start Fresh (Rodale, 2011) features a number of family-friendly ideas (ginger coconut chicken with rice and strip steak with Asian vegetables) - an optional post-roast run through the food processor makes them suitable for new baby teeth.

The Brits seem to have embraced this trend first (though their preferred term is "tray bake"). Jamie Oliver has published multiple recipes over the years that use this technique - from pork chops with herbed potatoes, parsnips, and pears to a Keralan fish curry to chicken with sweet potatoes, bacon, and cream.

Not to be outdone, queen of sophisticated simplicity Nigella Lawson has her own tray-based contributions. In her Nigellissima (Clarkson Potter, 2013), the Italian Tray Bake is a patchwork of chicken thighs, Italian sausages, rosemary, and potatoes. (She has also worked up a Spanish version with chorizo and orange zest.) It's the ideal showcase for rich, fattier thighs: The chicken skin gets crisp and golden, the sausages plump up, and the potatoes acquire an appealing crust.

In a BBC Good Food keeper, lamb kofta, flecked with onion and mint, lend savory drippings to zucchini batons, potato wedges, and blistered cherry tomatoes. With a quick sprinkling of feta cheese, it's Greek night.

Still, while there are dozens of tomes devoted to one-pot meals in the Dutch oven or slow-cooker, there are far fewer recipes out there for the humble sheet pan. The good news is it doesn't take great creativity to come up with your own combinations, just some basic understanding of the physical properties of food.

"It's important that all of your ingredients cook at the same time, whether it's chicken or a diced carrot," Cohen says. "So you need to consider the size of your proteins versus the size of your vegetables, as well as the density or water content."

In Cohen's recipe for miso-marinated black cod roasted with bok choy and carrots, for instance, the oily fish fillets can take the long-lasting heat alongside the vegetables for even caramelization.

Even if it takes two pans to accommodate the ingredients, spread everything out in an even layer to avoid steaming, the enemy of crisp and delicious roasting.

The pan itself can make a difference, so don't skimp. "A lot of home cooks go out and buy Teflon-coated sheet pans," Cohen says. "But a high-quality stainless steel sheet pan is much more effective in transferring heat."

Cohen uses her sheet pans for much more than roasting. "They're basically an extension of my countertop. I use them for prepping, for marinating, for storing food in the fridge."

Keeping those workhorses in working order is important. While some recipes might demand that the ingredients keep direct contact with the metal tray for the optimal roast, a layer of foil or parchment can save scrubbing time and prolong the life of the pan that could be your new best friend.

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