In the house where I'm currently staying, the kitchen has exactly 25cm of bench space - just enough for a small chopping board or the dishes, after they've been washed. When I stand in the middle, I can touch the walls on both sides and at each end. It would be harder to find a smaller working space (except maybe in New York) but, thanks to the presence of an oven, I've been able to whip up some pretty delicious meals.
Those dinners where you bung everything into the oven and walk away are some of the most satisfying to prepare. There's no sauteing or browning or reducing or fussing over any "to-the-minute" timing. As if by magic, the heat of the oven transforms everything to burnished, sweetly caramelised succulence.
I often say to people who don't have many cooking skills or have no time in their lives for any complicated food prep, that the oven bake/roast/tray-bake dinner route is the way to go. There are so many ingredients and flavour combinations that can be employed to keep things interesting.
Roasting- i.e. cooking with nothing more than dry heat - caramelises the surfaces of meat and vegetables, adding a satisfying layer of flavour, thanks to a little bit of chemistry called the Maillard reaction. You can also do what is known as a french roast, whereby liquid such as stock is added in the base of a (deep-sided) roasting dish, with all the other ingredients, then roasted in the oven without covering. For this to work properly you want about 2-4cm liquid in the base of the dish. As the food cooks, the liquid creates a moist, steamy environment and makes a sauce, while the top becomes golden.
Chicken leg quarters work well with the french roast method, taking about the same amount of time to cook as any potatoes or onions you might like to add. They also have a skin, which prevents them from drying. There are multitudes of riffs on the chicken thigh french roast dinner with different flavours - add some Moroccan spice and a can of drained chickpeas for a Moroccan-styled chicken tray-bake, or mix some miso and a splash each of tamari and sesame oil into the chicken stock for a comforting Japanese-style chicken or pork tray-bake. With the power of an oven, cooking has never been easier.
Lemony chicken tray-bake with pumpkin and onions
Leaving the skins on the onions protects them while they cook – pop them out of their skins to eat. I like to serve this with couscous or mashed potato to soak up the sauce.
Ready in 1 hour
500g pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cut into chunks
4-6 small-medium onions, unpeeled but washed and halved
4-6 chicken leg quarters, bone-in, skin-on
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
1½ cups chicken stock
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp rosemary leaves, chopped
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 tsp cornflour mixed with a little water
Parsley leaves, to garnish
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake. Arrange pumpkin, onions (cut-side down) and chicken in a single layer in a large, deep roasting dish. Add all remaining ingredients except cornflour mixture and parsley and roast until chicken is browned and juices run clear when it is pierced in the thickest part of the thigh (about 45-50 minutes).
Transfer chicken and vegetables to a deep serving platter, reserving the cooking juices. If you wish to thicken the sauce, place the roasting dish with its juices on the stovetop, add cornflour mixture and stir over a medium heat to lightly thicken. Simmer for 2-3 minutes to cook out the flour, then drizzle over the chicken and vegetables and garnish with parsley to serve.
Chermoula vegetable tray-bake
Ready in 1½ hours
3 potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1cm cubes
½ large or 1 small cauliflower, cut into 1½ cm-thick slices
6-8 brussels sprouts, quartered
1 large onion, very thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
400g can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1½ tsp salt
2 Tbsp Moroccan spice mix
½ cup creamy natural yoghurt
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp ground cumin
2 Tbsp chopped coriander or mint leaves
2 Tbsp dukkah, optional
Preheat oven to 180C fan bake and line a large roasting dish with baking paper for easy clean-up (you may need two dishes as you want everything to be in a single layer).
Combine vegetables, chickpeas, oil, salt and spice mix in prepared dish, toss to coat, then spread out evenly in dish.
Roast until tender and golden (about 1 hour), tossing every 15-20 minutes so the vegetables cook and brown evenly.
To serve, mix yoghurt with lemon juice, salt and cumin. Drizzle yoghurt sauce over vegetables and scatter with coriander or mint and dukkah, if desired.
Roast pork with fennel, onions and apples
Ready in 2½ hours
Here's an easy meal for a special occasion Ask your butcher to trim/"french" the rack and shorten the bone. I like to serve this with wet polenta.
1 x whole pork rack 9-10 chops (approx 2.5 kgs), skin on, scored finely
1 tsp fennel seeds
Salt and ground black pepper
2 red onions, peeled and cut in thin wedges
2-3 apples peeled and cored, sliced in thin wedges
1 head fennel, halved and thinly sliced
4-5 bay leaves
4-5 whole cloves
1 cup verjuice or white wine
1 cup chicken stock
Preheat oven to 240C. Grind fennel seeds and rub into the exposed flesh of the pork.
Don't put on the crackling side. Season pork all over with salt and pepper.
Place onion, apples and fennel in base of a large, deep-sided roasting dish. Top with bay leaves and cloves and place seasoned pork on top skin side up. Pour verjuice or wine around the pork with stock. Don't pour over the skin as you need it dry to crackle.
If desired you can wrap the exposed bones with tinfoil to prevent browning. Roast at 240C for 25 minutes until skin begins to crackle. Reduce the heat to 160C and cook for another 1½ hours.
Add a little water to the dish if it looks like it's drying out. It should be quite wet at the end so you can spoon juices over to serve.
Stand pork for about 5 minutes before carving. Serve on the bed of vegetables. Spoon juices over.
NOTE: To make this dish with 4-6 pork steaks, place sliced onions and apples in a bowl. Cover apples and cook in the microwave for 6 minutes on high. Place vegetables in a deep-sided roasting dish that will snugly fit the pork. Place pork steaks on top, sprinkle with ground fennel. Season and pour over the combined stock and wine. Cover and bake at 180C for 1 hour.
Match these with ...
by Yvonne Lorkin
Te Awanga Estate Quarter Acre Hawke's Bay Chardonnay 2020 ($40)
I'm getting grizzly at my husband because he doesn't notice anything about my appearance anymore. "What colour are my eyes then?" I asked recently. "I don't know," he sighed. "You never stop rolling them for long enough for me to find out." So I opened this bottle of this chardonnay and pondered my life choices. Hands down it's one of the best 2020 Hawke's Bay chardonnays I've tasted. It smells like oak-soaked grapefruit juice dripped on to hot stones and the palate erupts with roast nectarine, soft applewood smoke, intensely juicy acidity and boasts a ripe, satisfyingly frisky finish that fangs with this dish.
Mischief Waipara Pinot Gris 2021 ($22)
The punch and piquancy of chermoula when baked into tender veges is rendered pretty darn memorable when paired with pinot gris. I will always remember the Mischief for its pear and nashi notes on the nose, its juicy apple-drenched palate, its sweetly spiced finish and its painting of a cute steampunky bird on the label. That's a good way to be remembered. Unlike poor old Wile E. Coyote, who will only be remembered by us old people for his kidnapping schemes and violent temper, and sadly not for his brilliantly realistic paintings of tunnels on rock walls.
Scoundrels and Rogues Evil Genius Imperial Apple Cider 2019 ($6.50 x330ml)
My uni-student son came home for the holidays and I overheard him chatting with mates about pulling all-nighters in the work-hard, play-hard realm. All-nighters? I can barely pull an all-dayer these days. However, for this gorgeous pork recipe, I'm recommending an excellent craft cider that has jump-start qualities. But only if, according to the packaging, you're not a nark, a scab or a good Samaritan who can't handle 10.2% strength. This "roast pork-perfect" cider is made by Paul Donaldson from Pegasus Bay, from a batch selected from his 2019 Pleasantly Corrupted cider, which then spent 18 months in barrel to add intensity, richness and spiced appletastic character.