The comfort and truth of a tray bake
Putting everything in a greased oven pan and letting it cook away while you relax is just what we need in the colder months.
The vine leaves out back are turning orange and then brown, and falling like oversized snowflakes to settle at our feet and remind us of the new growth only months ago, when we planned to make dolmades and were relishing the prospect of long hot evenings ahead. How soon it passes, and now the fallen leaves make us think of shutting the kitchen door and filling a deep tray with everything we want for supper, shoving it in the oven and settling in front of the fire while it cooks.
There’s comfort and truth in a tray bake. It represents the human need to huddle together against the cold and the odds, to seek succour for mind and soul as well as body. It’s a primal dish, no matter what you put in it. It’s meant for what you have to hand, not what you need to go out and shop for. What you can afford, in the time you can afford, is cut up and put in the greased oven tray, seasoned and moistened, and in it goes. There are no frills or pretensions in it.
All the frippery of urban café society is as nothing in the winter kitchen when all you want is the warm glow of hearth and fire and mulled wine or smooth merlot in hand to soothe the pressures of the day. It’s no wonder that restaurants have a tough time in these colder months. Our kitchens call us; we’re summoned to warmth and nurture.
Autumn and winter vegetables are glorious and made for the oven tray. Pumpkin and butternut, sweet potatoes and beetroot, turnips and parsnips; if only they were more commonly available. I’d cook with them several times a week if I could; the parsnip is hands-down the most underrated vegetable of them all, so whenever you see them, grab them before I get there and buy the lot.
For me, a perfect tray bake has five elements:
- A light meat such as chicken, perhaps pork. Steak is not for the tray, and nor are lamb/mutton or venison. They need the oven, yes, but not the tray in the context of a family all-in-one bake. Red meat that needs slow-cooking needs to roast in its own time while vegetables are cooked elsewhere on the stove; and a steak of course needs a quick cook in a skillet or frying pan. The chicken must be portioned, but pork chops can be whole.
- Vegetables: the solid ones are best, whether pumpkin or butternut, potato (but parboil them) or sweet potato; carrots, and beetroot or turnip; oh and swedes. That’s a vegetable even rarer than parsnip in South Africa. Growers, please give them a shot; they are so, so delicious and well suited to a tray bake.
The brassicas are not ideal for a tray bake but you can use them as they take on a wonderfully nutty flavour when cooked in this way alongside other vegetables. But it’s best to add them a little later than you would harder vegetables such as potatoes and butternut, which need more time.
And avoid softer vegetables that cook quickly. So I wouldn’t include courgettes in a tray bake, for instance. Mushrooms, definitely not. They’re much better cooked on their own in a saucepan with olive oil and lemon juice and a little subtle seasoning. A mushroom need not be fussed over; their charms come easily to the cook. As for patty pans, pray enlighten me: what is the point of a patty pan? What were the Vegetable Gods thinking when they made the patty pan?
Onions too. Quartered medium onions are best, white or red, or whole baby ones, their skins removed but the root intact. Shallots, if you can find them, either whole or halved depending on their size. Garlic too, but fat cloves, in their husks, not tiddlers. They need the protection of the husk to prevent them from drying out at those high temperatures.
Tomatoes and slivers of bell peppers are good, tucked in between the larger vegetables. Green beans would be in this category too. Not brinjals though, they go mushy and I find that they don’t work well in an oven tray bake.
- Oil. Olive oil, almost invariably, is the one for me for this method of cooking. Other vegetable oils such as canola are fine, but go lightly with them. A tray bake can take far more olive oil than these other oils.
- A moistening agent. Wine, obviously. Lemon or lime juice. Soy sauce or other Asian sauces. Balsamic or sherry vinegar, in moderation.
- Spices and/ or herbs, and seasoning of course. Sprigs of hardy herbs such as rosemary or thyme can go in, and spices such as star anise, whole cinnamon and seeds such as cumin, fennel and coriander can be incorporated into the milieu as long as it’s all well moistened with wine and oil. But delicate leaves such as mint and basil would not be ideal as they wither away to nothing cooked this way
Pulses and grains can accompany a tray bake but are not usually a part of it, but you can use nuts. I have included cashews and almonds in a tray bake but I find it better to toast them and strew them on afterwards.
There’s one final ingredient: shake the pan! The contents need to be tossed around every 20 minutes or so and out back in the oven. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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