Sunday, September 18, 2005

Mega-cooking


Real Men Better Eat Quiche


Okay, this post got lost once. We'll see if it wants to stay home this time. (Don't worry -- the lesson is learned. Long, laborious posts will be saved in Word.)

A handful of readers asked me to post some details about my August cooking extravaganza, so I will put together some of my reflections and suggestions. If you don't enjoy blog posts about cooking as an extreme sport, you'll need to move along today.

A quick clarification before I go on, though. I am not talking about doing "Once-A-Month-Cooking." The thought of doing this again in a month makes me nauseous! Plus, that is a month's worth of different meals. What I do is called "Mega-Cooking." I take my favorite entrees, make six or eight of each of them, and freeze them. Gooshing up six or eight meatloaves is just as fast as gooshing up one. It usually adds up to about seventy-two meals. Yep, seventy-two. Do I have an industrial freezer in the garage? Nope, just a small upright freezer. I save space by freezing them in freezer bags or wrapping them in heavy-duty foil. Even with seventy-two entrees, there is some room for bread, tortillas and the usual three-pound bag of coffee beans.

Another thought before we go any further: you will probably despise this method of cooking the first time you do it. We certainly did. The time, the mess, the sheer bulk of stuff to deal with made us declare ourselves insane and vow to never do it again. What changed our minds? Well, about five days later, my husband realized that we had really good meals each evening, and that meant a lot to him. He's not picky (at ALL) but he sure appreciates having a dependable dinner meal. It decreased my stress, and made him happy, so we were sold! But, remember, only do it if it lessens your stress. Nobody is going to be handing out Most Bizarre and Extreme Cooking Method medals at the end of it. If it doesn't work for you, just move along to what works best.

Okay, if you want to give it a try, where do you begin? Start by making a list of freezable entrees. I'm not an expert in what freezes well. You can start by using recipes that are in cookbooks specific to freezing, or by doing some research. Just a note: I haven't had a lot of luck with recipes in freezer-type cookbooks. They are often expensive, or they have ingredients I am not crazy about (canned soups, for example.) I simply took our favorite recipes and figured out which ones froze well (by trial and error, my lifetime educational method.) Also, be sure you like the recipe before you make a stack of it. I made this mistake once and sure regretted it. Each time I served it, I spent lots of time (literally) rinsing off the meat and trying to cover the taste of the sauce. Blech. Learn from me - try it once before you make seven.

Take your recipes, multiply the ingredients by the number you plan to make, and then begin your shopping list. The forms that I use come from the book Dinner's in the Freezer by Jill Bond. She's a mega-cooking zealot, so prepare yourself for a LOT of enthusiasm if you get the book, but there's plenty of practical help, too. To make your list, use a chart with the entrees listed across the top of the page, and the individual ingredients listed down the page. You go through each recipe, listing the amount of an ingredient under the recipe, then finish by adding up the total in the right hand column.

Once you have your shopping list, you reach your next potential hurdle. Money. You'll need a bunch of it, so plan ahead. We actually went with the credit option the first time that we did it, and we found that we saved enough money to pay ourselves back. One reason for savings is buying in bulk. I use Costco for most items, but you can figure out what the most affordable place is in your area. I also save by eliminating those, "Can't we please get pizza tonight -- I haven't even thought of dinner until now" days. More planning equals less spending. We still eat pizza sometimes, because you have to remember to take the meal out of the freezer in time for it to thaw and cook. I may be able to organize this cooking system, but there are still regular brain fades in my daily life.

Shopping day tends to be the most tiring one for me. I take at least one strong, helpful child with me, and we both work hard. Plus, as you are standing in line with said child, you can come up with humorous retorts to the comments people will make about your basket(s). "Yes, we have a restaurant. We have three seatings a day with a loyal clientele" etc. etc.

When you get home from shopping, the refrigerator needs to be as empty as possible. Have a few days of "Pick a Leftover, any Leftover" for dinner, and have someone toss out any science projects lurking in the back corners. Another helpful thing we have used is our camping coolers for bulky items like meat and cheese. We don't bother putting the canned goods away; we stack them on the counter or on the table.

If I can muster up the energy after shopping, I put together the meals that don't require cooking. I have two chicken recipes that simply require making a sauce, pouring it over the raw pieces, and freezing. Important: you cannot freeze meat and then refreeze it without cooking it. If you find meat on sale, be prepared to fix it up to freeze it right away. I also try and cook up chicken that will be used for any recipes I will make the next day, or to store in bags for use in burritos, tacos or salads. I also bag up cheese and sauce to go with calzones. Basically, anything that only requires dividing and storing will save time. Then, get a good night's sleep; you'll be working hard for the next two days.

Days two and three are the major cooking days. A few supplies we have purchased to make massive amounts of food are HUGE mixing bowls and HUGE frying pans. I have read somewhere the suggestion of using your cleaned out kitchen sink for mixing. Don't ask my why, but I think that sounds weird. But, if you don't have a HUGE bowl, it might work for you. I also set up two trash cans right next to my work area - one for trash and one for recycling. It keeps things as clean as possible. One other way to make the cooking days manageable is that I have each of my children make one entree. That only leaves seven for me to make (okay, ONLY seven sounds strange, but it IS less than twelve.) Having their help and company keeps me going. I, of course, like to play music that makes me want to dance. I resist the dancing and cook faster instead. I have heard the suggestion of taking time to rest and put up your feet from time-to-time during the day. That doesn't work for me; I just need to power on through my work and collapse when the day is over.

Storing the food can be helped by a few handy hints, too. I use freezer-quality storage bags, and heavy-duty foil. Go ahead and splurge on the extra-duty quality; it is not worth it to have the flavor compromised. Also, please remember to mark what you are storing. Sure, you know it is Mommy's Special Soup when you are pouring it in the bags, but in a few days it will look just like Daddy's Zesty Chile. Unless you want to serve Frozen Surprise for dinner, go ahead and mark it. You should also add the date, just in case something gets lost in the back of the freezer and you wonder which mega-cooking session it was that you made the hide-and-seek entree. Make sure that you cool your entrees before you put them in a free-standing freezer. This can be accomplished in your refrigerator, or in the freezer compartment of the frig. If you add a heap of hot food to the freezer it can cause an increase in temperature; you want to keep that freezer temperature as stable as possible. Also, it might go without saying, but make sure that your freezer is in good working order before you put hundreds of dollars worth of food in there. If my freezer fritzed right after I was done cooking, it would be a sad, sad (sad, sad, sad, sad) day. Better safe than sorry. I use my children as the transportation system out to the garage for storage, but I do check to make sure that they have closed the door firmly. We've come close to leaving it open too long, so I check it OFTEN.

I always feel the need to do a major cleaning of the kitchen after mega-cooking. Just like when you are canning jam or something else sticky, every surface of the kitchen seems to require a good scrub. Remember, it will be a mess when you are done, so don't be surprised.

So, you think you were nuts to try it, but it is done. Congratulations! Now, I would recommend going out to dinner with your husband, or just collapsing in a bubble bath with your favorite evening beverage. You have worked hard, your bounty is immense, and you can actually anticipate what you are having for dinner tomorrow night. The benefits of the insanity are on the horizon.

We eat frozen meals about three times a week, and that means our cooking spree lasts about six months! I cook a Mexican meal of some sort with my son one night a week, and we eat leftovers one night a week, and then my daughter and I are hoping to cook a new recipe every other Sunday evening. An occasional pizza or French toast dinner completes our repertoire.

Our list of entrees made in August 2005:

Quiche
Manicotti
Patty's Beans
Taco Soup
Bean Soup
Sloppy Joes
Teriyaki Chicken
Sweet and Sour Chicken
Chicken Pot Pie (filling only)
Meat Loaf
Sweet and Sour Meatballs
Calzones

In addition to entrees, we also freeze pie crust balls, dough for bread sticks or rolls, cookie dough, taco seasoned meat and chicken for Mexican meals, and cooked beans and rice. Anything that will make lunch, dinner and snack preparation easier is worth doing in bulk and freezing.

I have begun A Circle of Quiet Recipes as a place to post recipes that we use in our mega-cooking. I have only listed the quiche recipe so far; I will add more as time allows.

If anyone has a favorite meal that they freeze, I would be happy to post it on the recipe blog, with credit given. Just let me know.


Mob cap and latex gloves optional

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