Knowing there's not much to clean up makes dinner even better.
I enjoy cooking and actually find it relaxing. Unfortunately, I don't find cleaning up the mess that comes along with a lot of cooking to be all that pleasant. Luckily, a friend introduced me to the concept of one-pot meals as a way to minimize that mess. Yes, I said one-pot meals. If you're not familiar with the concept, you may think it's impossible, but it's no fantasy. It's real! And it's great!
I love baked ziti. Whether it's the chicken ragu-based dish I grew up on at Graziano's in Niles, Ill., the Taylor Street variety at the upscale chain, Maggiano's (it publishes its recipe online!) or the spicy Italian sausage option at Chicago favorite, The Rosebud, there's something wonderfully comforting about this Italian-American staple. I like the way it tastes. I like the way it reheats for leftovers. I even like how easy it is to make.
The only thing I don't like? You guessed it -- the cleanup. It's horrible. There's the pan I use to cook the sausage. Then there's the pot I use to make the noodles and mix everything up. Then, there's the pan I use to bake the pasta. And that's not counting the wooden, slotted and unslotted spoons I use to cook or stir. Oh, and the cheese. Good gracious, the cheese. So melty, so baked on, so much of a pain to clean. Remember how I said the ziti was the path of least cleaning resistance? Yeaaaaaaah.
The truth is, a lot of the meals I cook are like this -- tasty but labor-intensive on the back end. And while that can be OK, especially if the meals are as good as this ziti is, sometimes I just want something a lot more simple. Sometimes I want something that does not require me to use a third of the pots, or pans, or baking dishes or plates, or cooking spoons in my kitchen, you know? Enter one-pot (or one-pan) cooking.
The idea behind one-pot cooking is simple: You get a full meal made with one dish.
Gone are the days when you need to cook your meat separate from your veggies separate from your carbs. These days, we're not afraid to consume our food layered in a bowl, so why should we be afraid to cook our food in a single pot (or on a single sheet pan)? I know what you're thinking: But I always boil my pasta in its own pot, or cook my rice in the rice cooker or saute my vegetables in their own pan. And if you're thinking this, you're also dealing with a bigger mess than you need to be dealing with. The truth is, you don't need all that hassle.
Still skeptical? I get it. But before you write it off completely, here are a few recipes you might want to try that prove it's possible.
I like chili and I like mac and cheese, so this dish is already a winner in my book. Before considering one-pot cooking, this meal would leave me with quite a mess -- at least one pan, one pot and one slow cooker bowl, to be precise. Unnecessary! With this one-pot chili mac 'n' cheese recipe, you can have food on the table in no time, with minimal mess to clean up.
This one-pot chicken and smoked andouille jambalaya recipe cooks veggies, chicken, sausage and rice all in the same Dutch oven. What more do you need?
Cheese, you say? Not only is this cheesy, creamy one-pot chicken broccoli rice casserole easy to throw together, it's ready in just about 30 minutes.
This shortcut version of the classic dish is still saucy and creamy and delicious -- but it uses ground beef and simmers everything in a single pot. That includes the egg noodles, which soak up the flavor of the stock, beef and onions as they cook. Try this one-pot beef Stroganoff recipe for an easy dinner.
Most soups are technically one-pot dishes, but for a change of pace from chicken noodle, chili and beef stew, try this curried carrot and potato soup recipe. It's creamy with coconut milk but if you use veggie stock instead of chicken, it's actually vegan. (That said, if you have leftover chicken, you can shred it and add it to the pot too!)
This one-pot chicken puttanesca recipe is great for when you're craving sharper, saltier flavors (thanks to the acidic tomatoes, olives, capers and anchovies); the rice cooks right in the same pan and soaks up all the brine and savory chicken juices as it bakes.
Mexican food is great. One of my favorite things about going to eat at a Mexican restaurant is ordering a combination plate dinner with rice and beans. If you're anything like me, you're bound to have at least one enchilada on your plate. And if I tried to cook all that at home, I'd be cleaning all night. But not with this one-pot cheesy enchilada rice skillet recipe. I get all the flavors I like, conveniently made in one pot.
This chilaquiles casserole recipe transforms eggs and tortilla chips into a dish not dissimilar from a savory bread pudding. Use a good store-bought sauce to make it quicker (and so you have fewer dishes), and add leftover taco meat or shredded chicken for an extra protein boost if you want.
This easy steak and eggs hash recipe could be breakfast, or could be dinner. It could also take any other vegetables you want to add. The eggs are a nice touch, but this would still be delicious without them. (Also try the kielbasa hash recipe you can see at the top of this page -- and use any type of sausage you like or happen to have on hand.)
As we've seen, one-pot cooking is possible on the stovetop and in the oven but if you have an Instant Pot, that works well too. This one-pot Instant Pot spaghetti recipe has a lot going for it: minimal mess, fast cooking time and only four ingredients if you don't count water, salt and pepper.
For a pantry-friendly one-pot meal, a shakshuka recipe is a great choice. At its most basic, it's a tomato sauce with cracked eggs cooked right in it -- but you can add ground meat, extra veggies and whatever spices you like. Serve with crusty bread or flatbread for scooping up everything.
One-pot meals with rice and potatoes aren't the only carb-accented options. Roasting chicken on a bed of bread cubes is a delicious trick (and also a great way to use stale bread without going to the trouble of making stuffing). You can throw in tomatoes and chopped vegetables and change up the seasonings however you want to. You can also use chicken breasts or thighs instead of a whole, butterflied bird.
Look, I get it. Sometimes it makes sense to cook things separately. But here's the thing: When it's only Tuesday, and you've already had a tough start to the week, do you need the extra hassle of extra dishes when you can make one heck of a meal in a single pot (or pan)? The answer is no, you do not need that extra hassle. So, free your mind and try something adventurous. Make a one-pot meal the whole family will enjoy, and keep the mess to a minimum.
This story was originally written for CNET sister site Chowhound.