I share this so you will believe me when I say that last-minute cooking can be accomplished without complex flow charts or a 12- month pass to McDonald's.
If a head-in-the-clouds person like me can produce stress-free dining experiences without the weekend cook-a-thons touted by more disciplined folks, then so can anybody else.
Now, it's true that my husband and I fall into that most enviable of categories, "empty nesters." But bear in mind, you busy parents who covet this classification with jealous anticipation, there's one hard, cold truth you are probably not considering: Busy child-free people require food too. Some of them even require it at regular intervals.
Can you imagine?
So even though I'm feeding fewer mouths on a day-in-day-out basis, the demand for consistent meal hours has not abated. Neither has our hectic lifestyle.
So I thought I'd share a few of my culinary moves that provide me with a variety of cooking options so that your evening meals will come together faster, with minimal mess and greater diversity.
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 salads.
I store two styles of chicken. For one style, I grill lilghtly 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 seasoned water.
To do so, you will need a very big pot; one big enough to hold two or three whole fryers (You could cook only one whole fryer, but cooking two or three isn't any messier and produces oh-so-much-more food for the future.)
After removing the giblets place the birds in that large pot, and add enough water so that the chickens are almost covered, but not adrift. Throw in some flavoring elements, such as a chopped up onion (skin and all), a couple chopped up carrots, and several ribs of chopped celery.
For an extra flavor boost, consider coarsely chopping an entire head of garlic and throwing it in, skin and all. If you have whole peppercorns, toss in a spoonfull of those, too. A little salt wouldn't hurt, either.
Cover the pot, bring the water to a boil, and simmer gently for about 40 minutes, which is long enough to cook the chickens without over-doing it.
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, I could remind you NOT to throw out that wonderful chicken stock you created from boiling your chickens because it can be de-fatted, then frozen for a future pot of chicken soup or something.
But that might be interpreted as culinary pressure, producing an inordinate amount of guilt on your part, the stressed-out-cook. So don't do that. Unless you really must.
But it really is a delicious jumpstart to a flavorful homemade soup or sauce, so please consider the freezing option for the broth. 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.
For the grilled or simmered chicken, pack the measured amounts of cut-up mean 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 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 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 chicken in about 20 minutes.
Browned ground meat
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 and the results hanging out in the freezer, right next to those packets of frozen cooked chicken.
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, once again, I'm not talking about dedicating an entire weekend to cooking. In a mere 20 minutes, you can fry up one of those 5 pound family packs of ground beef or poultry, then drain off the fat and distribute the cooked meat among several resealable freezer bags.
Just like the cooked chicken scenario, spread 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.
More head slappers
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.
I wasn't going to do this, but OK, here's one way to get you started using your frozen chicken cache.
1 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup each: green and red sweet bell pepper, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 (15 1/2 ounce) can pineapple chunks in juice; reserve juice
1/2 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch
1 teaspoon each: lemon pepper, dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups cooked chicken (cut or shredded into pieces)
1/2 cup sour cream (low fat is okay)
4 servings cooked rice or pasta
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook onion and pepper in oil until softened, about 3 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the drained pineapple juice, orange juice, lemon juice, soy sauce, corn starch, lemon pepper, basil and salt. Stir this into the vegetables and continue stirring until thickened. Stir in the cooked chicken, reserved pineapple chunks and sour cream and cook until the sauce and chicken are heated through. Adjust seasonings. Serve over rice, noodles, or instant couscous.
Makes 4 servings.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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