I am NOT an organized cook. Being an organized cook requires linear thinking, whereas my brain waves are all over the universe. I am an opportunistic cook.
I share this so you will believe me when I say that last-minute meals can be accomplished without complex flow charts or a 12-month pass to McDonalds. If a head-in-the-clouds person like myself can produce stress-free dining experiences without the requisite weekend cook-a-thons touted by more disciplined folks, then so can anybody else.
But a few cooking hacks in my back pocket are worth considering. So I thought I’d share a few of my culinary moves that provide me with a variety of cooking options for evening meals that come together pretty fast, with minimal mess and greater diversity.
The browned ground meat maneuver
Think about how many meals begin with the instruction to "brown one pound of ground beef." Now think about how smooth and speedy your evening meal preparations would be if that step was already accomplished with the results hanging out in the freezer. Aside from the obvious bonus of minutes saved by not standing over a pan of ground beef (or chicken or turkey) while it goes from pink to brown, there are residual benefits: one less dirty pan and oil-splattered cooking surface to contend with.
And so, as you see, I'm not talking about dedicating an entire weekend to cooking. In a mere 20 minutes, you can fry up several pounds of ground beef or poultry, then drain off the fat and distribute the cooked meat among several resealable freezer bags. Spread the meat out and flatten the contents so they'll stack neatly in the freezer and thaw quickly. For detailed thawing guidelines, re-read that section of the Chicken Cache directions.
Do I really need to tell you how to take advantage of your browned ground beef? I didn't think so.
Now, if you want to ramp up your browned meat stash, then you definitely want to make a big batch of my:
Southwest seasoned ground turkey mix (recipe follows)
Not quite as versatile as a frozen cache of unseasoned meat, but the possibilities are equally endless. Indeed, after a particularly hectic day, it’s a good feeling knowing that I can reach into my freezer and scoop out a bit of the seasoned mixture, which becomes the base for any number of flour-tortilla roll-up creations, salads or even pasta and rice combos.
The unique quality of this recipe is centered around the fact that I prepare a highly seasoned liquid in one container that is poured over the skillet of browned ground meat and onions. More cooking ensues as the liquid concentrates and merges with the meat. The resulting ground meat is now highly seasoned from the inside out.
The chicken cache
Having 2-cup portions of cooked and chopped chicken in your freezer is like money in the bank. It provides great peace of mind.
How to use your Chicken Cache? That's the easy part. For starters, you can create simple pasta sauces, turn a tossed-green salad into an entree, make fast and tasty pocket sandwiches and tortilla roll-ups, assemble dynamite chicken sandwiches, and produce delicious pasta and rice salads.
I store two styles of chicken. For one style, I grill lightly seasoned boneless-skinless chicken breasts and thighs then cut the portions into bite-sized pieces before freezing.
For the second style, I simmer whole chickens in a covered pot of water along with some chopped up onion, celery, carrots, and a fistful of chopped garlic, salt and freshly ground black pepper.
After the chicken is cooked (which takes about 30 to 40 minutes), remove the pot from the burner and let the chickens cool slightly, then lift them from the pot using tongs or whatever. At this point let the chickens cool down for a few more minutes so you don't burn your fingers.
•Now simply separate the meat from the bone, skin and fat. Don't forget all of the meaty little spots on the back and around the wings; it's moist and flavorful.
•The average 3-pound chicken produces 3 to 4 cups of cooked meat. I have found that a heaping 2-cup portion is enough for most occasions, but you must figure out your own needs.
•Oh, by the way, if you’re willing to put in a little more effort, then do NOT throw out that wonderful chicken stock you created from boiling your chickens. Simply strain the broth through a sieve then place the broth in a wide container and refrigerate overnight. The next day you’ll be able to scoop off all the fat which will have risen to the surface and become firm. Can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for many months.
FREEZING YOUR PREPARED MEATS AND CHICKEN: Pack measured amounts in quart-sized resealable freezer bags, then spread out and flatten the contents so they'll stack neatly in the freezer. (A thin package thaws faster than a thick one.)
To use the cooked meats and chicken, simply thaw and have at it. If you're thinking about it in the morning, you can remove a package and place it in your refrigerator. It should be thawed by dinner time. If you haven't given dinner a thought until the hour has appeared, then fast thawing can occur with the help of the defrost mode in your microwave oven, or by simply placing the pouch of meat or chicken in another pouch (holes mysteriously appear during storage in the freezer) and placing that package in a large bowl of hot water. You'll have pliable meat and chicken in about 20 minutes.
A few final thoughts to make things easier in the kitchen
•The number one rule if you're squirreling away lots of stuff in the freezer, keep a list. I've taped a sheet of paper to the inside of my pantry door, right next to the freezer. There's a pen on the top shelf. When I put stuff in, I add it to the list (name of stuff and date frozen). When I take stuff out, I cross it off the list. No more forgotten foods building up in the freezer netherlands.
•Never make a little rice. Make a lot. Store the leftovers in the fridge or freezer for all sorts of offerings down the road.
•When baking potatoes, bake extras for: twice-baked potatoes (any general cookbook will offer guidelines for making these), German potato salad, and casseroles.