Food-Back to School-Sheet-Pan Suppers

This image taken Sept. 6, 2020 in Alexandria, Va., shows a recipe for roasted chicken, potato wedges and green peas prepared in a sheet pan. This easy-to-prep, easy-to-cook, easy-to-clean, all-in-one-pan method can be applied to lots of different dinners.

If you are a teacher or a parent, back-to-school season can mean a ramped-up schedule with less time to cook. If you’re a college student in your first apartment or dorm room, you might be cooking for yourself for the first time. And no matter who you are, the pandemic means you’re probably cooking at home more than you used to.

Luckily, in this coming season of shorter, busier days, we’ve got sheet-pan meals to fall back on.

In restaurants, the sheet pan is the workhorse of the kitchen. This heavy-duty, aluminum pan can be used as a serving tray, baking pan, roasting pan, cooling tray (when a rack is set inside it), liner for thawing meats — and pan of choice for quick meals. (Similar meals are called tray bakes in Britain.)

The half-sheet pan measures about 13-by-18 inches and has a 1-inch rim around it. It’s what most of us use at home because it fits easily into a home oven. It is similar to a jelly-roll pan, which is smaller at 10-by-15 inches, and might be called a “cookie sheet with sides” in older recipes.

I use sheet pans as a base for smaller pans, especially when baking. I load mine with loaf pans when I bake banana bread or coffee cakes, or place a pie pan on it to catch any drippings. It makes it easier to take things in and out of the oven. And it is invaluable for roasting meats, fish and vegetables.

When Workman Publishing came out with the cookbook “Sheet Pan Suppers” in 2014, I thought how smart it was that they captured what restaurants do when they make “family meal” for their employees. Why not institute the same principle for the home cook?

I can imagine that the technique was created by a line cook short on time but tasked with making the “family meal” while doing other prep. He or she seasoned protein and vegetables, tossed them on a sheet pan and put it in a medium-high oven to roast. The result was a quick and easy, healthy and satisfying meal.

In the six years since that book was published, sheet-pan meals have become more and more popular.

It is easy to duplicate this technique at home. In a small space like a dorm room or studio apartment, you can use one of the new counter-top air fryer/convection toaster ovens. Some, like the Ninja Foodi Digital Air Fry Oven, come with trays and baskets that promote caramelization and crispy edges. Because they are smaller than an oven, they do the same job in less time and double as a toaster.

Building a sheet-pan dinner is easy. Pick a protein, add one or two kinds of vegetables and/or a starch. If you want a quick-cooking vegetable, add it at the end while the protein is resting. I’ve done that with the green peas in my sheet-pan version of Chicago’s Chicken Vesuvio, below.

When creating these meals, place a piece of parchment paper on the sheet pan first. It prevents food from sticking to the pan and makes cleanup easier.

Make sure your ingredients are spread evenly in one layer. Don’t overcrowd the sheet pan, or your food will steam instead of roast and you won’t have those delicious, crunchy, caramelized edges.

Finally, choose foods that take about the same time to cook. That means using hard, dense vegetables like potatoes, hard squash, carrots and cauliflower for whole pieces of chicken, pork and beef, and smaller vegetables like asparagus, baby broccoli and sugar snap peas for seafood like salmon or shrimp, or chunks of meat.

The basic tenets of roasting apply. Coat the food with a thin layer of olive oil, and season it at with kosher salt. Add other seasonings to taste.

I often make simple sheet-pan meals with a medley of roasted vegetables, but I wanted to use this method to create something more special: one of my favorite Chicago classics.

When I moved to Chicago just out of college, I couldn’t get enough of Papa Milano’s Chicken Vesuvio. It was a simple dish of Italian-spiced roasted chicken, potato wedges and green peas, as delicious as it was old-fashioned. The chicken and potatoes were slick with a lemony-white wine sauce, and I loved the almost-burnt ends of the potato wedges. To give this recipe a sheet-pan supper makeover meant no more browning the chicken and potatoes on the stovetop and finishing them in the oven. It would all go into the oven at once, and cook and brown in one pan.

The classic Chicken Vesuvio is made with a cut-up whole chicken. I made mine with bone-in chicken breasts and thighs, but both work well.