Freezer Chronicles: Meal Components and Leftovers

You may have noticed that Steph and I are both posting a lot about meal prep. Now that the semester is in full swing, we’re both focused on ways to keep up healthy eating habits without being overwhelmed in the kitchen.

I’m a weekend kitchen warrior. The only cooking I want to do during the week involves a microwave or an oven and something already made.

Freezer-based prep and planning developed over time for me as way of coping with long days during the week, and now it’s a habit. It takes a bit of planning and organization so that you don’t end up with a freezer full of stuff you won’t eat.

My tips on making freezer prep work:

1) LABEL EVERYTHING with a date and description. (Trust me, you won’t recognize that container of shredded chicken in a month. You think you will, but you won’t.)

and

2) Make a list of prepped items you put in the freezer with the dates they were frozen.  Keep it wherever you do meal planning. (Hang it on the fridge, even.)

Both of these steps will help you remember what is in there (even if you have to dig for them!) and use them in a timely way.

Pantry Staples are Meal-Builders

A huge time-saver for me is to make staple items in bulk, then freeze them in amounts that match how I like to use them. An example of that is brown rice (or any kind of rice). If I am going to cook during the week, it’s going to be a quick stir fry, a salad, or something that accompanies the fish or chicken my husband can throw on the grill when he gets home.

I prefer brown rice to white; it is a whole grain and has more nutrients. However, it doesn’t cook very quickly, so having it already prepped is a real time-saver.  (Yes, you can buy prepackaged frozen rice – but it’s so cheap to buy in bulk, cook in bulk, and freeze it yourself!) I use Alton Brown’s recipe for baked brown rice so often that I really don’t need to check the recipe anymore. I double or even triple or quadruple the amount in the recipe so that I have plenty to stock for later.

Other grains that freeze incredibly well include polenta (grits) and even cooked potatoes.

Cooked beans are also great freezer staples. I am definitely a fan of canned beans as a time-and-sanity saver, but cooking dried beans from scratch yields a tastier meal, I think. My most-used cooking tools are the slow cooker and the pressure cooker (I don’t have an Instant Pot, but that’s the same idea), and beans do great in both. The Kitchn has great tips for pressure cooking beans and here’s a link to walk you through beans made in an Instant Pot. If you’re a slow cooker devotee, here’s info from the Kitchn on beans in your crock pot.

We also cook proteins (meat or vegetable) and freeze them for later use. Some favorites are slow-cooked shredded chicken and pork (you can make plain or mildly seasoned shredded pork the same way, plain, so we can adapt it to recipes later).  There are plenty of slow-cooker recipes for pulled pork, too. Make more than you need and put half away for later.

Make More, Freeze Leftovers

Basically, always cook a bit more than you need and freeze it for later. Not everyone loves to eat leftovers all week (my household is kind of weird that way). So freezing even just one or two servings will give you options during a busy week. There’s no reason to limit this approach to meat-based meals; plant-based prep-freeze/leftover-freezing is an option. Check out this list of bulk cooking ideas from The Minimalist Vegan. Vegetarian lentil, bean and pureed veggie soups form the basis of our winter meals, and I always have a container of soup in the freezer.

How to Thaw

My favorite way to thaw frozen food is overnight in the fridge. Because we do most meal prep on Sunday, I’ll take out a prepared meal (soup that we’ll eat with a quick salad and crusty bread) on Friday or Satuday…usually with a sigh of relief that at least one or two after-work dinners for the week  are, essentially, already made.

However, there are ways around that overnight thawing approach – check out the Kitchn’s tips on thawing.

Wishing you a great week. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Saving Summer: Aronia Berries

It’s late, late August…so I might be getting a wee bit nostalgic already for summer foods. I know they’ll soon be gone.

This photo is a snapshot of a berry syrup I made. It’s also sitting in front of bowls containing two other ephemeral pleasures: fresh peaches and tomatoes.

Aronia

I have come to appreciate the joy that comes from “seasonal mindfulness” (I made that up…it means enjoying those summer treasures in the moment, without obsessing over saving them for later). But sometimes on a cold, grey day, you just want to be reminded of the best of summer foods. Because canning is time consuming, I have never really tried it. I usually stick to things I can freeze (roasted tomatoes or peppers) that things that will keep in the fridge for a few weeks, like quick pickles, sauces, etc.

Last Saturday I was (easily) talked into buying two cups of local aronia berries, which I’ve had in jam form before (made by a local farmer and sold at the Thanksgiving Market). But I decided the quickest thing I could make with this amount was a sauce on the stove.

Aronia berries are really tart, and I had a handful of blueberries in the fridge that were about to go bad, so I tossed those in the saucepan, too. The recipe I used also calls for lemon, but I only had lime – it turned out great!

It only made a small amount but it’s really lovely – not overly sweet, and the touch of ginger and vanilla adds depth. I’m interested in the medicinal qualities of ginger, plus I like the taste, but you could easily leave it out. I also strained the sauce, but you could keep it chunky.

I’ve been spreading this on toast this week, but you could also put it on plain yogurt, on pancakes, waffles, or French toast.

I’ll be looking for more aronia berries at the market next week!

Local Food Travels: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

We spend time in far northern Michigan every summer. Much of upper Michigan is a wild and remote place; small towns are separated by forests, lakes, and incredible stretches of natural beauty. The regional culture is one of resilience, creativity, and intense local pride. Not surprisingly, local foods are also a special part of the region.

“Local” isn’t anything new in the U.P. – those who live through the long winters and brilliant, brief summers have always turned to native plants, fish, and wildlife to sustain themselves.

Upper Michigan has a wealth of natural resources, including mineral deposits; native American tribes mined copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula between 5000 BCE and 1200 BCE.  Mining has long defined this region; in the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial mining brought immigrants from all over Europe to find copper for a rapidly-industrializing American economy. Some of those immigrants were from Cornwall, and they brought with them the Cornish meat pie – the pasty. U.P. pasties traditionally have minced meat and root vegetables (usually rutabaga), and in a restaurant you’ll be asked if you want gravy or ketchup with your meal. (Note: Gravy is for tourists.) Today, locals and tourists alike enjoy pasties with an impressive array of craft beer produced in local microbreweries.

Lake Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes, and it is better understood for what it is: an inland, freshwater sea. Local fish is prized for its abundance and clean flavor. Lake Superior whitefish can be found on nearly every menu. I loved the ubiquitous fish taco when I was visiting Southern California, but modern Yooper cooks have mastered the Lake Superior whitefish taco:

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Tourists come to the U.P., and to Copper Harbor, in particular, to hike, kayak, hunt, ski, and snowmobile. Recently, the U.P. has become well-known for world-class mountain bike trails (initially, this was our reason for visiting). We go back to Copper Harbor every summer because we can’t get enough of this quiet town on the very northern point of the Keweenaw Penninsula.

We also truly appreciate the unaffected attitude towards local foods, too. In summertime, thimbleberries are prolific in the woods and fields all around town, and you will find jams for sale at the shops – be sure to pick up some thimbleberry jam. (If you’re really into jam, a visit to The Jampot is utterly necessary.)  In Copper Harbor, Jamson’s Bakery makes exceptional fruit turnovers and muffins with these local berries early every morning for mountain bikers and trekkers waiting to board the ferry to Isle Royale.

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Until next year, Copper Harbor.

 

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The rocky shoreline.