I have a confession to make . . . my kitchen is filled with processed food. Pancake mix, frozen waffles, canned chicken broth, prepared breadcrumbs, canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, and all manner of little jars and bags of “flavor enhancers.” But, ha! Before you condemn me, let me also say that while my life is made infinitely easier by all these little cheats and shortcuts, I am off the hook, because I have processed it all myself. It would be impossible for me to feed my family efficiently, healthfully, and deliciously, without all these mother’s little helpers, but that does not mean that I am willing to succumb to factory-produced salad dressings, packaged foods filled with chemical preservatives, and the like.
It’s all really just a matter of thinking ahead and using the freezer efficiently. The only real altercations my husband and I have had occurred when we were first married and he repeatedly threw away all my little kitchen dibs and dabs that, to his neat-freak eyes, looked like garbage. A roasted chicken carcass? ”That’s like money in the bank, and you threw it away???” I would screech. The leftover vinaigrette in the bowl after dinner—down the drain? Well, mister, we’ll just see how you like your crunchy broccoli and grilled shrimp pasta salad without dressing when you eat lunch tomorrow! The first mantra of a prepared chef is, first and foremost: Do Not Throw Anything Away. I know, I know, no one likes leftovers (including me). But here’s a different way of looking at things. Turn leftovers into something else, and then they are no longer leftovers, but pre-prepped ingredients. Leftover pot roast? Shred the meat, sauté onions and garlic, and add to crushed tomatoes and wine for an amazing ragu that’s divine with papparadelle. Last night’s vegetable side dish becomes tomorrow’s savory vegetable soup with the addition of a little chicken broth and some cannellini beans—grate a little parmesan on top and serve with hot crusty bread. Bacon leftover at breakfast? Crumble, chop, and stir into savory scones with a little grated cheddar, or add to smashed potatoes, or crumble on top of a tomato risotto. This is how we save money and stretch flavor. If you don’t have plans for using these leftovers right away, store them in freezer bags or containers, carefully label, and freeze for a night when you are pressed for time, or the cupboard looks bare.
The second rule of thumb is this: when you’re making a little, go ahead and make a lot. When we make waffles on weekend mornings, there’s always batter left in the bowl after everyone’s been served. It’s no extra work at all to go ahead and cook more waffles with what’s left (even make a double batch), cool, then freeze for weekday mornings. Beats Eggo’s. Making breadcrumbs or croutons for a recipe? Make extra and freeze. Roasted chicken for dinner? Throw the carcass in a pot with an onion (cut in quarters, don’t peel) and water, and you have a pot of homemade chicken stock before you finish washing dishes. Strain into containers and freeze for soup and risotto. If you really don’t have time to make stock (what, do you have tickets to the opera?), just freeze the carcass and make it later. Dicing onions? Go ahead and do a few extra, and freeze for when you’re really pressed for time. Making cookies? Triple the batch, scoop into balls, and freeze flat on a cookie sheet. When they’re frozen, transfer to a ziplock and bake as needed. They don’t even need to thaw first. Bake an extra loaf of banana bread, or whole wheat sandwich bread, or batch of cinnamon rolls, or anything you’re putting in the oven on a leisurely day. Make a huge pot of chili, a bigger batch of meatballs, more Bolognese than you could ever possible eat at one time. Your weeknights just got a lot easier.
Third, don’t ever let anything go bad. The only thing I have not successfully frozen is lettuce. I like to think of the freezer as a little time machine that gives me a minute to breathe. There’s nothing more panic-inducing than vegetables and fruit slipping towards oblivion. Take a trip down the freezer section of the grocery store, and you will see that’s there’s very little that can’t be frozen. Get some good containers, and those over-ripe peaches can be turned into compote with a little sugar and vanilla bean, easy to stir into an ice cream base, pour on top of whole grain pancakes, or stir into pound cake batter. Wilted greens and spinach can be washed, dried, chopped and frozen to star later in risotto, soups, dip, pasta. Learn from the corporate giants, but beat them at their own game. I do have an extra freezer, but it’s cheaper than a full-time prep cook, and I know intimately what’s in all our food.
Homemade Apple-Pecan Granola
1 large or 3 small apples, peeled, cored & diced
1 vanilla bean, split open lengthwise, seeds and paste scraped out
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 c. maple syrup
8 c. rolled oats
1/2 c. sesame seeds
1/2 c. pumpkin seeds
1 c. pecan halves
2 T. grapessed or other neutral oil
pinch of sea salt
Start with a quick homemade applesauce–place diced apple in a small saucepan with a splash of water, the seeds and paste from the vanilla bean, cinnamon and 2 t. of the maple syrup. Simmer until the apples break down, about 15-20 minutes. Add more water if the apples begin to dry out. Remove from the heat, and mash the apples with a fork.
Preheat the oven to 325. In a large bowl, combine applesauce with oats, seeds, pecans, a pinch of salt, and the rest of the syrup. Spread out on a large baking sheet lined with a Silpat or parchment paper and bake for 25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until golden brown and toasty. Cool the granola on the sheet and store in an airtight container or bag for up to three weeks or freeze for longer. My favorite way to enjoy it? With yogurt or kefir and chopped fresh apples.