Busy back-to-school season calls for easy sheet-pan suppers

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.

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Chicago’s Chicken Vesuvio on a Sheet Pan

1 whole chicken (3 to 4 pounds), broken down into breasts, wings and thigh-leg pieces (leaving thighs and legs attached), or 4-6 bone-in chicken breasts and thighs

Extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt

2 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning

Freshly ground white pepper

2-3 lemons, cut in half

3-4 pounds russet potatoes, cleaned and cut into wedges

8-12 cloves garlic, peeled

Fresh oregano, divided

2 large shallots, chopped

1/2 cup dry white wine

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, plus more if you want the sauce richer

1 cup frozen peas, thawed

Place the chicken pieces in a large re-closeable bag. Pour olive oil over them and massage to coat.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Set the chicken on the sheet pan. Season both sides of the pieces generously with the Italian seasoning and salt and pepper. Add the cut lemons to the pan. Make sure you have one half lemon for each piece of chicken.

Place the potato wedges and garlic cloves in another re-closeable plastic bag and add olive oil. Massage to coat evenly. Season potato wedges generously with the Italian seasoning and salt and pepper. Place the potatoes and the garlic on the sheet pan, spread evenly apart in one layer. Sprinkle all over with half of the fresh oregano.

Roast until the chicken and potatoes are cooked through, 50-60 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken pieces. Test the chicken using an instant-read meat thermometer; it should be 160 degrees Fahrenheit for the white meat and 180 degrees Fahrenheit for the dark meat. If the chicken and potatoes are cooked through but not brown enough, let them sit under the broiler for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let chicken and potatoes rest on the sheet pan. Pick up two of the roasted halved lemons and, while they are still hot, squeeze them over the chicken and the potatoes. Scatter the fresh oregano all over. Let chicken rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan or 10-inch skillet, melt the butter and saute the shallot for about 3 minutes or until the butter foams and begins to brown. Add the wine to the skillet and turn up the heat for 1 minute to deglaze the pan. Add the roasted cloves of garlic to the pan and smoosh them with a fork. Stir well. Reduce the heat and add the peas. Let simmer about 2 minutes or until the peas are warmed through. Taste the sauce for seasoning. If you want it to be richer, add the rest of the stick of butter. Make sure you add enough salt because this sauce will be what flavors the chicken. Pour the hot sauce over the chicken.

Serve immediately with the potatoes and a roasted lemon wedge. Squeeze more lemon over chicken and potatoes if desired.

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