Friday, March 22, 2013

Once a Month Cooking

Even though this blog is mostly about nature and gardening, cooking is an important part of that as well. After all, if you're going to be growing a bunch of organic heirloom vegetables (or getting them from a CSA or farmer's market), you need to know what to do with them, right? And eating is one of the most important ways we are connected to Nature (whether we like it or not). But I do admit that it's not always easy, and grabbing some fast food or processed food is something I still do more often than I'd like.

Even though I like to cook, there are still a lot of times when I'm just too tired, or busy, or stressed, and find myself standing around in my kitchen at 6:30 pm completely stumped on what to make for dinner. I tend to get low blood sugar easily, and once I'm in that state, I find myself staring blankly into the pantry or fridge with absolutely no ideas coming to mind, no matter what ingredients we happen to have in stock. "OK, here's a little bit of leftover pasta, the CSA brought more mustard greens, here's a few frozen tilapia fillets, and a pear that's getting kind of mushy..." and it's like I'm in an episode of one of those cooking competition shows where they give the contestants a bag of random ingredients and they have to whip up a gourmet meal from them in 30 minutes. That's difficult even when your mind is clear, which is of course the point of the show. Now try to do that when you are tired, cranky, and dizzy from low blood sugar. At this point I usually give up and this is where the fast food or processed food comes in (or a local restaurant, which is probably better food, but also expensive).

Spring Break was last week, and while I was on "vacation" I decided to try something I've been wanting to try for a while: Once a Month Cooking. The premise is to have a "Big Cooking Day" once a month on your day off, and spend all day cooking a bunch of meals and freezing them. Then on days when you don't have time to cook, you can just take out an already prepared meal and heat that up. Essentially, you're creating your own convenience food. Instead of pulling out a Stouffer's frozen lasagna and heating that up, you pull out a frozen lasagna you made yourself a couple of weeks ago (maybe even one with homemade tomato sauce from tomatoes you grew yourself, grass-fed beef from a local rancher, etc.). It's also supposed to be more time-efficient to prepare a bunch of meals at once than cooking one meal a day. Usually things are made in double-batches, which doesn't take much longer than a single batch, ingredients are bought in bulk (which saves money), and several meals are made that all use that ingredient. While one thing is baking or simmering, you can work on preparing other things. It's an idea mostly targeted at working moms, but I don't see why men or people without kids or people who don't work outside the home wouldn't benefit from it too. After all, if the goal is to save time and money, everybody would like to do that.

Besides saving time and money, it can save me brain-power when I'm hungry. Instead of staring at a fridge full of ingredients and having to think of how I can put them together to make a meal for tonight, I just decide between the meals that I already cooked back when I was clear-headed, and mindlessly follow the directions my previous self so helpfully wrote on the package in Sharpie for my current zombie-like self.

Another advantage that may come as a surprise to you: I sometimes just don't feel like cooking. Yes, I generally like cooking, but like with many things, my enthusiasm for cooking waxes and wanes. Sometimes I'm in a cooking mood, and happily flip through my collection of cookbooks, Penzey's catalogs, Cook's Illustrated magazines,and printed out internet recipes thinking of all these yummy things I can make in the coming week. Then a couple of days later I'm burned out on cooking and even though I have all the ingredients I need for some dish and the time to do it, I just don't feel like it.

So a good strategy would be to cook as much food as possible when I'm in the cooking mood, freeze it, and then it will be there for me when I'm burned out on cooking, ready to just heat and eat.

There are some disadvantages to OAMC. For one thing, not all foods freeze well. Creamy things (like alfredo and bechamel sauces) tend to separate and curdle, while pasta and potatoes tend to get mushy. To get around this, you can either leave those dishes out of your OAMC routine, or you can leave out the un-freeze-able ingredient and add it on the day you use the food. For example, if you're making some kind of dish that's served over pasta, just make everything else but the pasta and freeze that. That way on the day you want to eat the food, you just have to make some pasta to go with it, which isn't that hard. Even in my low-blood-sugar-zombie state I can boil a pot of pasta.

Another disadvantage is space, but I have a chest freezer. If you only have a freezer above your fridge, you just won't be able to make as much stuff at one time, though you might be surprised just how much you can cram in that little freezer. Plus freezers operate more efficiently when full.

Then there's the containers. As a tree-hugger, I got a little worried seeing how many disposable containers these OAMC people on the cooking websites and forums were using. They seem to use tons of disposable foil baking pans, and countless Ziploc bags. Is there a better way?

I decided I'm definitely not using the disposable baking pans, which are sold in packs of 3 for $1. Instead, I went to Dollar General and bought a bunch of cheap steel pans for $1 each. If I use each of them more than 3 times, they've paid for themselves, and I suspect I'll manage to use them more than 3 times each. I'm sure they won't last as long as a nice, high-quality baking pan, but I think this way I'm still saving some money and some waste by using these pans instead of the ones you can only use once. (And yes, I have tried to wash and reuse those foil pans before and it just didn't work out.)

I've not yet figured out a way around using a lot of aluminium foil and gallon-sized Ziplock freezer bags. On the other hand, this might just be a trade-off. Processed food has it's own negative environmental impact, and also comes in tons of plastic, so if my OAMC food is replacing that, it still might turn out to be a better deal for Mother Earth. Maybe some of those freezer bags can be reused a couple of times.

I also haven't tried the "cook all day" thing yet. I actually spaced my Spring Break cooking out over a few days, where I spent more like 3 or 4 hours cooking. I'll probably have to try the all-day cooking thing this summer when I'm busier and more tempted to eat fast food after 6 straight hours of teaching summer classes. That would take better planning, but would be more efficient to get it all done in one day. It might also be easier after doing more casual freeze-ahead cooking before that so I have some practice.

Of course, the lazier way to do this is whenever you cook something that freezes well, cook twice as much and freeze the rest. I'll definitely be doing more of that from now on, but I think I might have to do some power-cooking as well to keep the freezer stocked.

The last reason why I haven't tried this sooner is because most of the OAMC recipes I've seen so far (mostly from seemed so heavy. I've already known for a long time that enchiladas, lasagna, shepherd's pie, meatloaf, and all kinds of stews and gooey casseroles froze well, and most of the OAMC recipes I was finding were recipes for that kind of stuff. And that's nice but what if we want lighter fare for the summertime? What if we're watching what we eat? What if I'm sick of ground beef in everything?

What made me ready to go for it was finding the website Once a Month Mom. I was amazed that they have sections on there for all kinds of diets: gluten-free, paleo (which is a sort of low-carb diet), vegetarian, and whole foods. That's more like it! Some variety!

You can pay for a subscription where you get detailed menus and instructions on how to adapt the recipes to OAMC. Otherwise you just get links to recipes online from other sites, and you have to figure out how to adapt them for freezing, though they do give you general tips on how to do that. I think I know enough about cooking that I can figure it out for myself. I just like how they gather all these freeze-able recipes together in one place, and how there's things you can freeze that I just wouldn't have thought of on my own.

So here's some of the things I cooked last week that are now in the freezer. I'll admit I didn't really branch out that much this time, and mostly cooked things I was already familiar with, and they did mostly turn out to be a lot of comfort foods. Next time I'm going to be more adventurous, especially as the weather gets warmer and gooey casseroles are not going to seem as appealing.

When making food ahead of time, you don't have to actually make the entire meal, you know. Here a pot of black beans simmers, while sitting next to them is a batch of Italian Meatballs that just came out of the oven. I also made a big batch of refried pinto beans. The beans went into reusable plastic containers and then into the fridge, while the meatballs were baked ahead of time, frozen on cookie sheets, and then transferred to a freezer bag. The beans can be used as a side dish for enchiladas or a burrito filling, while the meatballs can be reheated by simmering in tomato sauce, and put on a sandwich or over spaghetti. The most time-consuming component of the meal is already made, which also happens to be the component that freezes the best.

I also poached two chickens, shredded the meat up, and froze it in more plastic containers. Now I have cooked chicken ready to go for chicken salad, tacos, pasta dishes, and any dish that calls for already cooked chicken, which is a lot of dishes! Again, this still saves me time, because cooking the chicken takes the most time, and now that's done, and cooking two chickens at once doesn't take any more time or effort than cooking one.

Here I'm putting together a batch of Arroz Gratinado. It turns out that two of those cheap square pans I got from Dollar Tree hold the same amount as a standard 13 x 9 inch pan. Perfect! In this particular case, the shredded meat and the Mexican rice were already leftovers from previous meals that I then recycled into this casserole. The refried beans were part of the big batch I mentioned earlier. I used some of it for the casseroles and froze the rest of it by itself.

I also used some of the poached chicken for King Ranch Chicken. See how this works? Now I have some fully-made meals that I only need to heat and eat, besides components for future meals like already-cooked chicken and already-cooked beans I just need to add fresh pasta or veggies to when I have some.

Here are the casseroles ready to go into the freezer. This works great with any casserole that you assemble and then bake to heat it through. You do everything up to the baking part, but then freeze it unbaked, and bake it when you're ready to eat it. I covered them with one layer of foil, and used a sharpie to label them, including the date they were made and cooking instructions. After they were frozen, I put them each into a gallon freezer bag (which can be reused, it's just there for an added layer of protection), and stacked them up in the freezer. I had some baking potatoes around that weren't going to last much longer, so I made them into twice-baked potatoes. The second baking will be done when they're ready to eat. They were frozen on cookie sheets and then put into freezer bags. Mashed potatoes of any kind freeze fine since they're already mushy.

For breakfast, I also froze a bunch of breakfast burritos. Those get completely assembled, and then frozen on cookie sheets, and when hard, packed into freezer bags. I made two batches of whole wheat strawberry banana muffins and froze them the same way. When ready to eat, they're just heated up in the microwave. I'll admit that these don't turn out as good frozen and microwaved as they are fresh (the muffins don't have a crisp crust anymore and the egg in the burrito can get overcooked), but they still turn out much better than store-bought frozen burritos or store-bought muffins.

Next time I'm in a cooking mood I plan on making some lunch burritos. Maybe using some of those beans and chicken I already cooked. I could also make some shredded beef or pork fillings. Extra could also be used for taco or enchilada filling. Enchiladas freeze well, and tacos are easy to assemble if you have meat that's already cooked. Then you just needs some fresh tortillas, cheese, and veggies and you're ready to eat.

When the summer heat hits, I'll probably start making more "dump" recipes. This is a genre of OAMC recipes where you take chicken parts, pork chops, or steaks and "dump" them raw into bags with sauce/marinade and freeze them that way. On the day you want to eat them, you take them out and let them thaw, and they marinade while they thaw. Then you grill, bake, broil, or stir-fry them. This takes a little more work when you want to eat them, but it's still more convenient since at least all the ingredients are already assembled. At HEB they sell these packs of fajita meat, which is chicken, pork, or beef already in marinade that you just grill yourself. They also have pre-marinaded chicken breasts, pork chops, and fish with cooking instructions on the package, for grilling or baking. This is just making those sorts of things yourself. Since I have a garden and CSA, I'm usually good for veggies, but figuring out what meat I want to cook to go with them can be tricky for me when it's time for dinner. Having a selection of cilantro-lime chicken breasts or glazed pork chops or strips of Asian marinaded steak in the freezer could definitely be handy.

Now writing this blog post has made me hungry!

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