The dividing line here is this: One either does or does not love cooking. For those who, in the majority, find cooking to be enjoyable, relaxing, rewarding, et cetera, read on. If cooking is the last thing you want to do, given a choice of things to do, then you’ll find little to like here (though the recipe links are at the end, if you just want to scroll down and have a look).
Still in? OK; let’s talk about one-pot dinners. They’re all the rage (see, for example, last week’s anthology from Sam Sifton: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/dining/one-pot-meals.html). But it’s far from a new idea, as you already know.
If you are of a certain age, then you likely have a childhood memory of Crock Pots’ hitting the scene in the 1970s. The device, invented in the late 1930s and patented in 1940 as the “Naxon Beanery,” was acquired in the early 1970s by Rival Manufacturing, rebranded “Crock Pot” and marketed to liberated, working mothers who could plop in a roast and some carrots before heading to the office and have a perfectly-cooked family dinner ready when everyone got home.
Freedom from the kitchen and the chore of family dinner. What more could a woman want?
My mother (who opened a business in 1976 and worked until three months before she died), despised Crock Pots. To her the Crock Pot was the antithesis of cooking, a device that routinely produced either complete undesirables (warmed beans and franks), or pedestrian, messy, mushy goo (too often seasoned with Lipton Onion Soup). One was, in my mother’s estimation, either a cook or a Crock Pot user.
If my mother had lived longer, she might have come to appreciate the evolution of cooking in a slow cooker (Crock Pot brand or not). Long hours at low temperature produce tender meats and flavorful stews, and when the technology and design of slow cookers advanced to give the cook some control, the devices regained popularity and found a place in gourmet home kitchens. (Of course, as Megan Elias wrote in Gourmet in 2012, “it still can’t fry an egg.”)
I have a slow cooker, and I enjoy using it for long-cooking stews (carne adovada, green chile chicken); but I don’t think of it as a time-saver. I have an Instant Pot, but like Karen Bertelsen, I do not love the Instant Pot.
What I do love is my big, heavy, cumbersone, 13.25 quart Dutch oven, purchased at a deep discount 15 years ago from the scratch and dent, discontinued-color rack at a Le Creuset outlet in Florida. I love it for preparing big meals that can be shared and for weeknight cooking. I love the even heating, steady temperature, and tall sides that keep things from splattering. I love the way it can bring together a sauté and a simmer (or a bake, or a braise), marrying taste and texture.
I’ll go out on a limb and offer that, if you select the right recipe, it doesn’t take much more time to use a Dutch oven than to use an Instant Pot, and the end result will be far more satisfying.
So, when you’re thinking of one-pot (or one-pan) weeknight cooking, and you’re the kind of person who actually enjoys cooking, then you are free to think about how using only one cooking vessel (or at least one main vessel, in which everything comes together) can be the key to the end result and not simply a matter of convenience.
Here are a few others:
I love to cook: How about a decadent, spicy baked pasta? (OK, this is technically a two pot dish, because the pasta cooks separately, but everything else can start and finish in the Dutch oven.) Or maybe a lemon/brown butter version, while you might still find Meyer lemons? (Yes, this too is technically two pots; but the magic happens in the big heavy one.)
Weeknight reality: How about one-pot braised chicken with coconut milk, tomato, and ginger (served with naan or other bread instead of rice if you really want just one pot).