Getting home from work with no game plan for dinner can be a fast track to hangry territory. With a long commute and a semiregular workout routine, it can be challenging for me to turn out an enticing meal on some weeknights.
I've recently turned to two cookbooks whose authors approach weeknight and everyday cooking with aplomb. Back Pocket Pasta and One Pan & Done stand out for their promises of laid-back cooking with stepped-up results.
These are two books with slightly different paths to answering the same question: What can I make tonight that will taste great and bring me the joy of cooking without requiring a terrible amount of effort?
One Pan & Done
Molly Gilbert's first cookbook, Sheet Pan Suppers, builds smart and delicious meals around the humble sheet pan. Her latest cookbook applies this idea to the Dutch oven, a cast iron skillet and the reliable casserole dish. It works because the mighty oven is still the workhorse.
Gilbert is a culinary school graduate whose tone is approachable and conversational: "After years of straight sheet pans, I feel like a sophomore on spring break in Cancún ... with a muffin tin," she writes in a peppy introduction.
Helpful icons above each recipe signal which one-pan tool is needed, and Gilbert provides a full range of recipes for breakfast, brunch, snacks, sides, vegetables, fish, poultry, meat and dessert.
Most of the recipes either start on the stovetop with key steps for building flavor — searing, browning, caramelizing — and then finish in the oven, or cook entirely in the oven. I started with one of each kind of recipe. The Lamb Meatballs With Spinach and Orzo first caught my eye.
A quibble in the ingredient list: The recipe calls for 1 ½ pounds of ground lamb, but most packages of ground lamb available at grocery stores are sold in 1-pound quantities. In the name of one-pan cooking, I didn't want to dirty another dish by storing the half-pound of lamb for another use. So I added the extra half-pound to the mixture, and used heaping measurements of the bread crumbs and spinach.
Veering slightly from the recipe was no cause for concern. I browned the meatballs, added the orzo and tucked the whole thing into the center of the oven. (Gilbert offers a timesaving tip by skipping the browning and just adding the formed balls to the pot; with only two mouths to feed in my house, I didn't mind taking the extra step for added flavor.)
While the meatballs and orzo baked, my husband and I moved onto the couch, where we popped open a bottle of California Cabernet we bought two years ago on our honeymoon. Soon the aroma of the meatballs (and the timer) lured us into the kitchen to unearth our one-pot meal. The meatballs were tender and tasted bright and fresh from the feta and lemon zest. We could not get enough. I've turned out quite a few batches of meatballs in my kitchen, and these were the best.
Up next, I looked for something that would yield healthy leftovers for lunch. The Roasted Shrimp and Chickpea Salad is a riot of texture and color with the crunch of celery, ribbons of purple onion and nutty chickpeas against a flurry of green herbs. Almost all the ingredients get tossed together on a sheet pan, and the meal is done cooking after 10 minutes. Chopped herbs get tossed into the shrimp and chickpea mixture and dinner is, unbelievably but thankfully, served.
It is a fresh, easy meal rounded out with toast or crackers and ripe avocado if it's around. I'll be turning to this one again and again for quick dinners with leftovers I can look forward to.
There are also some great recipes for maximizing the use of a muffin tin. Though often regulated to the one baking task, here the muffin tin fulfills its true potential in the brunch, snacks, sides and desserts of Gilbert's book with recipes like Manchego Spinach Pies and Chocolate Molten Caramel Mini Cakes
Okay, Sheet Pan Queen, you've proved yourself again. I need to look to my sheet pan and the rest of my one-pan arsenal more often for dinners that minimize work and difficulty but maximize flavor and variety.
Back Pocket Pasta
In the kitchen, pasta begins with boiling water and salt. Colu Henry's pasta cookbook was born from a hashtag.
Back Pocket Pasta, a slim cookbook with 100 recipes, began as a catch-all tag for improvised meals Henry shared on Instagram.
Henry, who previously worked at Bon Appétit, draws recipe inspiration from living in Brooklyn for several years and more recently from her life upstate in Hudson, N.Y., where she has access to incredible fresh ingredients. Her Italian heritage also fuels her love for pasta, and inspiration from traveling shows up in her cooking, too. There's a BLT pasta and a risotto with poblanos inspired by a version she tried in Mexico City.
Her foundation for these on-the-fly dinners is a well-stocked pantry. So many of the recipes call for the umami punch of anchovies. Capers, chiles and other ingredients packed tightly into tins and cans and squirreled away in cupboards are smartly called out to carry the weight in many of her recipes. Vegetables picked up during the week or at the farmers market on the weekend keep recipes fresh and interesting. Though some ingredients may be easier to find where she lives, she seems to always offer a suitable alternative ingredient to stand in if the preferred one is not available.
I appreciated the tips and cues throughout the book that anticipated my questions. These abated any doubt about how something might turn out and quietly changed the way I cook. Henry advises against the popular practice of salting eggplant in her Rigatoni Alla Norma; skipping this step saves time, she writes, and results in crispier eggplant. Caramelize extra fennel and use it throughout the week, she nudges. Keep dry vermouth in your pantry for deglazing a pan; it's budget-friendly and lasts longer than white wine.
Some of her favorite Italian dishes are deconstructed and matched with the right pasta shape. Stuffed zucchini becomes a creamy dish with sausage crumbles, the zucchini cut into crescents and ruffled pasta. Pickled cherry peppers stuffed with anchovies, garlic and bread crumbs (an appetizer she loves) are made to fit with spaghettini.
I learned to trust Henry pretty quickly. In her recipe for Rotini With Caramelized Onions, Feta and Walnuts, she encourages the home cook to caramelize onions on a Sunday and store them for use throughout the week. I have too often seen the false promise of recipes instructing to caramelize onions in less than a half-hour. Henry's more honest: It'll take about 45 minutes.
Before I went deep into the recipes, Henry changed the way I cooked pasta. She details an exact amount of salt to add to the water: two tablespoons. Rarely do I see a recipe calling for such practical precision. More often, I'm instructed to simply salt the water with no guidance or to season it so that it's salty like the sea. Though I grew up not far from the beach and can conjure vivid memories of licking my lips and tasting just how salty the sea was, this never translated when I was in my kitchen cooking pasta. There's no more guessing now, and my pasta tastes better.
I'll keep this and other moves I learn along the way from Henry and Gilbert in my back pocket and both of these cookbooks in my kitchen.
Ileana Morales Valentine can be reached at email@example.com.