“Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.” –Thoreau

18 June 2012

20 homemade meals in 2 hours

Today I made 20 homemade dinners, from scratch, in two hours.

I started at nine in the morning and was completely finished, including clean-up, at eleven o'clock on the nose. There was a time (say, a year ago?) when I would have considered this completely impossible. I was making each dinner, start to finish, every night. I had to remember to leave the meat out to defrost in the morning, then chop up vegetables, then turn on my stove/oven/grill and get everything cooking and the house was 100 degrees and rising and by the time everything was done (around nine o'clock), the last thing I wanted to do was the pile of dirty dishes I'd left in my wake.

Urgh. No more!

Summer in Chicago is hot. Today it's already 83 degrees and rising. Nights do not cool off much. Turning on my stove or--heaven forbid-- my oven sounds like torture. In my desperate, sweaty lunacy, I searched for a better way. I found it, and it is called the crockpot.

My crockpot used to be relegated to wintertime cooking. Since the appliance excels at simmering stews and pot roasts, I never considered it appropriate for summer foods. But the crockpot, that most magical vessel, does not heat up my kitchen. Not even a little! Summer foods can be cooked all day in the crockpot without adding a degree of mind-numbing heat to our dwelling.

Genius, I tell you! Pure genius!

It was this revelation that led to my particular style of marathon cooking. When I fall in love with an idea, it ain't no joke. I go all the way, friends. I figured out that if I spend extra time prepping meals at the start of the month, I could construct enough meals in one morning to feed my husband and I healthy dinners all month long. Healthy, cheap, chemical-free dinners. With no extra work required.

Here's how I do it...

I start with four or five crockpot recipes. I usually try out one or two new recipes, along with some of our tried and true favorites. This time around I made Barbeque Chicken and Veggies, Orange Beef, Cranberry Turkey, Summer Vegetable Stew, and Cherry Chicken. Most of these started out as recipes I found online, which I heavily modified to fit our tastes. These are great summer foods, all gluten-free and dairy-free, and we serve them with rice, polenta, pasta, or quinoa. Some can also be served as sandwiches.

Once I've got my recipes, I assemble my ingredients for the first recipe. I use two gallon-sized freezer bags per recipe, and this is going to hold enough food for four people (or, in our case, two meals for two people). I label each freezer bag with the date, the contents, and simple cooking instructions. This is so Casey can make these foods when I'm not around.

Then I start prepping everything, dividing everything in half to go into the two bags. Most of my recipes include every single ingredient, from meat to sauce to veggies, and after everything is in the bags, I seal them up and shake them pretty well. I want everything as mixed up as possible. Then I lay the bags flat on the counter, open a corner, and press all the air out until the bags lay as flat as possible. I seal them up and stack them flat in the freezer. Getting them nice and flat means I can store way more bags than if they were sitting upright. I move on to the next recipe, and just keep repeating until I'm done. Pretty easy.

I'm practiced, so I can make five full recipes (or ten bags) from scratch in two hours. Now, I know two hours seems like a long time. But this is the only hands-on time I'll spend on these recipes all month. So really, two hours isn't bad at all. If I had a chest freezer and more mouths to feed, I'd probably make even more.

When it's time to eat, I take the bag out of the freezer either a) the night before and put it in the fridge or b) 30 minutes ahead of time and leave it out on the counter. It'll thaw enough to be broken apart. I dump the entire contents into the crockpot and follow the directions on the bag--- almost always eight hours on low (or four hours on high, if you're rushed). Then I leave it alone all day. I quickly cook up some rice or gluten-free pasta or quinoa or polenta, and I usually serve it with a salad. We always have leftovers, and we eat those again later that week. Delicious!

Sometimes people think I'm some kind of Holly Homemaker because we usually eat homemade meals. I guess it's nice that people think I'm so dedicated, but I figured I better come clean. Our meals are easy because I prep them in advance. I'm just as lazy as everyone else but I'm committed to eating healthy, chemical-free, made-from-scratch foods. This is my process, demystified.

Thanks for reading, and get out your crockpots!

Blessings to you and yours.