We've got a big chest freezer in the basement, but there's too much in it and I need to make room for the half a cow I've got coming in a month or so. Not only that, but the food should be used before it gets any older. Not only that, but why should I spend money at the supermarket when I've got an array of goodies right here at home?
So I'm planning meals around what's in the freezer (and pantry, as far as that goes, but I'm not going there right now). Last night is a case in point. Well, "planning" doesn't actually apply in this case; it was more of a spontaneous "let's see what's in the freezer that will do for dinner."
Anyway, it was a blowy, drizzly, gray, cold, nasty kind of evening, the kind that makes you say, "This is soup weather." I could have made soup very quickly in my pressure cooker, but I thought I must have something in the freezer. Foraging around, I found a container of beef bits frozen in home-made broth, one of beef stew, and one of minestrone. Voila! Dinner! I thawed them, mixed them together, added a little liquid and some barley--oh, and some leftover green beans from dinner the night before--and it was delicious. Jim kept saying how good it was. A little of this, a little of that ... Gourmet cooking it ain't, but it sure hit the spot on a wet, windy night.
Today I found a mystery container--you know, the kind the label has fallen off of, and you sort of peer at it and say tentatively, "Well, it could be chili ... looks like some kind of beans in there ..." I thawed it out, and it turned out to be black bean soup with corn and squash. Seemed to me I had some frozen black beans somewhere or other ... Yep, I located them. I thawed and mashed them, added them to the thawed soup, jazzed up the spicing (a little more garlic, some jalapeno pepper, and most definitely some cumin), and heated the whole thing up, simmering some of the liquid away. Black bean burritos for dinner tonight. Oh, and there were some roasted tomatillos, too, which will become salsa verde.
I still have quite a few of last year's tomatoes in the freezer, so some homemade tomato soup is in order shortly, and no doubt some spaghetti sauce as well. Not to mention chili, especially if I still have some grass-fed ground beef left (I really need to take inventory!).
There are some leeks left in the freezer, so I got a jar out to thaw in the fridge, having leek-and-potato soup in mind, especially given the bonanza of potatoes we harvested this year. I'll serve it with a beef recipe of some sort--haven't decided that part yet.
Chickens. I have several whole chickens in the freezer, and the very large, tougher ones (free-range chickens can be tougher, especially when they're allowed to get quite huge) will make terrific soup stock that can be frozen--that'll take up a lot less space in the freezer. I think I'll roast a smaller one and serve that with some of the ginger-carrot soup taking up space down there. Our carrot crop is all but non-existent this year, due to neglect on my part (the weeds took over), so I'll make do.
I noticed some frozen cabbage soup--the kind in a tomato base, often called Jewish cabbage soup, and I'm thinking that would go well with sauerbraten. Don't you think? Last year's beef needs to go, too, after all.
After I take inventory, I'm sure I'll come up with a dozen more ideas for dinner. And I'm hoping to do that before my next trip to the supermarket, believe me. In economic times like these, who needs to spend a fortune at the store when the freezer is well stocked?
This post is in response to a friend who asked for some fifteen-minute vegetarian recipes. I laughed and said, "Well, maybe 30-minute recipes ..." and she replied that even that would be helpful.
I was a vegetarian for nine or ten years, and believe me, it was no hardship (except, as my friend pointed out, in restaurants, which can be a problem in that you always end up having a pasta dish or the meatless pizza or some such). At the time I didn't object to soy-based meat substitutes, but today I'd balk at that, so I'm not going to include these in my menus or recipes.
Most vegetarians depend on legumes for much of their protein. I love beans, lentils, and split peas, and I relied on them for many of our meal plans. During my vegetarian years, I didn't have a pressure cooker, which was foolish of me. A pressure cooker makes fast work of dried beans, even if they're unsoaked.
But let's start at the beginning. (I want to state right here that my friend probably knows all this, and I'm just throwing it out there for anyone who hasn't stopped to consider these points.) I'm a believer in meal planning, and I plan meals covering one to two weeks. This simplifies grocery shopping, I never have to wonder "what's for dinner," and I don't rely on those nasty processed foods. I have all the ingredients I need to make dinner on a given night. It also ensures variety and gives me the advantage of being organized, so that I know I have to soak beans on Tuesday night for Wednesday's dinner. I'm not rigid about this stuff, but having a general plan works great for me.
So, the first thing to do is to plan your meals around your schedule. A busy day followed by an evening of work or social obligations is not the time for an elaborate dinner. Save that for weekends or whenever you have the luxury of time.
Second, I can't emphasize enough how much a pressure cooker can help. I can whip up split-pea soup in under half an hour, including chopping the veggies. In the smaller of my two pressure cookers, I make risottos whose taste cannot be differentiated from the time-consuming stove-top, constant-stirring-required version. Dried beans are cooked through very quickly compared to the hours of simmering they otherwise require, and they're far superior to canned beans (cooked dried garbanzo beans, in fact, seem like an entirely different vegetable from the canned variety). Vegetable broth is done in a matter of minutes.
The slow cooker (crock-pot) is also extremely valuable, especially for the working person. I had forgotten this handy tool until one summer when I had so much to do out in the garden that I never felt like cooking at the end of the day. Putting dinner in the slow cooker before noon meant that we were guaranteed a decent meal after the busiest (and grimiest!) of days. And it doesn't heat up the kitchen much, either. Among other conveniences, the crock-pot cooks previously soaked dried beans overnight so that they're ready for the next day's meal.
Next, let's consider the meal itself. Your meal should include protein, so if you're having, say, spaghetti with marinara sauce, it's a good idea not only to sprinkle your pasta with parmesan, but also to have a side salad that incorporates feta and chickpeas, or whatever cheese and bean varieties you like. To simplify putting a balanced meal together, it's helpful to have the following on hand:
Washed salad greens. Either buy pre-washed salad greens, or wash the greens, spin them dry in a salad spinner, lay them on paper towels, roll them up in the toweling, and put them in a plastic bag. Don't add juicy veggies like tomatoes and cucumbers until you put the actual salad together, as they will cause wilting and sogginess.
Cooked dried beans, or canned beans. These can be added to salads and pasta (and pasta salads!) and soups and casseroles ... you get the idea. Having a bean salad in the fridge is even better; use two or three kinds of beans for variety, throw in some scallions, tomato, bell pepper, sliced black olives, celery, or whatever, and toss with a vinaigrette, and you've got lunch or a dish to round out a dinner. Add cooked pasta for a great main dish salad.
Hummus, if you like it. Spread it on a pita, topped with some fresh veggies and/or sprouts and some good yogurt, and you've got an instant lunch.
Cheeses that you like. These can be shredded into salads, rice, pita sandwiches, quesadillas (I'll get to that), refried beans, vegetarian chili, etc. to complete the protein in a meal.
Hard-cooked eggs. These add protein to a tossed salad, fit well in many pasta salads, and are good to eat out of hand or as deviled eggs. I love egg salad, which can be used to stuff a tomato as well as serving as a sandwich filling.
Tofu, if you like it. I don't, but I wish I did. It can be used in all manner of dishes, including salads, soups, stir-fries, breakfast eggs or shakes, etc.
Better Than Bouillon, vegetarian or mushroom type. This is somewhat expensive, but even a little really strengthens the taste of soups and stews. You can also make a good mushroom gravy using fresh mushrooms and the Bouillon.
Of course, I never had all these things on hand at all times, but having some of them, at least, does make things easier when time is at a premium.
Other things to consider:
When you cook dried beans, cook more than you'll need, and freeze the rest in some of the cooking liquid for another recipe down the line. Toss cooked beans into salads, rice dishes, pasta, soup, etc. for a protein boost.
Cook more rice than you need for a recipe, and plan to use it as fried rice in the next day or two (more on this to come).
Freeze leftover soup, or dishes like lasagna or eggplant parmesan, in amounts suitable for lunch or for another dinner. The freezer is your friend!
Make veggie stock when you have time and freeze it in amounts you're likely to use for your favorite recipes.
Think about how to use one recipe two ways. For example, leftover vegetarian chili is great as a burrito filling (just simmer the excess liquid away) or even an omelet filling.
Neither of the above lists exhausts the possibilities, of course, but it should give you some ideas about planning, using ingredients efficiently, and so on.
Next up, I'll post some ideas and recipes for quick meals.
I wonder how many people who read this are like me when it comes to making dinner plans. Sometimes I've made a menu plan for a week and I've shopped accordingly and stuck to the plan. And sometimes it's a matter of using what's available in the fridge and pantry, or of using fresh ingredients before they spoil.
Yesterday I thought about the sweet potatoes I'd planned to use a week ago and didn't. Sweet potatoes aren't like white potatoes in terms of storage: they're more delicate than they look. Rough treatment or prolonged storage take a toll on them.
I waste more food than I like to admit to, and one of my New Year's resolutions is to be better about that, particularly when it comes to fresh vegetables (which I'm trying not to buy in the first place, for the most part, due to my commitment to eating locally). So I wanted to use those sweet potatoes.
In a vegetarian crockpot cookbook I found a recipe for a stew incorporating sweet potatoes. Alas, I was missing some ingredients, like canned cannelini beans. But I did have dried lima beans on hand. I had no collard greens, but I did have spinach--I'd bought a big container of it, thinking of both salad and sauteed spinach. I had no canned tomatoes, but this is never a problem as I have pounds and pounds of tomatoes in my freezer. I didn't even have the amount of sweet potatoes called for, but I did have white potatoes to make up the difference.
I had to cook the lima beans first, so I got out my smaller pressure cooker. I was in the kitchen intermittently anyway, having decided to bake bread. The pressure cooker did its thing while I ran the stand mixer to knead the bread dough (basic whole wheat). I rinsed and drained the beans after the pressure came down, then refrigerated them.
The spouse wanted to go out to lunch, so I decided to put everything in the slow cooker before we left. I chopped and sauteed onion, pepper, and garlic, defrosted tomatoes and chopped them, and added all the ingredients to the slow cooker. I refrigerated the bread dough after its first rising. Off we went.
To my dismay, upon my return (after running errands and such following lunch), I found that I'd forgotten to plug in the slow cooker! Not the first time that's happened, alas. I had to transfer everything to a pot on the stove after all. I got the bread dough out to let it come to room temperature. It had risen quite a bit even though refrigerated. I chopped the spinach and added it to the stew. Hubby went off to a township meeting. It was going to be one of those nights when dinner was fashionably late.
I proofed the bread in the loaf pan and preheated the oven. The dough rose nicely and achieved some spring when I put it into the hot oven.
We took our bowls of stew and slices of freshly baked bread downstairs to watch the New Hampshire primary returns. Everything tasted wonderful despite the stops and starts of its making. Sometimes you just have to make do--with ingredients and with timing. Sometimes "making do" results in serendipitously good food.
Here's the recipe for the stew as I adapted it from the original recipe.
White Bean and Sweet Potato Stew with Spinach
1 T. olive oil 1 large onion, chopped coarsely 1 small green pepper (or half of a large one), chopped 2 garlic cloves, minced 2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks 1 medium potato, cut into 1-inch chunks 1 tsp. peeled minced fresh ginger 1 lb. tomatoes, peeled and chopped, OR 1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, with juice 3 cups cooked dried lima beans, or other white bean, OR 2 cans (15.5 oz.) white beans, rinsed and drained pinch of cinnamon 1/2 tsp. (or more to taste) ground cumin 2 bay leaves 3 cups chicken stock salt and pepper to taste 2 cups chopped spinach
Heat the oil in a large skillet; saute the onion, pepper, and garlic until softened. Transfer to a slow cooker. Add all other ingredients except the spinach. Cover and cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.
About fifteen minutes before serving time, stir in the chopped spinach. Cook until the spinach is somewhat wilted but still bright green. Adjust seasonings and serve.
If you want to do it on the stove instead of in a slow cooker, simply saute the onions, pepper, and garlic in a soup pot and add the other ingredients. Cook for about 45 minutes, or until the veggies are tender. Add the spinach as above and serve.
Wouldn't you know it, our air conditioner broke down right before the recent heat wave here in Michigan. And when it's in the 90's in Michigan, it's humid as well. The thought of operating even the range under such conditions--use of the oven was right out--was repulsive.
We'd already done our cheese/fruit/bread/olives/wine dinner; we'd grilled and had a tossed salad and bread to go with the seared animal flesh; we considered pasta salad, but the thought of all that steam being created in an already hot, humid environment defeated that idea.
It's a good thing there are other ways to avoid the stove and still have an excellent meal.
One menu that works well is a Middle Eastern one that includes tabouli (also known as tabouleh or tabbouleh), a cucumber-yogurt salad, and black olives; pita wedges and hummus would make this a more substantial meal and add protein. Tabouli is made with bulgur wheat, a grain that has been parboiled, dried, and (usually) de-branned. The parboiling means that soaking, not cooking, will soften the grain and make it edible. You can find bulgur wheat at many supermarkets these days, certainly at Whole Foods and health food stores.
American versions of tabouli often reverse the ration of grain to finely chopped parsley, particularly the tabouli mix that comes in a box at the supermarket. Middle Eastern tabouli has as much or more parsley as it does bulgur. It may or may not also contain mint and other herbs and spices.
I make a very basic tabouli using parsley, bulgur, scallions, tomatoes, lemon juice, and olive oil. I sometimes add cucumber and/or black olives (the deli kind), but since I was serving those on the side, I left them out this time. The final product may be eaten using the inner leaves of Romaine lettuce as scoops, but we usually just use forks. The recipe is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey's in World of the East Vegetarian Cooking.
3/4 cup bulgur 2 tomatoes, seeded and diced fairly small 4 T. finely minced scallions 2 cups very finely chopped parsley 3 T. lemon juice 1 tsp. salt 2 T. olive oil
Soak the bulgur in 4 cups of water for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, chop the other ingredients. When the bulgur is done soaking, line a sieve or colander with a clean, lint-free kitchen towel and pour the bulgur and soaking liquid into it. Draw the towel together so it closes around the bulgur and squeeze as much water out of the bulgur as possible. Empty the bulgur into a bowl.
Add the chopped ingredients, the lemon juice, salt, and olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding more salt and/or lemon juice if necessary. The salad should be pleasingly tart.
Yogurt and cucumber salad
I've seen versions of this in both Middle Eastern and Indian cookbooks. This salad is very refreshing on a hot day. Traditional versions use twice as much yogurt as I do, so feel free to up the amount of yogurt if the idea appeals to you. You can use cucumber alone, or finely chop other vegetables and add them to the salad. I had a lot of radishes and scallions on hand, so I minced them and tossed them in.
If the cucumber is very seedy, cut it in half and use a spoon to scoop out most of the seeds before dicing it.
My favorite yogurt at the moment is Stoneyfield Farms whole-milk yogurt, but any plain yogurt, including no-fat, works fine.
1 large cucumber, small dice 1 cup plain yogurt 2 to 4 scallions, minced 2 or 3 radishes, minced 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste 2 to 3 T. minced fresh mint
"What's for dinner?" will be an occasional feature here on the blog that will, I hope, give you some ideas for recipes or whole meals. I'm sure the recipes (and meals) will range from simple to, well, less simple (I'm not too big on elaborate). I'd also like them to be seasonally appropriate, but I know me, and that won't always be true.
Last night's dinner, however, was very much in keeping with the season. We had warm asparagus-parmesan salad, lovage and potato soup, and freshly baked bread (part whole wheat flour, part unbromated, unbleached white flour). I had felt the need for simplicity, lightness, and a non-meat menu. We hadn't been eating as healthily as we should, so an antidote was badly needed.
Both asparagus and lovage are part of the exuberance of spring, and asparagus is now at its peak (at least in our garden). There is nothing quite like eating asparagus you have just cut. It cooks quickly and stays bright green, and the flavor is incomparable.
You can find the lovage and potato soup recipe here. The asparagus salad recipe is below. It serves four to six people.
Note: When I cut the asparagus into pieces, I set the tips aside and add them to the boiling water after the stem pieces have been cooking for two to three minutes. They take only about a minute or so longer. Take care with cooking the asparagus, testing it sooner than you think it will be done; if very fresh and placed into rapidly boiling water, the stems will be crisp-tender in just three minutes total, including the final minute during which the tips cook.
Warm asparagus-parmesan salad
2 lbs. fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice, or more to taste 3 T. extra-virgin olive oil freshly ground black pepper 4 oz. parmesan cheese--do not grate! 4 to 6 cups mixed spring greens (depending on number of diners)
Get a large pot of salted water boiling.
Whisk together lemon juice, oil, and pepper. Taste and add more lemon juice or pepper if necessary. Set aside.
With a vegetable peeler, shave thin slices of parmesan and set them aside.
Add asparagus pieces to a large pot of boiling, salted water (see my note above). Cook until barely crisp-tender, 3-5 minutes. Rinse briefly under cold water--briefly enough that the asparagus pieces are still warm--and drain. Give the dressing a quick whisk and toss it with the asparagus.
On each serving plate, make a bed of greens, mound asparagus on top, and top each serving with the parmesan shavings. Serve immediately.