Sunday, April 20, 2014

The freezer is your friend when wondering what’s for dinner

Springtime in Davis — life is good and busy, and we often find ourselves at half-past dinner time loading everyone into the car for a dinner run. While dinner out can be delightful, it’s less fun when you don’t have a choice. The solution? Stock up the freezer with ingredients that let you turn nothing into dinner in short order.

Biscuits are a lifesaver. Ready to bake straight out of the freezer, they can be turned into biscuits and gravy, layered on top of a chicken casserole, or brushed with garlic butter and served alongside a soup. Thawed, you can wrap them around hot dogs for pigs in a blanket or stretch out to make mini pizza crusts.

(Yes, you can buy biscuits in a tube pretty economically, but the ingredients look more like a chemistry lab than a kitchen — and the biscuits taste like that.)

Frozen crepes are also grand. They thaw nicely in seconds in the microwave, and are ready to be filled with almost any leftover — shredded chicken, sliced ham and cheese and creamed vegetables are all delicious. Or spread them with jam and sprinkle on powdered sugar for a fast fancy dessert.

Bolognese sauce is a freezer staple at my house. Once cooked and cooled until solid in a big dish it gets cut into 3 ounce slices and frozen. Obviously you can use it to make almost instant pasta dishes, but it’s also a great base for casseroles, the perfect sloppy joe filling and not at all bad in crepes. Sadly, it is not a pretty food.

Frozen chicken is fairly meh. We do love frozen chicken fricassee because the sauce keeps the meat moist. Once it’s cooked and cooled, pull out the bones and skin and freeze the chicken well covered in sauce. I like to freeze some in a casserole dish, lined so I can retrieve the dish after freezing. When it’s time to cook, I pop the chicken back in the dish and put it in the oven. Once it’s had time to thaw, toss in any vegetables you like and top with frozen biscuits, then bake to finish it.

Vegetables are better fresh, although I always have frozen spinach and corn on hand for vegetable emergencies. It’s 20 minutes work at the beginning of the week to wash and chop up two or three vegetables that are guaranteed winners at your house — carrot sticks, maybe, and sliced bell peppers, plus a big tub of quickly cooked green beans. I think it’s worth the time to slice and fry a couple of onions, which can be the base for a pasta sauce, stuffed into an omelet or added to a sandwich.

The recipes

The ingredients:
4 tablespoons cold butter
1 3/4 cup flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 to 3/4 cup milk

Putting it together:
Mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into the flour until it has the consistency of cornmeal. Add the smaller amount of milk and stir; add more milk if needed to get a firm but slightly wet dough.

Turn the dough out onto a floured cloth and knead just until it sticks together. Roll out to desired thickness — some people like thin, crunchy biscuits, some like big fluffy biscuits. Only your family can decide! — and cut out with a round cutter. To cook now, preheat oven to 350º. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet about 12 minutes.

Freeze uncovered in a single layer until hard, then transfer to a plastic bag. Use within 4 weeks for best results. To bake, preheat oven to 350º. Bake frozen on an ungreased cookie sheet about 15 minutes. Makes about 20 biscuits.
Crepes are nothing more than very thin pancakes with an attitude. If you can cook pancakes, which are admittedly more challenging than non-cooks would think, you can cook crepes. Don’t be lured in by special crepe pans or packaged batters — this is going to be a snap!

Crepe Batter
The ingredients:
3/4 cup all-purpose flour*
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
(for sweet crepes, add 2 tablespoons sugar)
2 eggs
1 – 1 ½ cups milk
(1 teaspoon vanilla, or ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon rind or 1 teaspoon dried herbs — try oregano, thyme or rosemary)
*You may substitute up to half the flour in crepes and biscuits with whole wheat, for a more healthful and tastier outcome.

Putting it together:
Put the flour, salt, baking powder and sugar, if using, in a large bowl. Mix them together very well. If using dried herbs, crumble well and add to dry ingredients. If using lemon zest, sprinkle over dry ingredients and toss thoroughly.

Measure 1 cup of milk into a measuring cup. Break the eggs into the milk and stir very well. If using vanilla, add to liquid ingredients.

Make a hole in the middle of the flour and pour in the eggs and milk. Mix together with as few strokes as possible. A few lumps are fine, but don’t leave a whole herd of them. Let batter stand for a minute or two, then check consistency. It should be something like heavy cream. Gently stir in more milk as needed.

Heat a non-stick skillet. Brush very lightly with oil. Pour 2-3 tablespoons of batter into the skillet and swirl to form a thin, thin layer. Let cook until lightly browned, about 1 minute. Turn and cook second side until browned, another 45 seconds or so.

To freeze, layer between sheets of waxed or parchment paper as you cook, then double wrap in plastic bags. Thaw as you need them, about 30 seconds on high in the microwave, covered with a damp paper towel. Makes 10-12 crepes.

Uncomplicated Bolognese
The ingredients:
2 strips bacon
1 small onion
1 small carrot
2 stalks celery
3/4 pound ground beef
3/4 pound ground pork
1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
2 cups whole milk

Putting it together:
Finely dice vegetables. Dice bacon and cook in a dutch oven until fat has rendered, but bacon is not crisp. Add vegetables to bacon and cook gently until vegetables start to soften, about 10 minutes. Add ground meat and cook, breaking up as you go, until just starting to brown. Increase heat to medium and add wine. Cook, stirring, until wine has mostly evaporated. Add tomato paste, herbs and salt. Stir in some of the milk. Set heat so sauce is barely simmering and walk away, leaving pan uncovered. Return every half hour to stir in a little more milk. Cook roughly 4 hours, until very tender and milk is absorbed.

Use to lightly sauce pasta, layer in lasagna or, in unorthodox fashion, serve on really good rolls for the best Sloppy Joe in the history of the universe.

To freeze, chill in a large shallow pan. When firm, cut into chunks and freeze in zipper bags. Thaw in the refrigerator, microwave or on stovetop.
Chicken Fricassee
The ingredients:
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 chicken legs, disjointed, or
8 chicken thighs
½ cup onion, diced
20 mushrooms, trimmed
2 cloves garlic, pressed
2 tablespoons flour
½ teaspoon dried thyme
1 ½ cups water
1 bunch carrots, peeled and cut into 3” sticks
1/4 cup cream
1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Putting it together:
In a heavy dutch oven or skillet with a lid, heat butter and oil. Dry chicken and add to fat. Cook over medium heat, turning occasionally, until nicely browned. Add onions and mushrooms and cook 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When mushrooms and onions have started to color, spoon off excess fat from pan. Add garlic and thyme and stir. Sprinkle flour over top and stir to mix. Add water and carrots and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and let cook 20 minutes. Turn chicken and cook another 20 minutes until tender.

To serve at once, remove chicken and vegetables from pot and keep warm. Increase heat to high and reduce liquid by half. Turn off heat and add fresh thyme and cream. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To freeze, cool chicken in enough of the unreduced broth to cover it. (Use the rest of the broth to make a sauce for the vegetables, which will not freeze well and should be eaten in the next few days.) When cool, remove and discard bones and skin. Freeze chicken covered with broth, either in a casserole dish or in individual serving sized bags. Thaw in microwave, oven or on the stovetop. Serves 4.


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