There’s nothing that makes me appreciate the streamlined ease of a one-pan meal more than watching a professional chef at work.
The first time I stepped into a restaurant kitchen to observe the cooks, it was at a popular, cavernous restaurant called An American Place in New York City, where I had a college job as a coat checker. Sometimes, on a warmish night when the coats were sparse but the dining room was crowded, I’d slip into the kitchen to take in the drama.
There was all of the exciting bustle and energy you’d imagine, but what riveted me most was the elaborate choreography the cooking entailed, completely different from anything I’d seen done at home.
To make one menu item, a chef might use three separate pans, two bowls and an array of plastic squeeze bottles. There’d be a skillet for sautéing the salmon fillet, an oval sizzle platter to crisp the skin, another skillet to brown the accompanying sugar snap peas. In one bowl, pea shoots would be tossed with a couple of squirts from various squeeze bottles; in another, a sauce was reheated over a bain-marie. Scurrying in the background were the dishwashers who cleaned up every greasy pan, dirty spatula and sticky bottle. Without them easing the flow, the chefs would have sweat even more profusely than they already did. The whole thing made me understand why many recipes in chefs’ cookbooks were such a pain to make in my home kitchen. Chefs don’t care about using every pot and pan in the house, because they don’t have to think about having them pile up in the sink; they have dozens of pots and pans … and people to clean them.
I took this lesson with me when I became a food writer and started writing cookbooks with celebrity chefs. Could I translate what they did in a professional kitchen using half a dozen pots, pans and bowls into a recipe that would work just as well at home using one or two? That was where my obsession with recipe streamlining began. And it continues to this day. My job is to create recipes home cooks want to add to their repertoire.
And for every single recipe I develop, I deconstruct the process. Is there a way I could make this recipe easier, faster and tastier? And what’s the minimum number of pots, pans and dishes I need to dirty to get here?
It’s a discipline that has slowly solidified into a less-is-more philosophy — less work, less mess, more flavor.
It’s not just for the sake of cleanup, it’s also for convenience and flow while cooking. It’s just easier to use the same bowl in which you mixed your vegetables to whip up the salad dressing, without having to stop and wash it in between.
Shortcuts like this mean that these recipes are weeknight-friendly — the kinds of meals you can start thinking about at 6 p.m. and have on the table by 7 p.m. But they’re also weekend delicious, out-of-the-ordinary dishes you’d be proud to serve to guests.
Think of them as guides, meant to be followed but only up to a point. After all, you know your tastes and preferences, and your kitchen and kitchen equipment, better than I do. Trust your senses, trust your gut and don’t be afraid to experiment. Even if you do occasionally get something wrong, most of the time you’ll get it deliciously right.
And in either case, you won’t have a pile of dishes in the sink when you’re done.
This article is an excerpt from “Dinner in One: Exceptional & Easy One-Pan Meals” by Melissa Clark (Clarkson Potter, 2022).