Your freezer as kitchen autopilot

As I psychotically prepare for the arrival of our baby, my list gets longer and longer, instead of shorter and shorter. I am like an adding machine, and the more of the math I do, the longer the tape gets. Or something like that.

Anyway, to my long list of things I want to have perfectly executed before this baby arrives (along with cleaning the dishwasher with a toothbrush and recaulking the kitchen sink) I recently added "freeze an arsenal of food." I know that many of my friends will graciously bestow food upon us in those early weeks, but I have issues and I want to make sure I don't have to cook for like, oh, maybe the first year of the baby's life. I have an upright freezer and I know how to use it.

The only problem is that if I stand for more than half an hour at a time I start crying and consider taking my frustration out on what or whomever is closest, be that my cats, the telephone, or the toothbrush that I keep by the dishwasher. My cats and the toothbrushes can't take it. The people I call on the phone have just learned not to answer.

I, then, had to consider the easiest and fastest things I could concoct, so as not to A) wear out my cankles or B) create a lot of dirty dishes to later have to contend with.

Starting with a manageable task, I made a meatloaf. I am not afraid of meatloaf. I embrace meatloaf. I put beer in meatloaf.

Straightahead Meatloaf

1/2 can of cheap yellow beer, preferably PBR (hurry and drink the other half before it gets hot)
2.5 lbs of ground beef
2 cloves minced garlic
1/3 c minced onion
1 T salt
2 T worcestershire
3 tsp black pepper
1 T chili powder
1/2 C ketchup
1/4 C yellow mustard
2 eggs
1 C oats (quick or regular; it doesn't matter)
A few pieces of bread

For sauce:
1/2 C ketchup
1/3 C mustard
1 T worchestershire
1/3 C brown sugar
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 T chili powder
salt and pepper to taste

Of course, all of these measurements are interpretive. I just dump stuff in, so I don't really know the exact measurements. Do whatever comes naturally.

Step 1)
Put the thawed ground beef in a big bowl with all the rest of the first group of ingredients, and get your hands dirty mixing it all together.

Step 2)
Lay the slices of bread in the bottom of your pan. I used a large-ish disposable loaf pan this time, but sometimes I do little individual meatloaves in my small banana bread pans. The bread will soak up excess grease and you'll be glad you put it there. Turst me. I learned it from Paula Deen and she is never wrong about these things. Also, preheat your oven to 350.

Step 3)
Heat up the sauce ingredients on your stovetop until they're well combined and warm. It only took me about five minutes. The pour it over the top of your loaf.

Step 4)
Since I was planning to freeze and reheat my meatloaf I didn't want to cook it all the way through. I did about 45 minutes in the oven, and then took it out and covered it with aluminum foil, labeled it, and popped it in the freezer. If I wanted to eat it right away I'd probably have needed another half hour or so. But this way I will be able to heat it up and finish cooking it at the same time instead of drying it out with a second cooking process.

This basic meatloaf is awesome because it consists of ingredients you usually can find in your fridge on almost any given day. It's also moist and delicious and most excellent in its Kansas Home Cookin' simplicity. I've made and tried loads of fancier meatloaves with sausage and sundried tomatoes and all kinds of upscale ingredients, but I always come back to my basic model. I suggest you do the same.

Turns out that is the only dish I managed to execute on Saturday. I had planned to make empanadas, but my pregnancy-horomone addled brain forgot that I had the chicken in the crockpot and I left it in there for oh, maybe 15 hours, so it wasn't exactly a useable bird. Like, no moisture anywhere. At all. I don't recommend this cooking method.

Still, I'll make them later this week (with a new chicken), so I'll share my process with you.

Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy Empanadas

The List:
1 roasting chicken, cooked in the crock pot
4 pie crusts (if you don't have time to make your own, the refrigerated ones are pretty stinking good for this application)
1 egg

For filling:
You can pretty much do whatever fries your bacon. I start with a simple filling of chicken, salsa, shredded cheese, and cream cheese. Then you can go crazy adding ingredients from there.

Sometimes I like a black olive, green chili, and red onion thrown in. You can toss in other meats like chorizo or pork sausage. Never underestimate the power of cumin and good chili powder. Spice up that filling in any way that you can think of. You can't go wrong.

To assemble:

Step 1)
Roll out your dough (even if I have a store-bought pie crust, I roll it out a little bit thinner than what they already are). Use a large round cookie cutter - (Or, I use a huge beer glass with a large mouth) about 4 inches in diameter to make nice rounds.

Step 2)
Moisten the edges of the rounds with a little water so they'll seal. Drop the filling by the tablespoonful onto the rounds, not quite in the middle. Fold one side over the filling, and pinch the edges closed. I go around the edges with a fork, lightly pressing the tines in to make a lined imprint.

Step 3)
Use a brush to paint a little egg wash over the tops of the empanadas, and bake in a 400 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until they're golden brown.

The great thing about these is that you can freeze three or four in a bag, and just reheat them as needed. They reheat quickly and can serve as a snack or a meal.

There are a few rules of thumb I adhere to when I'm cooking things I know I intend to freezer for later. The biggest one: no potatoes. Potatoes in most any form get mealy and mushy once frozen. The one exception is mashed potatoes, but only if you load them up with cream cheese in the mashing process and then freeze them.

Vegetables can get funny in the freezer also, so if you want to eat veggies with your hand-frozen meal, just buy the already frozen kind and use those as a side. They take about nine seconds to cook.

Secondly, I like to freeze things, like the empanadas, that are not so large and dense that they'll take hours to thaw and then cook. I am known to freeze a lasagna from time to time, but you have to plan in advance to eat it because it needs to thaw for most of a day if not more before you put it in the oven.

Calzones, empanadas, ham and cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil - all of these kinds of things are great options because they can go straight from freezer to oven and come out warm through without a long thawing process. And, you can cook just as many as you need and leave the rest in the freezer. Mini pizzas baked on french bread or English muffins, chicken bundles wrapped up inside croissants, chicken satay skewers... all make excellent individual freezable items and will accomodate the ADD challenged like me, who will not think at 6:00 in the morning of what they want to eat at 6:00 that night.

As for desserts, again, there are some things that freeze better than others. Cookies freeze well, but cakes, in my opinion, do not. Pound cake, though, is an excellent freezer item, as are scones and most muffins.

I think things can keep for quite awhile in a freezer. Eventually, freezer burn gets to all of it, so it probably won't make it quite through that first year of the baby's life. Things that have pastry involved, like the empanadas and scones, I'll probably only freeze for a month or so. The more meaty/casserole-y items will last up to three in the freezer before they get foul-tasting.

Also, consider double wrapping your items. Wrap an empanada in foil and THEN put it in a freezer bag with the air squeezed out and it will be much fresher longer than if you just threw it in the bag and sealed it up.

As for breakfast, I'll have a couple of egg casseroles frozen at the ready to serve company who will visit after the blessed arrival, and I'll be able to toss out a few homemade cranberry scones. Having it all done in advance will make me look to my mother-in-law like Donna Freaking Reed, and I'll be laughing all the way to the bank, knowing how easy all the things I made really were.

I'll be sharing my other freezable foods with you as I work my way through this process. I have chicken legs brining in my fridge as we speak. Let's hope I don't forget them like I did my crock pot chicken and turn them into pickles.


amyglester 13 years, 3 months ago

I have been all about the pie crust this summer, so empanadas are now on my list. They sound delish.

One addition to the basic meatloaf: Alton Brown takes a box of croutons for a spin in the food processor and uses those instead of oatmeal for binder. I have been using a combination of both and it works great. The flavor of the croutons adds a lot to the dish.

rivercitymom 13 years, 3 months ago

Several years ago I worked with a woman who would cook (she swore) about four times a year in marathon sessions of 3 to 4 days, filling her freezer and then they would eat it up and start over. I've always thought that was amazing. I know one of her staples was a stack of homemade pizzas. She was also big on making smaller pans of things like lasagne so it wasn't so complicated to thaw them out (she had a family of four, so when her kids were younger an 8 x 8 of lasagne was enough for everyone).

I always feel like if I have two or three things ready to go in the freezer I'm doing pretty well. So I admire your energy! Those freezer meals will be like money in the bank once that baby arrives.

ilovelucy 13 years, 3 months ago

I always throw a hunk of some type of cheese in the center of my meatloaf. It's adds some zest, if you're a cheese lover.

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