6 Keys to Making Affordable, Healthful, One-Pot Meals―Without Recipes

April 23, 2018

The one-pot meal category tends to be relegated to heavy fall and winter dishes. The idea being that things that get cooked in a single pot also tend to be stick-to-your-ribs fare: Think stews, chilis, and braised meats. But why should the joy of fewer pots and pans (read: fewer dishes to clean) stop when spring starts? Hint: They shouldn’t.

Not only is it easy to switch up the flavors of a one-pot meal in favor of a lighter and fresher dinner, cooking in a single pot can help make it healthful and more affordable, too. The rules are pretty much the same as any standard one-pot wonder, but where you might reach for lots of cheese or toast for dunking in the winter, a spring version is all about newly-available spring produce and finishing with pops flavor from fresh herbs or a condiment like pesto.

One-pot meals can come in many forms, think a kale and quinoa pilaf, crispy chicken thighs with peas and braised lettuce, or a cheesy mushroom farrotto. They’re all delicious, saucy, and can come together without a recipe. With these six keys to making a one-pot meal from scratch, you can riff endlessly on this form for dinners without creating a ton of dishes.

Step 1: Sear your meat (if using)

Rendering the fat on whatever meat you’re using not only makes a flavorful base for the sauce, it allows you to use less meat to stretch your dollar further, and keep an eye on healthy portion sizes. I like to use this method with a small amount of chorizo or bacon so that the entire soup has a rich, meaty flavor. If you’re using a skin-on meat like chicken thighs or skin-on salmon fillets, now’s the time to sear them to get a good crust. Set these aside on a plate covered with foil while you go forth on your quest to make an amazing, recipe-free one-pot meal.

Step 2: Get your onions, hearty veg going & add your spices

Maybe I should add a step in here where I say, go find any cookbook that tells you that onions can be sautéed in five minutes and throw it out. We’re looking at more like 10 to 12 minutes here to make sure the onions are cooked through. This is also when you’ll add hearty veg like carrots, shallots, celery, kohlrabi, you name it. Cook these with salt and pepper in the rendered fat or in olive oil. Add the spices you want to use, too, because they’ll infuse the vegetables with flavor as they cook.

If you’re planning to do a long simmer, keep the vegetables in big chunks; for a short simmer, use small chunks. If you want vegetables to stay tender once the broth is in—think carrots or celery root—cook until you can just barely insert a fork. This way they will cook to the desired fork-tender state while they simmer in the broth.

Step 3: Add a broth or liquid

I guess I’m inserting another rule in here: A one-pot meal must be saucy or creamy or both. Sure you could call a stir-fry a one-pot meal, but in the general realm of “one-pot cooking,” we’re talking about starting bigger pieces of food, sautéeing them for flavor and to start the cooking, then braising until the flavors are jamming together in one… pot. Yes. If you want a soupier meal, add a lot of liquid. If you want just enough to coat everything so it’s adequately saucy, add less. You can always add more liquid, so err on the side of starting with just enough, which I’d say is enough to cover the vegetables that are in the pot.

Step 4: Add any grains and anything previously seared

Once the broth comes to a simmer, add any grains like quinoa, farro, barley, or brown rice. If you’re cooking meat, add it here, too. Throw a lid on and cook until the meat is cooked through and the grains have a little bite left—the timing will depend on what type of protein and grain you’re using.

Step 5: Stir in tender greens or fresh ingredients

Greens that take some time to cook through—like sliced collards or lacinato kale—can go in with the protein so they have enough time to cook until tender, but for ingredients like canned beans or frozen peas, add those a minute or two before you pull the pot off the stove. If you have previously cooked grains, add them here, too. Cook until heated through.

Step 6: Finish fresh and flavorful

With a one-pot meal, the danger can be that all the ingredients take on the same flavor profile. To combat this, I like to finish with chopped avocado, fresh herbs, or crisp vegetable toppings like sliced radishes or scallions. A dollop of pesto or aioli added at the end adds moments of different texture and flavor in the finished dish, too.

How are you adjusting your one-pot meals for the spring? Share your tips with us below!

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1 Comment

Smaug April 23, 2018
This is pretty individual- all of these points could be argued; I will select #1- I seldom find searing sufficient to render fats out of meat effectively- If I'm using something like bacon or sausage in this way, I will chop it as finely as the dish will bear and start it in a little water and continue cooking as the water boils away. If you want to toast something- such as cumin seeds or pumpkin seeds, or to brown some of the vegetables they should be done before adding aromatics. And you can cook onions through in 5 minutes, depends on how they're cut and how cooked you want them.; besides, they'll continue cooking with the rest of the dish.