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Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009 10:11 am

Easy meals to get you through the week

Chicken leftovers can easily be used for at least two additonal meals.
Eating home-cooked, healthy meals that require minimal preparation and cleanup during the week doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does take some planning and advance preparation. Slow cookers (a.k.a crockpots) have long been a wonderful mainstay for coming home at day’s end and having dinner ready, but they’re far from the only possibility.

There are two basic ways to make meals ahead of time, in addition to making preparations the night before or in the morning and then slow-cooking. The first is to make large batches of dishes that can be refrigerated or frozen for multiple repeat meals, such as last week’s recipe for chicken braised with balsamic vinegar and mushrooms. This category is easiest of all: just heat them up, and add a salad or some carrot and celery sticks and possibly crackers or a loaf of good bread for a complete meal. Soups and stews are ideal for long-term freezing. Resealable plastic bags work best for freezing these, because they can eliminate air and, consequently, freezer burn. Stacked and laid flat, they also take up far less freezer space than hard plastic containers, especially if a bag one size larger than the amount being frozen is used.

The second way is to make more of something than you’ll need for one meal, and then turn the leftovers into a completely different dish. Sometimes last-minute preparation is necessary, but it often can be minimal. Here are a few suggestions:

Roast or grilled chicken — One of the most popular cooking classes I taught was “One Chicken, Two People, Three Meals.” Just recently someone told me it was the class he’d found most useful. But if your family is larger, it’s as easy to roast or grill two chickens as one. Leftovers can be used for at least two additional meals or more. Pull the meat from the bones and use the bones to make stock in that slow cooker. (See IT 1/4/07 RealCuisine article, “Taking stock,” for tips on making stock.) When making stock for my family, I even use the bones left from the chicken we’ve eaten: the stock simmers for hours, so it’s perfectly safe. The stock can be strained, then used with some of the meat to make soup during the week, or can be frozen (as above, in resealable bags). The additional chicken can be used for sandwiches, salads, in quesadillas or tacos and much more.

Meatloaf — a mixture of many uses. Make enough for two or more, then shape and freeze extra loaves. Or make it into meatballs, freeze in a single layer, then put them in resealable bags so you can take out as many as you need. Leftover baked meatloaf is good for things other than sandwiches, so consider baking more than one meal’s worth. Heat crumbled meatloaf with a good-quality tomato pasta sauce (checking the label to make sure it doesn’t contain added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup is the surest way) to make a quick ragu Bolognese served pasta. Crumble meatloaf into a baking dish, add vegetables such as peas and/or carrots, moisten with a little stock or water, season with Worcestershire, top with leftover mashed potatoes, and bake for a Shepherd’s Pie. Speaking of mashed potatoes. . . .

Mashed potatoes — Leftovers can be turned into a variety of soups. Thin the mashed potatoes with milk to a soup consistency and heat gently without boiling For simple potato soup, garnish with sliced scallions and parsley. Or add other items: leftover or fresh vegetables such as broccoli, peppers, onions, asparagus or mushrooms, or diced ham or bacon. Transform it into cheese soup by adding grated cheese, about c. - 1 c. per 2 cups of soup. Don’t use pre-grated cheese, because it’s coated with something that keeps the shreds separate; it also prevents the cheese from incorporating into the liquid. Add the cheese gradually to hot, but not simmering, soup before adding any vegetables or meat.

Turn ’em into soup — This is where having stock in your pantry or freezer comes in handy. Not everything can be turned into soup, but a little imagination can result in surprising and delicious concoctions. Last week I had a wonderful “Unstuffed Pepper Soup” at Williamsville’s Blucat Café. It wasn’t made from leftovers, but extra stuffed peppers could easily be cut up and stock added. Cabbage rolls could similarly be turned into soup. How about thinly sliced leftover steak and smashed baked potatoes? Or leftover grilled vegetables such as onions, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant combined with canned beans and canned tomatoes, both undrained, and topped with grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese for a riff on minestrone?

Do you have friends or family who’d also like to have more home-cooked meals during the week? Consider getting together — regularly or sporadically — to make meals for the freezer. A large enough group could investigate using a facility such as a church kitchen. As the old saying goes, “Many hands make light work.” They also make it more fun.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.
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