Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Freezer Cooking: Ground Beef Meals

One thing that has been working really well for me over the past 2 years or so is freezer cooking.  It all started when my sisters-in-law and my husband's cousin gifted me some frozen meals after my daughter was born.  How wonderful it was to have meals prepped and ready to cook in the freezer!  Who knew this would be the beginning of a way of life for me.

Since then, I've experimented with my freezer quite a bit.  I've gone through the stage of shoving food in various stages of preparation in my freezer, only to forget about it or have no convenient use for it.  This includes garden produce, meat, you name it, I've haphazardly tried to freeze it for "later."  The only thing is, if later never comes, you've wasted your time and the food you lost in the freezer!

Motherhood has made me much more efficient in so many ways.  Two of them have been utilizing my freezer space and getting a good meal on the table, quickly.  I now try to have a plan in mind with everything I freeze.  If I freeze garden produce, it is typically for a particular use.  For example, one year I froze bags of pepper strips for the heck of it, and there they were a year later, crusty with ice and unused.  Now last year, I stocked up at the farmers market and froze bags of diced red and green peppers I knew I would use as a pizza topping for our frequent homemade pizza nights, in chili and in my favorite beef barley soup recipe.  And I have done just that.  It makes all the difference in the world when you freeze food for a purpose.  Even better, I have not bought an expensive winter pepper all year.

These days, one of my strategies has been freezing food in ready-to-go packages, to minimize day-of food preparation.  Recently, I experimented with freezing cooked, unpeeled, diced potatoes using this method to use as a side dish with other freezer meals I've prepared, like marinated meat.  Throw the thawed meat on the grill, the frozen potatoes in a skillet with some onions, and butter/oil, make a salad or other vegetable and you have a delicious, nutritious meal without much fuss. 

Freezer cooking has become my favorite way to cook in this season of my life.  Over the weekend, I took some of my frozen potatoes a step further and made several packages for the freezer of diced cooked potatoes, cooked broccoli and cooked breakfast sausage, to be used for an easy week-night dinner or brunch of egg casserole - just add eggs and milk, pour into a casserole dish and pop it in the oven.  I was making this dish for us to have for brunch on Sunday anyway, so instead of making 1, why not make 4?

As you can see, I'm a big fan of doing messy or laborious preparation once and enjoying it many times over the following couple months.  The funny thing is, I love to cook!  Just not every meal, every day.

My plan for this coming weekend is a bunch of ground beef main dishes or parts of meals.  Maybe it's my pregnancy talking, but the chicken in the freezer isn't doing it for me right now and beef sounds great!  Who knows what will sound good next week.  Either way, I like to have a variety of choices available to me in the freezer, and I find it most efficient to choose one main ingredient - in this case, ground beef - and make lots of variations on that.  After a few cooking escapades like this, before you know it, you've got a selection of meals with beef, pork, chicken, beans, vegetarian or whatever other main ingredients you like to eat.

Here's what I'm thinking for this weekend.  Ground round at our high-end grocery store is on sale, and I like to start with good ingredients; cheaper is not always better.  You usually get what you pay for.  Normally I would go for ground sirloin because it is leaner, but since I'll be making a combination of uncooked burger-type meals as well as cooked ground beef meals, ground round should work just fine.

         ::  (4 lbs) uncooked hamburger patties - 4 packages of 1 pound each.
         ::  (6 lbs) uncooked oven hamburgers (ground beef mixed with BBQ sauce, to be baked in the oven) - 4 packages of 1.5 pound each. 
         ::  (6 lbs) cooked meatballs (to add to spaghetti sauce) - 8 packages of 3/4 pound per package
         ::  (3 lbs) cooked ground beef (to add to spaghetti sauce) - 6 packages of 0.5 pound each
         ::  (4 lbs) cooked taco meat (using the homemade taco seasoning recipe from Make-A-Mix) - 4 packages of 1 pound each
         ::  (9 lbs) cooked sloppy joe filling (fabulous recipe from Don't Panic Dinner's in the Freezer) - 6 packages of 1.5 pound each

So that works out to be 32 lbs of ground beef.  Watch out, here comes the crazy lady buying 32 lbs of meat.  The quizzical looks from behind the meat counter will be worth it.  It will be WONDERFUL to have these meals in the freezer, ready to go.  Added bonus:  my "starting to become picky" toddler likes all of these foods!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hello Out There....

Hello, friends, it's been awhile. So where in the world have I been? Well, pregnant. Is that enough of an explanation? I didn't think so. I'm coming up on 6 months pregnant, and have been just exhausted for the last few months. Don't get me wrong, there have been many a blog post I have begun composing in my head as I go about my day, but when it comes time to actually get on the computer - during Molly's naptime or after she goes to bed - I've been choosing rest instead. In fact, I'm behind on all things computer, not just blogging about all the things I love to do!

That said, I'm still doing many of the things I normally talk about, I'm just not writing about them. I've been making bread and muffins (including fabulous chocolate chunk muffins) from my make-ahead mixes quite a bit, as well as gearing up for a wonderful season of fresh, organic produce. I've still been getting my bi-weekly produce delivery (which I have been getting mainly fruit) from this great company, and just received my third weekly box from the CSA I joined for the first time this year, which will provide mainly vegetables. And, in my own vegetable garden, I've planted broccoli, greens, sugar snap peas, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers and more.

What do I plan on doing with all of this produce? Good question. Normally I do lots of canning and freezing. This year, who knows. My whole life feels off-kilter when I'm pregnant, and I can already tell I'm just not on my game right now. Last year, I did a ton of canning, though I often made it happen after Molly went to bed, into the wee hours of the morning. This year... I don't think I'll be doing that. So we'll see what happens. Generally, when something inspires me to can, I do it. I'm not counting on much inspiration this year!

One exciting thing going on at our house is that it is strawberry and asparagus season in Southeast Michigan!! After a long, cold winter, it is always so wonderful to see the sun come out and the asparagus poke out of the ground. Then, a few weeks later, flowers start to appear on the strawberry plants and soon beautiful red strawberries are popping out everywhere you look. This year, the warm weather has given us strawberries about two weeks earlier than normal. Before Memorial Day, I picked a small handful of berries that didn't make it into the house. On Memorial Day, I picked just under 5 pounds of strawberries. A few days later, I picked just under 10 pounds!!!  I could hardly believe it. 

What ever will I do with all of those berries? Well, normally I would make plenty of jam and experiment with other recipes, but this year I might just eat them, share with friends and freeze what is left. I did borrow my mom's food dehydrator, and had dreams of experimenting with strawberry fruit leather, but lately I think it might take all the strength I can muster just to get the strawberries cleaned and into a freezer bag. So we'll see. They sure are delicious.

So, there you have it.  I have major respect for all those mamas out there having babies and taking care of their families and blogging all about it.  I plan to keep sharing my escapades with you... if you'll keep reading.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Homemade Play Dough

Lately I've been feeling like a lame mom.  Molly is 20 months old and has lots of energy.  She's also at the age where she needs constant supervision and loves being by my side.  While I do love the cuddles and fun, I'm a bit lazy (and frugal) when it comes to constantly having new toys for her to play with and things for her to do.  I also am already sick of cleaning up our every-day messes, so projects that create more messes are less exciting to me.  HOWEVER, I know that toddlers need to do fun activities and make messes, and that it is my job as momma to clean them up.

I've been wondering if it is time for her to have play dough.  That can't be too messy, can it??  I don't mind spending a few dollars on the stuff from the store, but I thought, just for fun, I would try making it today.

It took all of 5 minutes, and I am pleasantly surprised at the quality.  It's actually pretty awesome!  I used this recipe.

Here it is with all the ingredients in the pan:

You cook it for a few minutes and magically, it starts to look like this:

Then, you take it out of the pan and knead it for less than a minute and it looks like this!

The only modification I made to the original recipe is that I didn't add vanilla.  I don't need another reason for my child to want to eat this stuff.  Also, I actually like the smell the way it is... it reminds me of my childhood.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Refrigerator Clean-Out: The Update

Earlier this morning, I decided it was time to clean out the refrigerator.  I had a couple other goals too, including making bread and some broccoli salad.  Well, as usual, I bit off a little more than I could chew.  I was able to almost finish cleaning out the refrigerator, and I did get the loaf of bread made.

Here it is... can you smell it through your computer?  I wish you could.

I ran out of time to get the refrigerator door cleaned out and organized, but the largest part of that beastly project is done.  I took everything out, cleaned the shelves, cleaned the inside of the refrigerator and the fruit and vegetable drawers.  There were some scary messes in there.  But it's done, hooray!  I do love a clean refrigerator.

Plans for Mom's Morning Off

Mondays are one of my favorite days of the week.  The day where I get to have my cake and eat it too.  You see, I work two days a week as a dietitian, and stay home with 20-month-old Molly the rest of the time.  On Mondays, I work at 1pm, and I still send Molly to daycare in the morning.  So... I get to have a morning to myself a few times per month! 

Those of you who stay home with your kids totally get it.  We have no free daycare options (ie family) nearby, so any time we need childcare, we have to pay for it.  Thus, not a lot of breaks for mom and dad.  Molly is a very active young lady, and I am not always great at getting things done that I need/want to at home.  Monday mornings are one of those times I get to do "extra projects" that don't always get covered during naptime.

On today's to-do list:
- bake bread (it's rising in the bread machine)
- make broccoli salad (my pregnant self can't stand cooked vegetables right now)

You saw the picture.  It's pretty bad.  That's my plan for this morning, and I have until about 11am to get it done. 

What projects do you have hanging over your shoulders?  Is your pantry out of control?  Is your closet full of clothes a mess?  Perhaps this is the week to tackle something.  You'd be amazed at how much you can get done in an hour or two when you decide to get it done. 

Off I go, time is of the essence.  I'll post a picture when it is finished!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Winter Comfort Food: Tomato Soup and Simple Mac and Cheese

Lately I have really been enjoying the recipes I have tried from Heavenly Homemakers.  I recently came across this recipe for tomato soup that is made from fresh tomatoes and can actually be canned.  I love tomato soup and I do love canning, so I was immediately intrigued.

You see, I grew up on Campbell's tomato soup. Despite the fact that the second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, I still buy it and still like it once in awhile. It's a childhood thing.

Now in the summertime, we use just about every tomato we can get for our favorite spaghetti sauce canning recipe.  But, I'm always open to squeezing in a new recipe if it's really great and if it's something we will love in the middle of the winter.  If it can be an actual meal for us?  Even better.  I mean, I do like jam and jelly, but seriously, how much can you eat of that stuff?

So I happened across this tomato soup recipe.  Four simple ingredients:  tomatoes, onion, butter and salt.  Three hours on the stove.  A splash of cream.  Heaven in a bowl.

I was just going to bookmark the recipe and add it to my list this summer, but then I had an idea.  My father-in-law gave us a bunch of quarts of tomatoes he canned last summer, and I still had some left.  I decided to use those to try out the tomato soup recipe so I could see how it tasted before I allocate our precious summer tomatoes to a recipe I've never tried.

I ran 6 quarts of tomatoes through the food mill to remove the seeds and doubled the tomato soup recipe.  If a recipe is going to have to cook for three hours, I'm going to make a BIG batch.  When it was finished simmering, I used my immersion blender to puree it in the pot.  And then I tasted it... wonderful.  It had just the flavor I was looking for:  simple and tomatoey.  And, it goes well with this delicious recipe for easy, creamy macaroni and cheese.

We ended up eating some that day (Molly gobbled it up), putting about 2 quarts in the fridge, and I froze another 3 quarts.  This recipe will be definitely be on the priority list this summer.  We'll see how much canning I get done with baby #2 due 9/15....!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seed Starting - Getting Ready for This Year's Vegetable Garden

Every year, I think I am going to try to start some of my vegetable plants from seed.  Most years, I never get around to it.  Planning 8-12 weeks in advance means thinking about gardening in the middle of winter, while there is often still snow on the ground.  Usually, I don't get past the thinking stage.

Well this year, perhaps because because I have less time for projects/hobbies, I made it happen.  Yes, you read that right, life with a 19 month old means I have less time, but somehow I sometimes actually get more done than I did in prior years.  Call it better planning, an increased drive for autonomy, call it whatever you want.  All I know is that when you don't have much time, sometimes you get more efficient about using the time that you do have. 

Now, have I spent one minute organizing the basement, the garage, or the mountains of paperwork that also stress me out?  Nope, somehow those projects just never make it to the top of my priority list.

This year, the stars were in alignment, I had the materials I needed, and I ended up making the time to get it done.  I broke up the project of starting seeds in to three mini-projects. 

One day, I organized my pots and containers that would hold them.  And then Molly woke up from her nap. 

Another day, I filled up the pots with seed starting mix, watered them and brought them upstairs to a sunny, south-facing window in our extra bedroom.  And then Molly woke up from her nap.

Well today, during what I call my "Mom's Morning Off," when Molly goes to daycare in the morning and I don't have to leave for work until noon, I finished the job by actually planting the seeds.  I do love my Monday mornings.