There’s a blog post called “Freezer Meals on the Cheap” that’s going around the ‘net these days that has some good advice for cooking and filling your freezer with food so that you can have “fast food” that is still home-cooked for days when life is too hectic for you to even think about cooking. Great ideas are presented in the post for buying up foods on sale, and then spending a weekend afternoon, cooking those foods up and portioning them out into containers and freezing them.
I’m very familiar with this way of cooking because that’s what I used to do for other people back in the day when I was a personal chef in Maryland. I used to get up in the morning, go grocery shopping for one of my client families, go to their house with my box of equipment and car full of food, and then cook up enough entrees and side dishes that were freezer friendly for a week’s worth of meals. Then, I’d freeze the meals in containers, clean the kitchen get paid and go home.
It’s not a bad way to do things, but for people who work and are loathe to give up a weekend afternoon–and frankly, I don’t blame you one bit for wanting a weekend afternoon that is NOT spent in the kitchen–it just sounds like too much work. And that’s because it IS work.
I just wanted to let you know that there’s an easier way to go about this, and while it works more gradually, it still works. This “slacker method” of cooking ahead has saved me on many a night when I was either too damned tired to cook anything or too damned busy to remember that I had to cook dinner until it was, oh, a half an hour before dinner time.
All you have to do is this: on a night when you are cooking something that goes nicely in the freezer, cook at least twice the amount you need. Then, when the food is done, you put it in a container or wrap it up and put it in the freezer.
Most foods that go well in a freezer don’t really take any longer if you double or even triple the recipe. Mind you, when I first started using my “slacker method,” I didn’t even do it on purpose: (that’s how you can tell its the “slacker method–” I came upon it by accident!) I wasn’t doubling or tripling my recipes–I was having trouble transitioning from cooking in quantity as a chef at work to cooking for two adults and one toddler at home. So, I accidentally cooked too much and had a buttload of leftovers that I had to do something with.
Rather than eat the leftovers for a week, I started packaging them up and putting them in the freezer to be used the next time I came home from work in time to cook dinner but without an ounce of will or gumption to stand in front of a stove again. On those nights, I could open up my freezer door, find a container marked, “taco filling,” defrost it in the microwave, heat up some taco shells and shred some cheese and cut up lettuce and cilantro, and BOOM! Like magic, a home cooked, nutritious meal seemingly out of thin air, put on the table faster than you can say, Rachael Ray. (With nary an utterance of EVOO in sight or hearing range.)
I’ve since refined my slacker method of cooking ahead. I actually keep freezer bags, reusable plastic (BPA-free, of course) containers, and a Sharpie marker in my kitchen so I don’t have to go hunting around frantically when it’s time to package stuff. (In my early days of cooking this way, I neglected to label some containers thinking, “Oh, I can tell chili from taco filling!” only to find that when I’m tired, headachy and hungry, no, I can’t.) I also buy extra ingredients on purpose and everything.
Dishes that are good for this method include chili, beans, lentils, stews, curries, mashed potatoes, nearly any kind of pasta sauces including marinara, puttanesca, pesto, and bolognaise, meatloaf, soups, rice dishes like jambalaya and pilaf, and casseroles like lasagne, squash (or any vegetable, now that I think on it) gratin, and arroz gratinado.
Lasagne is a great example of the slacker principle at work. It’s already a pain the butt to make and it takes a while. I have found over years of extensive experimentation (that’s a fancy way of saying, trial and error) that it takes no longer to layer noodles, fillings, sauces and cheeses into three casserole pans as it does for one. The prep is also not much more onerous for three pans as it is for one–the prep time doesn’t triple, or even double, but rather takes half again as much time as it would normally. (And for lasagne, I have found that shortcuts like using pre-shredded cheeses–which is not going to kill you–really cut the prep time down considerably.)
That’s a lot of different types of dishes. And truly, most of these dishes, if you double or even triple your recipe, you aren’t doubling or tripling your cooking or even your prep time. In my experience, it doesn’t take twice as long to make a six servings of puttanesca as it does to make three. Nine servings takes maybe five minutes of prep time longer for the same recipe. Pesto–if you make it in your food processor, only takes more time to pick off more leaves from your basil, but really–how long does it take to pick leaves off of basil in the first place?
Yeah. Not that long.
The beauty of this slacker method of cooking ahead is that if you cook five times a week normally, and you double the amounts you are cooking, you have put away meals for five days in the same time as it takes to cook dinner for those five nights anyway, with maybe 15 extra minutes added on.
And personally, I think it’s a heck of a lot less intimidating to spend an extra fifteen minutes five times a week for a total of one hour and fifteen minutes of extra labor, than it is to spend a whole a afternoon–two to four hours say–cooking all day on a weekend when you could be spending time with your friends and family doing something fun. The end result is the same–you fill your freezer over the course of five days with five more days worth of dinners. Do that a couple of weeks in a row and you have built up a stock of really varied, healthy, home-cooked meals for you and your family to enjoy on evenings when time is of the essence, or when everyone is just too damned hot/tired/cranky/or otherwise poopy to even think of cooking from scratch.
Yes, I’m ignoring the fact that for some of us, spending two to four hours cooking on a weekend afternoon is fun, because I’m not writing for us–I’m writing for everyone else. Or rather, I’m writing for the folks who do think its fun, but have other things to do on the weekends than cook all afternoon. And, I’m writing for the folks who are really intimidated by cooking five or six different dishes and packing them up for the freezer in the span of an afternoon. Let’s face it, that’s lots of prep, cooking and clean-up, and if you aren’t a professional, like me, or someone who just cooks a lot habitually, that kind of cooking marathon can seem like endless, purgatorial and just plain old no damned fun.
In conclusion, I want you to try my slacker method. It’s perfect remedy for busy folks who want good, nutritious, home cooked food, but who just have days when they can’t pick up the knife and saute pan.
As for recipes that work really well for cooking ahead–try these from my archives–I’ve used them for slacker freezer stockpiling exercises for years, and they never fail to taste good.
Mangalore Chicken Curry
Mixed Greens and Mushroom Dal
Chana Bhatura (you can freeze the bhatura dough before cooking it, then thaw it out and fry it)
Jamaican Beans and Rice
Braised Rabbit With Marsala Wine and Wild Mushrooms
There are plenty more applicable recipes here at Tigers & Strawberries–I just gave you a few to start out with.
Have fun cooking and filling your freezer like a slacker all week, and then enjoy doing nothing this weekend! It’s a good thing.
Slacker Notes:So, uh, when I wrote this post, I was such a slacker, I didn’t really give as much specific information as perhaps I could or should have, so some readers asked a few great questions down in the comments section. I decided that the information was so pertinent, that I should just put it up here in an addendum to the original post just so folks who aren’t in the habit of reading the comments to a blog post get the benefits of it, too.
Okay, for lasagne or other casseroles–a reader asked if I cook it first and then freeze it, or I assemble it and then freeze it uncooked.
The answer is: I’ve done both and they both work pretty well.
And there are several ways to go about it. You can just make your regular one big pan of lasagne, (one that normally serves six people, say, and its only you and a significant other eating) and bake it as normal and then after dinner, cut the remaining lasagne into one or two portion bits and pack them up in containers, and then you can either thaw them in the fridge or microwave them from frozen. Works just fine. I’ve done it with lasagne, arroz gratinado, macaroni and cheese and shepherd’s pie, and none of them have suffered a bit for it.
Or, you can assemble one or two extra whole casseroles in freezer to oven dishes, and freeze then uncooked. To cook them, preheat your oven to about 25 degrees lower than your usual cooking temperature for that particular casserole, and bake it for about 50 percent longer than you usually would. In order to brown the top of your previously frozen casserole, in the last fifteen minutes of baking, turn the heat up on the oven to the regular temperature and that should give you a nice crusty brown, bubbly top.
Now, this isn’t very slackeriffic, because it involves prior planning, but if you just know that tomorrow is going to suck big-time at work and you are going to come home hungry, cranky and just plain not in a mood for cooking, you can take one of these uncooked casseroles out of the freezer and let it thaw in the fridge until you get home from work the next evening. Then, you preheat your oven all the way to its usual temperature and bake it as usual, just adding an extra five to ten minutes to the time it spends in the oven.
See–isn’t that simple?
Thawing Out And Reheating Liquids
I didn’t even think about telling everyone how I thaw out liquidy dishes like soups, stews, curries and sauces that freeze into a coherent block of ice until Kim, down below, asked me how to go about it. She’s right–beans and rice or taco filling or jambalaya–stuff that is relatively dry is simple to heat up from frozen in the microwave. But those troublesome liquidy dishes are a pain in the butt, and while yes, you CAN put them in the fridge to thaw overnight and during the day while you’re at work, planning ahead just isn’t a slacker-approved activity.
So, how do you get say, marinara sauce and meatballs that has frozen into a scarlet cube of tomato sorbet to thaw and heat up quickly?
This is going to sound bass akwards, but the way I do it is I use the defrost function on my microwave to get the frozen liquid to mostly return to a fluid state, and then I plop it all into a saucepan and finish heating it up to a boil on the stove.
My microwave has a defrost function that sets the time and temperature for thawing a frozen item based on its weight. A true slacker like me guestimates the weight, but if you have a baker’s scale you can tell your microwave the exact (or rounded up) weight of the marinara and meatballs. (In fact, if you are only partially a slacker, and are thus somewhat organized, you could write the weight of the item on the label when you pack it up for the freezer in the first place, so you don’t have to play guessing games or find your scale after work.)
Anyway, use the defrost function on your microwave and when you’ve got your stuff mostly thawed out, with maybe a little bit of ice in the center of the container, just sploosh the contents of said container into a saucepan, turn the heat on high and stir like mad, chipping away at that ice until it breaks apart and melts into the rapidly boiling liquid that surrounds it. Then, you just stir and cook until everything is heated through to serving temperature.
And then, dinner is served!
Tips from Readers:
So, as is usual, I got some nice ideas from readers. Just for the folks who don’t read comments, here’s some ideas that didn’t come from my slacker self, but instead are from the myriad of good, clever cooks who read this blog:
From Jenny V: One thing that can work if you’re cooking an entire extra casserole or lasagne is to line the baking pan with foil before filling it with the food. Then, after it is frozen solid, you can remove the pan from the freezer, leaving the foil-wrapped food behind in the cold, and add it back to your cabinets to use for other meals in the meantime. When you want to eat the leftovers, just pop the pre-formed foil container into the baking dish again and bake.
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