Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Stocking Up - Saving Time in the Kitchen

The mercury dropped below -40 here last night. (Yep, it's the same in Fahrenheit and Celsius.)

Until now our winter has felt more like spring. We barely have any snow and our temperatures were quite mild. It's the kind of weather that leads me to dream of camping and gardening and pulling the patio set out of storage... not filling my freezer.

Until today.

Did I mention -40?? Brrrr. Too cold to go outside, though the sun sure is beautiful today on the little snow we have, I woke up inspired and set on filling my freezer. The girls were home (buses don't run when it hits -40) so I thought this would be a great way to spend the day. Fortunately, I keep a well-stocked pantry and cold room. Otherwise such impromptu batch cooking just wouldn't work. In fact, my Sweet Man had to go to town today so I sent him to the grocery store with a list... and then I emailed to add a couple more things... and then a phone call. (!) As luck would have it, he was still in town... all. three. times. He rocks.

What did I make? Bread - four loaves, 16 slow cooker/oven ready meals (more on this in a bit) and muffins. I have been making home made bread for a couple years now - ever since my Sweet Man and parents pooled my Christmas gift and bought me the most amazing kitchen tool. A Bosch. A mixer, food processor and blender all in one. I love it. I've been making four loaves of bread each week or so ever since. It also makes a HUGE difference when it comes time to grate 10 cups of cheese or slice 20 onions.

Multigrain Bread - Makes 4 Loaves
4 cups water (I use 3 cups tap water & 1 cup boiling water)
3/16 (1/8 + another half of that) cups yeast
1/2 cup oil
4 tsp salt
1/4 cup honey (or sugar)
5 cups multigrain (or whole wheat) flour
app. 4 cups white flour
1/8 c. ea.: flax seeds, sunflower seeds, wheat bran, wheat germ, sesame seeds, ground flax (whatever you want here, really. I add this before the white flour and then adjust the white flour depending on how many other things I add.)
Proof yeast. (Add a bit of the honey to the water and then add the yeast to make sure it is active. Takes about 5 minutes.) Mix all ingredients and let rise for about an hour. (I put mine in a metal bowl, cover it with a towel and then put it in the oven with the light on to rise.) Form into loaves and let rise (same way) for another hour. Bake at 350F for 30-35 minutes or 375F for 20-25 minutes.

My sister-in-law gave me a copy of The Big Cook for Christmas a year ago and it has been well-used. This is where I got the idea and recipes for most of my slow cooker/oven-ready meals. I made four meals each of four different recipes (BBQ Beef, Hamburger Soup, Lazy Lasagna, Tomato Herb Chicken). There are many good recipes in this cook book - and, as always, a few that just were not keepers. The only new recipe to us today was the Tomato Herb Chicken - and I just happen to have a batch in the oven at the moment. 

Back to The Big Cook. The idea is that you get together with friends for a day (someone has to do all the planning and shopping beforehand) and make a PILE of meals together and then you each go home with a bunch. I've done it more than a few times with varying numbers of other women and what I can tell you is this:

1. It is easiest to do this in someone's home. (As opposed to, say, in a church kitchen.) A larger kitchen is nice (especially if you have quite a few ladies participating), but in someone's home you are more likely to be able to "raid a cupboard" should a miscalculation of ingredients occur. And it happens.

2. Choosing a menu can be tricky. Different families have different preferences and it can be challenging to find a number of recipes that everyone agrees on. There can also be other challenges to overcome - like childcare (definitely best to have small children looked after off-site. It's a busy day and there are many sharp utensils involved.) and (as in my case) someone who prefers to cook with wild meat (because of the cost effectiveness and low fat content). Compromise is the answer here. Say you're making four of each recipe. If your friend likes a recipe you don't care for, then she could take all of those and you could take all four of a different recipe you prefer.

3. While I LOVE The Big Cook, I have come to the conclusion that this concept of doing all the prep (not much is actually cooked) in bulk with a group of friends (or alone) can be applied to any of your favorite recipes. You will want to be aware of foods that do not freeze well - like large chunks of potatoes. We also don't care for previously frozen bell peppers so we leave them out of any recipe that calls for them until it's time to cook it.

4. The neat stacks of Ziploc bags don't take much room and are ideal for maximizing space in small and or trailer freezers.

5. Meat can be safely frozen, thawed and re-frozen.

6. The idea of having a couple people work on the planning together may sound appealing - but beware. You want to be sure that you go over every ingredient for every recipe. When more than one person is involved in this process ingredients may be missed. Trust me.

7. These are great to have on hand for busy days and for those times that pop up when you'd like to take a meal to someone else.

8. When defrosting these meals, it's best to put them in a large bowl or on a cookie sheet with a lip. Sometimes they spring leaks.

9. These meals can be thrown into the slow cooker frozen solid (as long as you can make them fit) and will turn out just fine, as long as they aren't rushed for time. (I.e. You will be away all day but forgot to take it out the night before.)

10. If you plan carefully and shop sales, this can be quite cost and time-effective (even if you're buying all your meat), not to mention a lot of FUN!

Today I spent 3.75 hours in the kitchen (not including clean up) making 16 meals and four loaves of bread. That's less than 15 minutes per meal. And I did it alone. (My sous-chefs were stolen away by my Sweet Man who lured them to the basement with Star Wars. Worked for me.) Not bad, eh?! I didn't calculate cost today because it was impromptu and because I've been collecting ingredients for meals I like and knew I'd make again for a long time, but cost per meal can be quite low, depending on what you make. Ground beef meals are obviously cheaper than chicken or roasts or recipes with a lot of cheese in them... cheaper yet when the ground meat you are using was the result of your husband's fall entertainment.

16 meals and 4 loaves of bread in 3.75 hours.

I also planned to make Clean Eating Apple Cinnamon Muffins and Clean Eating Chocolate Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Muffins. The Apple Cinnamon Muffins turned out very well. I did make a couple substitutions though - canola oil for safflower oil and whole wheat all purpose flour for whole wheat pastry flour (things that can't be found in our small town). We loved them. Unfortunately, when I was starting the Chocolate PB muffins, I realized I am out of Baking Soda. So much for my well-stocked pantry.

The girls enjoying a taste of my double batch of Apple Cinnamon  Muffins.

The weather forecast is calling for a low of -39C and windchills of -50C tonight. I'll bet the girls and I get another chance to finish the kind of baking they're more interested in (dessert type) tomorrow... Maybe my Sweet Man will go to the store for me again...? ;)


  1. you're amazing! I wish I was you...and that my freezer was full of your yummy cooking. :) Better plan dinner tonight.

  2. Amazing! I think you should plan a "big cook" one time when you're up this way visiting your parents. The thought of making so many meals at once is intimidating. I really wouldn't know what to do. But, it's amazing that you can prepare all those meals in such a short amount of time. Good job!