by Aly Walansky
Batch cooking or prep-ahead meals are a mainstay for many, whether it’s for busy weekdays or nights you come home late and tired and don’t want to resort to takeout.
But at a time that everyone is home more - does cooking ahead hold the same interest? Absolutely! Not only does it save time and money, but it makes sure that there’s a hearty and healthy meal waiting whenever it’s needed - and that’s a value that can never be underestimated.
Prep-ahead meals are best when they involve going from the freezer to dinner, with no thawing necessary! That could be because you maybe forgot to defrost or just try to plan for the week, so you don’t have to order takeout for the fifth time in a week. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is you can go straight from the freezer to the table using a few tips and tricks.
One of the most popular batch cooking efforts is soups and stews made in a big batch at once and then stored for later. “Your big beef stews or chilis or other braises are a perfect meal to portion and freeze, but if you are looking for something a little more versatile, not eating the same thing all the time, I opt for soups,” said chef and sommelier Laura Pauli.
That soup really just depends on what you and your family most like to have on hand. For some, it may be a hearty chili. For others, it could be a great tomato soup! “About this time of the year, I start digging in my freezer for my frozen tomato soup,” Pauli said, who said thanks to the late summer harvest, she usually has enough tomatoes to feed a village!
Pauli likes to make a huge batch of tomato soup and portion it into quart-sized mason jars, and goes about it by quartering tomatoes, tossing with olive oil, salt, pepper, a few sprigs of thyme, and placing in a deep roasting pan and roast at 400F for an hour. “Blend, strain, and voila, you have the most delicious tomato soup you’ve ever had and bonus, the base for so many delicious meals that are easy to piece together,” said Pauli.
Giving Yourself Options
For a quick, easy dinner, warm up the soup with a handful of shelled shrimp and serve with a salad and a thick slice of grilled country bread. “The next night, let the soup reduce to thicken it up, add some basil, vegetables, and pasta and you have pasta primavera or add sautéed ground meat to make Bolognese for lasagna,” said Pauli.
Another option is to braise fish or chicken in the soup along with a handful of pimento-stuffed green olives, capers, garlic, and onion, and you’ve transported yourself to the coast of Veracruz. “If the thermometer rises, add diced cucumber and red pepper, chopped shallot, and lime, and you have gazpacho,” said Pauli. Of course, it’s been a wild time of late for many of us, so if your blood pressure rises, add a few dashes of hot sauce and horseradish and a healthy glug of vodka, and cheers, you have a Bloody Mary.
Making the Most of Roast Chicken
Pauli follows the same idea when roasting a chicken, which is another classic way to prep many future meals at once. “I save the carcass (or ask your butcher for any bones they aren’t using – those chicken breasts don’t debone themselves!) and drop it in a big soup pot,” said Pauli, who browns the chicken for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring the bones every few minutes before adding a chopped onion, one chopped carrot, one chopped celery rib, a few bay leaves, and peppercorns and covering with water. Drop on the lid and let it simmer for an hour. Strain the soup, portion out into mason jars, and save enough to fill one ice tray with the broth. “The cubes are perfect if you need to add a little flavor to a sauce or to thin down a purée that is too thick without making it watery,” said Pauli.
Now that the other half of your freezer is full of chicken broth (you can also do this with vegetable broth!), some meal options include, well, chicken soup. But a few other options include using the broth to poach chicken or fish, a very gentle way to cook meat. Or roast a sheet pan’s worth of root vegetables (or any leftover vegetables) and blend to make a roast vegetable soup, perfect for a cold winter meal.
For grains, Pauli recommends making a large batch twice a week and portioning it out for three or four days. “When it comes time for your meal, take out that portion and flavor it based on what you are having for dinner and warm it up in a small pot or microwave,” said Pauli. If you are going Greek, add some dill. For Italian, add some chopped basil or oregano. Or just throw it all in, you get the idea!
Freezer Friendly Fish
Shrimp and scallops freeze beautifully and cook fast once added to soups, stews, and stir-fries. If you plan to freeze vegetables, make sure they are washed, peeled, and sliced.
Thirty minutes before you want to eat, take the items out of the freezer, get them in the heat, and in a short time, everyone's bellies will be happy. “One of my favorite week-day go-to’s is to take a frozen salmon filet out of the freezer and directly onto a roasting pan or small cookie sheet with sides, drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper, a spoonful of apricot preserve spread slathered over the top and roast at 400F for 15 minutes,” said Pauli. “I put the salmon on top of an arugula salad, and voila, dinner!”
How to Store Your Food
First, avoid plastic wrap. Use parchment paper to wrap your food and store it in mason jars or freezer-specific plastic bags. “This will prevent loss of flavor and mealy texture,” said Pauli.
Protein should be sliced into smaller pieces, i.e., chicken tender-size for a stir fry, or portion out a side of salmon and wrap each serving (approximately 2-inch width slice) in parchment paper and freeze. “Flash-frozen fish, meaning fish frozen immediately after catching – are available as well, just ask your fishmonger,” said Pauli.
A healthy, delicious, easy one, to boot. Bon appetit!