If the recipes in Hero Dinners: Complete One-Pan Meals that Save The Day could wear capes, they totally would. Such is their superhero caliber!
What Makes a Hero Dinner?
Recipe developers and cookbook authors Marge Perry and David Bonom know a few things about putting together great recipes that work every single time. These are recipes you can count on to rescue a terrible day, a last-minute change of plans, or just plain accomplish the seemingly superhero feat of getting dinner on the table, night after night.
These recipes provide delicious and inventive answers to the daily question, “What’s for dinner?”
But they’re more versatile than that—many of them are super fast (30 minutes or less) or take 45 minutes or less. Some of them take 10 ingredients or fewer! Regardless, these recipes are full of accessible ingredients you can find in the grocery store and will help you get out of any dinnertime rut. These recipes can also answer the questions, "What’s for game day?" or, "What’s for a special occasion?" We all cook for different occasions and situations, and some days we have a little more time than other days to prep and execute.
There are dishes for meat-eaters and vegetarians, as well as loads of useful shortcuts and tidbits throughout the book—for example, they’ve figured out, after serious trial and error, how to cook rice and pasta on a sheet pan so we don’t have additional pots to wash. (Score!) Many of these recipes, once you make them, are easy and forgiving enough that you can tweak and execute them again and again from memory and/or according to your own tastes.
That Being Said….What’s for Dinner?
I could honestly have picked any of the recipes in this book and feel as though you, our dear readers, would be totally on board. Buttermilk Oven Fried Chicken was a serious runner up for this post, and I can’t wait to try the Herb Marinated Shrimp with lemony white beans and wilted arugula. And the Deconstructed Chicken Caesar Salad is a surefire winner.
But I’ve got their skillet lasagna (which happens to be vegetarian—bonus!), and I think it makes for a mighty fine take on this classic comfort food. Pull the pasta and canned tomatoes out of the pantry, the frozen spinach from the freezer, pick up some cheese on the way home, and you’re on your way to lasagna in an hour. Sounds like the makings of a hero dinner to me!
Why Lasagna in a Skillet?
Lasagna is a perennial comfort food, no doubt, but one that isn’t really prone to weeknight meals. There’s the boiling-the-noodles factor. There’s the ingredient prep. There’s all that time it takes to bake, and then you have to wait for it to cool before you slice it. Because if you don’t, you know that you will have an oozing lasagna river all over your plate. Not exactly what you want, especially after all that work. Right?
Eliminating the oven and cooking it all in a skillet means it takes way less time, the process is much less fussy (no layering!), and you can dig into it faster because you don’t have to wait for all those layers to settle and cool a bit. There’s minimal wait, from skillet to plate.
Everything happens in one pan. The onions, the sauce, the spinach, and the pasta noodles get broken up into smaller pieces. Water is added. The whole thing simmers and that cooks the pasta. Add some cheese, stick it under the broiler to melt, and ta-da. Skillet Lasagna is ready.
A Q&A With Marge and David!
Tell me a little bit about your criteria, in terms of ingredients and approach, for these recipes.
We felt strongly that in order to create a collection of recipes that cooks will turn to time after time, it is important to use accessible and minimally processed ingredients. We wanted to be sure to include recipes for omnivores and vegetarians, but also a range of palates. Some of the meals are universally beloved dishes like lasagna and rigatoni with meat sauce, while others use condiments that readers might be less familiar with, like gouchujang and harissa, that add great flavor with little effort—and are available in many grocery stores.
What are some secrets to being well-prepped for making Hero Dinners? Any go-to pantry items or freezer items that are staples?
Keep your pantry stocked with a variety of vinegars, oils, condiments from around the world, and lots of good dried herbs and spices. We also keep canned beans and tomatoes on hand (because then you always have a meal in the making!), and our freezer is never without shrimp, frozen peas, spinach, artichokes, and cooked rice.
What are you still making even though the recipe development is over? Are there any Hero Dinners that are still saving the day?
The Peruvian Chicken with Aji Verde has become our go-to HERO for so many things! Not only do we make the recipe just as written on a regular basis, we also make wings using the same marinade and topped with that Aji Verde Sauce. (That sauce, by the way, has a million uses. It is great with shrimp, and we serve it as a dip with roasted baby potatoes for an appetizer.)
The super fast, super simple Roast Snapper with fresh herbs, tomatoes, and potatoes is a big hero because after you make it the first time, you can make it again and again, with your own twists, and without using a recipe. We love when readers are inspired to make these recipes their own!
There are some genius moves here, such as cooking rice on a sheet pan. Were there any particular challenges in getting that right?
Oh, yes! It took us many trials to get that right—and it was worth it! The same with making quinoa on the sheet pan. We learned along the way that the amount of water we put in the pan to start can vary depending on the liquid content of the ingredients we add to the sheet pan after the rice (or quinoa) has partially cooked. So when we add “wet” ingredients like tomato, versus “dry” ingredients like carrots, we used less water up front. This took many sheet pans full of inedible mistakes to get right!
Was there a dish you thought would work on a sheet pan but just doesn't, or something you really wanted to execute one way or another, in one pot/pan, but it just wasn't happening?
Ah, this takes us back to an unhappy place. Yes, we tried many times to make a sheet pan cauliflower pizza, and we just were not happy with the results. We were very frustrated but wanted to keep going—until we thought about the deadline looming over us, and decided to move on. Someday we’ll get it right, though.
What was one of your biggest surprises during the cookbook writing/development process?
While at times our goal was to create meals that were “every bit” as delicious and well-balanced as meals that were made in many pans, we learned that at times the one-pan version yielded even better results. We certainly feel that way about all the pasta dishes! (We probably won’t go back to boiling pasta separately.) We also love the crispy edges around rice cooked in the sheet pan—and miss them when we cook rice the traditional way.
Was there an ingredient you fell in love with or gained a new perspective on as a result of this book?
In some ways, we gained a new perspective on pasta: We are both classically trained chefs, and were afraid the ghost of an Italian Grandma would sneak up behind us and bop us on the head with a rolling pin for cooking pasta right in the sauce.
We also have both loved pre-roasted shelled chestnuts for a long time—but mostly used them in stuffing and desserts. One of my favorite dishes in the book is Golden Tofu with Chestnuts—a simple stir fry lightly flavored with maple that includes butternut squash and Brussels sprouts.
We have both felt for some time that grapes are underutilized in cooking, and were happy to be able to showcase how great they are in a sauce/relish with pork chops—and we rarely make fruit crisps without them!
Love Pasta and Lasagna? Here Are More!
Marge Perry and David Bonom's Easy Skillet Lasagna
From Marge and David: "Classic lasagna is what we call 'project' food. As much as we love it (like almost every other human we know), making lasagna is a time- and space-consuming project.
This skillet version tastes every bit as good—but is made so much more quickly, with absolutely none of the hassle. It doesn’t cut into the same perfect squares as old-school lasagna, but we actually love the way the gooey cheese, spinach, and tomatoes ooze all over the plate.
This is the perfect dish when you’re craving simple comfort food and don’t have the bandwidth to fuss with the separate tasks of boiling the noodles, making the sauce, and layering and baking the casserole. I’m not sure we’ll ever go back to making lasagna the old-school way again."
From Hero Dinners by Marge Perry and David Bonom. Copyright © 2019 by Marge Perry and David Bonom. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
- 2 cups whole milk or part-skim ricotta
- 1/3 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 medium onions, chopped (about 3 cups)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 8 ounces lasagna noodles, broken in half (across)
- 6 ounces whole milk or part-skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
Combine the ricotta and Romano cheeses in a bowl
Make the sauce:
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until lightly golden, 11 to 12 minutes. Stir in the garlic, basil, and oregano and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the spinach and cook for 1 minute more. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper and 3 cups of water. Bring to a simmer.
Add the noodles and simmer:
Add the lasagna noodles and cook, stirring occasionally to submerge the noodles, until the sauce starts to thicken, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup water, return to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles are al dente and the sauce thickens, 12 to 14 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Prep the oven:
Position an oven rack about 4 to 5 inches below the heat source and preheat the broiler.
Broil the top:
Let the lasagna cool for 3 minutes. Spoon the ricotta mixture evenly over the top and spread it in an even layer. Top with the mozzarella and broil until the mozzarella melts and starts to brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Let the lasagna stand for 10 minutes before serving.