Cooking the paleo way can be fast and easy

The recipe for chicken sheet-pan with vegetables and balsamic glaze follows a simple paleo formula: protein plus vegetables plus seasoning plus a delicious glaze or sauce. (Tribune News Service)

Stephanie Meyer is a one-woman culinary cottage industry.

She oversees a meal planning company called Project Vibrancy Meals (projectvibrancymeals.com), teaches classes and maintains a cooking blog called Fresh Tart (freshtart.com). She also writes cookbooks.

Her latest, “The 30-Minute Paleo Cookbook” (Rockridge Press, $16.99), is the outgrowth of Meyer’s yearslong immersion in the paleo diet, a shorthand term for the hunt-and-gather foods that humans have consumed since the pre-agriculture Paleolithic era.

Through the book’s 90-plus recipes, Meyer demonstrates that paleo preparation doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming.

“While it can be fun to prepare elaborate recipes for dinner parties and holidays, the daily routine of eating fresh, healthy meals at home comes from simple, no-fuss cooking,” she writes.

In a recent phone conversation, Meyer shared cooking tips, discussed favorite “chameleon” ingredients and extolled the joys of time spent in the kitchen.

Q: You write, “Paleo cooking is exciting cooking.” Why?

A: Because it’s really cooking. In theory, anyway, everything is being cooked from real, whole ingredients, without a lot of shortcuts. When you’re cooking with real, whole ingredients, the creativity aspect is that much more palpable.

Q: What is your stock definition of “paleo”?

A: My shortest definition is “real food.” It tends to be the freshest, most perishable food. It does not include dairy, legumes, grains and processed sugar. There are other sweeteners that are allowed, but they tend to be sweeteners that appear in nature, things like honey and maple syrup.

Q: For someone developing recipes, is the 30-minute framework limiting or liberating?

A: A little of both. It’s only limiting in the sense that I do a lot of slow braises as the basis of my meal plans, and I have a database of those recipes. I have that rhythm where you braise something, and while that’s cooking, you can prepare other things. Then I realized: “Oh, wait, the braises won’t be included.” Also, I’m not a huge baker, and it’s hard to pull off any significant baking in 30 minutes. But cooking in 30 minutes is the way that I tend to teach people to cook, so that was fine. And fun.

Q: Did I read this correctly: frozen cauliflower in a smoothie?

A: You can imagine the difference between raw and cooked cauliflower. Cooked cauliflower tastes cabbage-y. It releases that sulfur smell. But raw, frozen cauliflower is literally flavorless, and it has great thickening power. It’s one of the chameleons of the paleo world. Plantains are another one; they’re magical.

Q: What are some of paleo’s other chameleon ingredients?

A: More than any other nut, you can do so many things with cashews. There are sweeteners and flours from coconut, and coconut milk and coconut cream are great dairy substitutes. There’s a paleo coconut yogurt, it’s the Coyo brand. It’s not cheap, but it’s tasty.

Q: How does the supermarket universe connect with paleo?

A: They’ve totally caught on. On the one hand, I think it’s great, but on the other hand, it defeats the purpose of paleo, because, at its heart, paleo is about food that isn’t processed. Processed paleo food is not where I would like to see it go, but then I do like to see a good-quality mayonnaise, and it’s nice to have pasta every once in a while.

Q: In one of your dessert recipes, I was delighted to discover that dark chocolate is paleo.

A: You have to look at the brand. Hu brand chocolates are sweetened with coconut. It fits paleo, and it’s the best chocolate, it’s so good. You’ll love it.

Q: If you were allowed only one countertop appliance, what would you choose?

A: A Vitamix. I use for everything. I’ve already used it twice today.

Q: Why are you an advocate of sheet-pan dinners?

A: Because you literally put everything on a pan, and stick it in the oven. They taste so good because the meat juices cook into the vegetables, so you get that extra flavor. Anyone can do it — it’s pretty much a no-fail process — and it’s a great way to feed lots of people with little effort. It’s flexible, and you can change the flavor profile by adding a good condiment.

Q: The paleo diet sounds like a reason to get people into the kitchen. True?

A: That’s my mission, for sure. All of the things that make us human really come back to cooking at home, and that includes the social aspect, the gathering-around-the-table aspect. I’ve always loved cooking, but in the last five years, I’ve become evangelical about it. It’s that important.

CHICKEN SHEET-PAN WITH VEGETABLES AND BALSAMIC GLAZE

“The basic formula is protein + vegetables + seasoning + a delicious glaze or sauce,” writes Stephanie Meyer in “The 30-Minute Paleo Cookbook.” “I’ve given you a basic idea here, but I promise that after you get the hang of this recipe, you’ll start improvising with whatever flavors that you’re craving.” Possible alternatives: 1-inch broccoli or cauliflower florets or halved Brussels sprouts replace the zucchini.

Servings: 4

For the glaze:

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried thyme

For the chicken and vegetables:

1 pound bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

1 pound small new potatoes, quartered

1 pound zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1/2 medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

12 Kalamata olives, pitted and halved

1 teaspoon sea salt, plus extra for seasoning

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil.

In a large bowl, whisk together the vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, mustard, garlic and thyme.

Add the chicken, potatoes, zucchini, onion, tomatoes, olives and salt to the bowl with the glaze, and stir to coat. Pour the chicken and vegetables out onto the prepared baking sheet, and spread the vegetables out in a single layer. Place the chicken thighs skin side up, on top of the vegetables. Season the chicken thighs with additional salt, to taste.

Roast for 15 minutes. Turn the vegetables over (leave the chicken thighs skin side up), and roast for an additional 5-10 minutes, until everything is nicely browned. Remove from oven, grind some pepper on top and serve.

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