Seasons by the Sea: An Old Tool Is New Again
If you want to know what the latest cooking trends, gadgets, and ingredients are, don’t come to me. I am always woefully uninformed. When spiralizers burst onto the scene, I had no idea what they were or what people were talking about. Now I know, and I have one, and they are fun for making zucchini noodles, or “zoodles,” curly carrots, swirly beet strings, and more.
The Instant Pot is another gadget that’s been all the rage for almost a year. What is it? A cool, simplified, affordable version of a crockpot and pressure cooker combined. It can also brown, sauté, steam, make yogurt, and cook rice perfectly. The Instant Pot’s advertising says it “speeds up cooking 2 to 10 times using up to 70 percent less energy, and produces nutritious, healthy food.” (That last part’s kinda redundant.) Furthermore, its makers promise that “Instant Pot is safe, intelligent, convenient, and dependable.” Now I think I want to date one.
The latest craze is not so much a piece of equipment as it is a method: sheet pan dinners. Again, something I knew nothing about even though there are already books and articles dedicated to this “new” convenient cooking technique. What is it? Just what it sounds like: You put all of your meal ingredients on a sheet pan to be roasted or baked and/or broiled together so there’s no muss and no fuss stirring, flipping, boiling, whatever on the stovetop. It’s a new take on the one-pot meal.
I’ve been roasting most of my vegetables for a long time. Cauliflower florets with onions and a bit of curry powder, carrots with a few teaspoons of maple syrup and finished with balsamic vinegar (like candy!), and a combination of peppers, fennel, and zucchini to be combined with pasta and fontina cheese. But it has never occurred to me to put some chicken thighs alongside chickpeas and some greens, pork on top of an apple cabbage slaw, salmon fillet with mustardy potatoes, and so on. Obviously, you have to understand cooking times. For example, asparagus is going to take much less time than chicken or potatoes. So you either have to cut your vegetables or meat into compatible pieces, or perhaps add certain items partway through the cooking process.
Once I got going on my research, the possibilities seemed endless as far as flavor profiles. For instance, one meal could be all Thai flavors with a bit of Thai curry paste mixed into coconut milk to top eggplant and some other vegetables, then some shrimp or chicken strips or tofu tossed on at the end. One recipe I found is very similar to chicken Marbella, chicken cooked with prunes or apricots, along with green olives, herbs, and olive oil. You could create a mock tagine with preserved lemons and spices, or shakshuka, full of vegetables and finished with eggs on top.
When it comes to equipment, it is important to have a good, sturdy sheet pan. These are made with either aluminum or stainless steel. You can’t use your Grandma’s old, flimsy, thin cookie sheets. These will buckle and warp and cause uneven cooking. You should have one or two half-sheet pans (these are 13 by 18 inches) and perhaps a quarter-size pan (9 by 13). Professional full-size sheet pans for industrial restaurant cooking are too big for the home oven. Parchment paper and aluminum foil can help with easy cleanup. Nonstick sheet pans are not recommended because eventually you will scratch them up, especially if you need to cut into pieces of the meat after cooking. You could also invest in Silpat cooking mats. These are silicone mats that are superb for keeping cookies and other sugary things from sticking.
So, once again, if you want to know what is au courant in cuisine, don’t ask me. You’ll have to read the magazines and watch the cooking shows. Learning new things, however, is always fun, and finding a “new” use for an old piece of equipment even better.