Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Batch and Make Ahead Cooking

This post is going to be a little bit different than my usual recipe alongside some banter. Today I am sharing tips for batch and make ahead cooking because I think that some of you may find my strategies helpful for when a busier than normal time is approaching. For me, it is the beginning of the school term. I don't like busy schedules to get in the way of having healthy home cooked meals every single day. I like to go out to eat by choice, not because I have no food in the house and no time. This upcoming term is a little different than last year for a few reasons. Both my fiancé and I are taking more courses than last year, we are both working part-time from the get-go, and my class schedule doesn't allow me to get home until 6 or 7 most nights. The last thing I will want to be doing when I come home from class starving is to cook for an hour before dinner is ready. This is ideally what weekends are for. Meal planning, shopping, prepping ingredients, cooking some things in advanced, etc. Well, most of my weekends will be spent working and going to the library. So in anticipation of this hectic next 3 months, I have spent the last few days that I have had free cooking up a storm and freezing. I have not cooked 3 months worth of meals (that would be crazy), but I have stocked the freezer sufficiently so that a few times a week there is a quick meal at hand. Both my tiny refrigerator freezer and my 1.5 cu ft. chest freezer are packed to the brim.

I have been lucky to have the last few days free enough that I have spent a great deal of time in the kitchen. This post will go over what I have accomplished along with some tips and tricks that make stocking the freezer easy, safe, and inexpensive. Over the next couple weeks I hope to share some related recipes.

Here is what I have accomplished over the last few days:

1. Blanching and freezing greens:
The kale was bountiful this summer in my parent't garden as usual. Instead of trying to eat more kale than I can handle, I decided to blanch and freeze the kale for the winter. This way if I run out of fresh greens I can easily grab a bunch to saute, throw into a smoothie, or add to a stew.

2. Cooking and freezing legumes:
When I make legumes I like to prepare them properly from dried beans in order to make them as digestible as possible, as well as to save money. This means soaking in an acidic medium for 12-24 hours and then simmering in water for another 1-2 hours. This isn't always convenient. So, in order to prevent us from resorting to more expensive canned varieties, I have soaked and cooked some legumes ahead of time. I had dried black beans and chickpeas on hand. I also got my hands on some fresh Romano beans this summer, so I cooked those to freeze as well.

3. Coconut milk ice cubes:
I can never get through a full can of coconut milk so instead of trying to find ways to use it up, I froze it in an ice cube tray. This will provide me with easy smoothie ingredients, and the perfect portion of milk to add to my occasional coffee.

4. Frozen bananas:
Speaking of smoothies, having a bag of frozen bananas on hand makes a delicious smoothie almost always available. The last few weeks I have been buying extra bananas. When some get too ripe, I peel, cut in half, and freeze them on a tray before storing in a large ziploc bag.

5. Tomato sauce:
We aren't big pasta eaters but there are many other uses for tomato sauce. With it being prime tomato season I had to make some fresh homemade sauce. I made a batch of this sauce from Simple Bites using 3.5 kg of plum tomatoes. I froze half of the sauce in 1.5 cup portions, and used the rest to make a meat sauce. Again, I froze this is 1.5 cup portions.

6. Casseroles: Enchilada Lasagna
I love this recipe dearly. However, it takes quite a while to put together and then more time to bake. So, I assembled the lasagna in a pyrex baking dish with a lid and froze. Now all that needs to be done is thaw and bake! Many casseroles are great for freezing so choose your favourites.

7. Ready to cook stews:
The idea here is to put all the ingredients into a ziploc so you can just thaw and cook either in the oven or in a slow cooker. I made a couple batches of one of our favourites, Jerk Chickpeas.

8. Slow cooker meats:
So technically all I did was buy the meat and freeze it but this is an important one! We know my stance on meat (first this, than this). After sourcing a fantastic chicken farmer, I also found a source of beef and lamb that I feel good about supporting and consuming. They are at the Guelph Farmer's Market every Saturday morning, but I can't always make it there because of work so I stocked up this weekend. Since the meats are relatively expensive we reduce the cost by only cooking meat 1-2 times a week and by purchasing cheaper cuts. We buy lamb shanks and neck as well as stewing beef and blade steaks. All these cuts in addition to our pastured chicken make excellent crock pot meals. Throw in some root vegetables, liquid, and spices into the crock pot in the morning with the thawed meat, and you come home to a very comforting and nourishing meal. These meats are also ideal for stove top braising recipes which are relatively hands off. Having these meats on hand makes throwing together a quick crock pot meal in the morning a breeze.

9. Burgers or Patties: Tuna Cakes
Having some kind of protein packed burger ready in the freezer for when you need to round out a veggie packed meal can be really helpful. After making these tuna cakes I knew that it would make the perfect item to stock the freezer with. Check out Greenpeace's 2013 Canned Tuna Ranking.

10. Broth:
I have been using my crock pot to make a rich gelatinous bone broth for the last 72 hours. This has yielded three separate batches of broth (about 4 L in total) which will go into the freezer. I still have a few litres from my last batch so we will have lots of broth available to us over the next while for soups and stews. I also have a bag of frozen vegetable scraps (collected over the last few months) than can be easily turned into vegetable broth when the freezer space allows.

11. Single serving meals:
This is something I have been doing for the last month or so. After making a stew or other freezer friendly meal, I packed away a single serving for the freezer. These are great for taking to work or school, as they thaw throughout the day and you don't have to worry about refrigeration.

Overall Tips for Freezing:

1. Freeze in usable realistic portions: I like to freeze most items in 1 cup portions. That includes greens, and beans. Sauces and broths I may freeze in 1 cup portions as well as 3 cup portions, common requirements in the recipes I made. Stews and other ready made one-pot meals are best frozen in individual portions of ~2 cups. Ice cubes also make a good sized portion for milks, pestos, stock and sauces.

2. Use appropriate storage containers: I try and reduce my plastic usage but I still find ziplocs and other plastic bags are best for greens, beans, vegetables, and other loose items. Assembled casseroles work best in glass dishes. Everything else I freeze in jars or plastic containers if that is all I have available.

3. Glass is best, but be careful: I saw a lot of horror stories of glass jars breaking in the freezer before freezing and creating an utter mess. I would cry if this happened so I took extra precautions. I filled the jars 3/4 full once the sauce had cooled a bit and left them on the counter uncovered to cool a bit more. Once they were just warm, I covered and put into the fridge to cool right down. From here, I put them into the freezer UNCOVERED. Once they were frozen I capped them. The most important thing to prevent breakage is to leave lots of headspace in the glass and don't allow for sudden temperature changes.

4. Label everything: You may not think you should label that kale since it is obviously kale, but maybe 2 months from now you can't remember and think it's spinach. The HOROR! But seriously, label. Name, date, and any relevant instructions. I find masking tape is good for most glass and plastic containers, but for ziploc you can write with a sharpie directly on the bag.

5. Keep records. You may not want to list all the ingredients that went into the recipe on the container. For this reason I keep notes on the recipes I used. I date the page and write down the recipe. That way I can look back when I take out that casserole and know exactly what I put in it. It also helps to have a list of the stuff you have frozen for yourself. If you have a chest freezer like me it is really easy to loose things. I have kept it organized as best as you can, but it is still a big frozen abyss.

This was a long post, but if you managed to read it all, I hope you have found this information helpful. Being prepared is the key to having a stress free and nourishing dinner time during a busy time in your life. Whether it's a new job, a new school term, a planned surgery, a new baby, or whatever else, stocking your freezer up can help make your life a lot easier and healthier.