By Jolene Lamb, coordinator, Culinary Institute, Lincoln Land Community College
Where did the summer go? Kids are back in school, sports and extra-curricular actives have begun, the homework is once again part of the evening routine and the days are getting shorter. It feels like there is less time to make dinner. Don’t fall into the habit of grabbing fast food on the way home or to game practice. There are plenty of options for making dinner at home without spending your entire evening in the kitchen.
One option is make ahead freezer meals. There are numerous blogs devoted to the subject, even one that promotes preparing an entire month of meals in one day. Most people do not have an entire weekend to devote to prepping and cooking. However, you can start small by simply picking a few meals that your family already enjoys, then make twice the amount, eat one serving and freeze the other for another meal later on. Not all meals are designed to be frozen, some items freeze better than others. For best results avoid meals that contain anything fried, greens such as lettuce and dairy items such as cream cheese and heavy cream.
Another small step to take is to freeze individual foods. Cooked ground beef or turkey freezes well. Cook several pounds at once and freeze in portions that can easily be used in tacos, stews, and meat sauces for pasta dishes, sloppy joes or even as a pizza topping.
In a grilling mood? Grill several chicken breasts, freeze individually or in small portions. They can be thawed and used as a salad topping, or in a grilled panini sandwich and even shredded for chicken and noodles or chicken salad.
Casseroles are another make ahead meal that can be a one-dish wonder. There are several recipes that feature chicken and rice with a wide variety of flavors. A casserole can be quickly assembled in one dish in advance, frozen, later pulled out and popped in the oven for an easy weeknight meal. You can find disposable foil pans and lids at almost any grocery store. You won’t even have any clean-up, how easy is that? Plus the lids are perfect to write on with a permanent marker. In addition to labeling and dating, I often write the cooking time and temperature on the lid itself so it is right there when I go to cook it, no guesswork.
Freezer to crockpot is a great way to cook throughout the week. It does take some time on the weekend to cook a large pot of soup, but by portioning and freezing, they can go straight from the freezer to crockpot in the morning, and by evening you can walk in the door to a ready to eat dinner. A few tips for safe handling and storage of soups.
- Do not put large batches of hot soup directly into the refrigerator or freezer. They will take too long to cool in the center, leaving the soup vulnerable to bacteria growth and food borne illness. The best practice is to quickly cool a large pot of soup in an ice bath. Fill the sink hallway with ice and cold water, then place the pot in and stir to cool.
- Don’t forget to label and date the soups, preferably with a permanent marker and not a sticker that may peel off in the freezer.
- Use gallon freezer bags, place them in a large measuring cup or bowl and cuff the bag over the edge. This makes them easy and less messy to fill. Also it is easy to squeeze out excess air to avoid freezer burn.
- Lay bags flat on a tray to freeze, then stack them to save space in the freezer.
This time of year, I often make stuffed peppers for dinner. However, the last few years I’ve been transforming them into a casserole. The following recipe incorporates the classic flavors of stuffed peppers in and “unstuffed” pepper casserole. Baking the dish as a casserole makes it easy to portion cut servings into freezer bags to freeze and enjoy later.
Stuffed Pepper Casserole
Yield 12 servings
- 2 pounds ground beef
- 2 onions, small diced
- 4-6 garlic cloves, minced
- 5-6 bell peppers, roasted peeled and diced
- 1 quart beef stock
- 1/2 teaspoon each- dried basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme and marjoram
- 2 pounds tomatoes fresh or canned (fresh tomatoes should be meaty, like roma) diced
- 2 cups canned tomato sauce
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups uncooked rice (I use basmati)
- 1 pound mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Salt and pepper to taste
Roast peppers under the broiler. Position an oven rack as close as you can to the broiling element in your oven and turn the broiler on to high.
Place your peppers on a baking sheet and place it directly under the broiler.
Use a pair of tongs to turn the peppers occasionally until the skin is completely blackened, about 8 minutes total.
Put the still-warm peppers in a heatproof bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
The skin will loosen as the pepper steams, and once it’s cooled down a bit, you can easily remove the skin with your fingers.
In a large stock pot, brown ground beef with onions and garlic until no pink remains.
Add stock, rice, prepared tomatoes, roasted peppers, sauce, paste, and seasonings.
Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Simmer 25 minutes or until rice is fully cooked.
Transfer the mixture to two 9×13 casserole dishes, top with mozzarella and broil for a few minutes to melt the cheese.
To freeze, fully cool casserole. Slice into single portions and place into zippered bags or an airtight container. Note: freezing in portions reduces thawing time and saves space over a full casserole. Thaw in refrigerator. Reheat in microwave or oven until it temps at 165 degrees.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Baking/Pastry, and Value Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.