Saturday, October 20, 2007

Weekend Extra: Once A Month Cooking

Do you do this? Or are you at least familiar with it? I've been interested in the concept of Once A Month Cooking for a long time now. It fascinates me. The idea is that you do one big cooking session over a long day or weekend and put enough meals in the freezer to get you through a month of not having to cook again. That big cooking day is huge, you spend the day cooking up a dozen different entrees or so, so that you have variety. And you do one big grocery shop prior to that, so you also save money in the long run by not having to do a major grocery shop every week- you just need to pick up staples like milk and such.

Like I said, the concept fascinates me. Is it practical for me? Not totally. I love to cook, so cooking once for a long period of time doesn't sound very fun to me. But what I do love is the idea of having meals in the freezer for every once in a while. Or to share with someone who needs it. Or to have someone unexpectedly drop in and be able to invite them to dinner because I know I have something in the freezer that I can add to the meal. I already do this sometimes, like when I make soup or chili and freeze the extra for another day, but I'm talking about more than soup. Even if it's as much as making a double portion of the meal that night and putting it in the freezer, that can be beneficial down the road.

So yesterday I did a micro-mini OAMC session. I prepared the ingredients for two separate recipes, specifically to put them in the freezer. It felt a little strange, but I was almost giddy the whole time doing it. I started with a simple chicken marinade. Lime and Honey Marinade for Chicken was incredibly quick to put together. A simple stir of ingredients, and then I split the marinade between two freezer bags. Then I took a jumbo package of chicken wings and divided them between the freezer bags as well. I squeezed out as much air as possible, and then tossed them in the freezer. When it comes time to make the wings, I'll let them thaw overnight and then bake them after thawing. Super simple, and I love the combination of lime juice and honey, so I'm looking forward to trying those out. Two dinners- check.

The second recipe I made really intrigued me the first time I saw it. Mexican Stuffed Shells sounded like a fun twist on stuffed shells, which we all enjoy. We also enjoy Mexican flavors, so I was really hopeful these shells would be as tasty as the sounded. The ingredients came together quickly. I'll share the original recipe for Mexican Stuffed Shells, but I have to tell you, I changed quite a bit, and didn't really document it. My problems started with the taco seasoning I used- it was salty and much too spicy. So I needed to thin it out, and rather than adding more ground beef, I opted to add a can of pink beans. Then as long as I was adding that, I thought a can of corn would be a nice addition as well. By then the heat was tamed and the salt called into check, so I could stuff my shells and finish assembling. By adding all those extras, I stretched my filling and ended up with 3 pans of stuffed shells! That was one pan more than I expected! So I wrapped two of them up nicely, labelled them and put them in the freezer. The third I thought we'd try for dinner to see if we even liked it. Two more freezer dinners- Check.

Then to go with those stuffed shells, I had already planned to make homemade pizza for dinner. When I make pizza dough, my recipe makes enough for two pizzas, so since we weren't going to need two pizzas...well, I decided to try my hand at making a frozen pizza. And why not? You can buy frozen pizza, why can't I make one from scratch? I also happen to have a large round pizza pan that I don't use very often, so I could use that to freeze the pizza with. So I assembled two pizzas, popped one in the oven with the shells, and wrapped the other one nicely and put that in the freezer. One more freezer dinner-check.

All told, yesterday I put five dinners into the freezer for another time. For just a few hours of work, I now have an entire work week's worth of food ready to go. We did try the shells last night with the pizza, and we all really enjoyed them with a dollop of sour cream. It was a fun way to eat the shells, and I thought the flavors were nice without being overwhelming. They will be repeated- and may even be company worthy sometime. Rounded off with a salad, it would be a great company dinner.

I see the appeal of Once A Month Cooking. It felt really good to tuck those meals into the freezer for another day. And I really didn't spend much extra at the grocery store- maybe an extra few bucks for the chicken wings. I think the key is to keep the freezing components on hand. Like gallon size freezer bags, and foil casserole dishes with heavy duty foil for wrapping. A sharpie marker and labels are also helpful, so you know what you're freezing, and you can write your thawing/reheating ingredients right on the package. I think as long as you know that what you're cooking freezes, and you have the accessories on hand, you could be well on your way to streamlining the make-ahead process. I also see great potential for lending a helping hand with meals this way. Imagine someone having a new baby, and instead of racking your brain, trying to figure out how to help, you walk to your freezer and pull out half a dozen meals already made and labelled!

While Once A Month Cooking, in concept, is not entirely for me, it has a whole lot of merit in my book, and you'll likely see a little more freezer cooking here at Tummy Treasure. In addition, over at the Recipe Trove, I'll be sure to notate recipes that freeze well and include reheating instructions if applicable. There's also a new category as well for OAMC there, hopefully I'll get more in there soon.


Deborah said...

I try to keep one or two things in the freezer - usually at least one soup or stew. But, like you, I enjoy cooking too much to only do it once a month. And the more complicated recipes would be totally un-do-able with this way. But it always makes me feel a little more relaxed when I open the freezer and realize I won't have to rack my brains for the next night's dinner.

Erika W. said...

One of the things I'm hoping to avoid is the "I don't know what's for dinner, don't feel like making what I had planned, let's go out" thing.

My biggest concern is quality. Will these frozen foods hold up over a couple of months? I guess we'll see.

Carolyn T said...

Erika - years and years ago I clipped an article out of Sunset magazine which was sort-of along the lines of your OAMC, but different. You bought a rather large beef chuck roast (this was back in the days when we ate a lot of beef and didn't think anything of it). The article told me what part to cut OFF the roast for separate meals. It was enough for 3 meals - one the actual chuck roast, another one a stir fry type dish, and another a hash with the leftovers from the chuck roast. I've saved that darned clipping forever. Your posting reminded me of it. Good luck with your plan-ahead meals.

Joe said...

I like the process of everyday cooking and doubt I would be happy doing something like this. I can certainly understand doing this when you don't have a lot of free time, but I would miss the daily enjoyment of my time in the kitchen too much!

swirlingnotions said...

Great post, Erika. And you made me realize I haven't made pizza dough in way too long . . . I'll have to get on that :-).

I wrote an article for Cooking Light earlier this year called Fix and Freeze on just this topic (I wrote a lot of their "Kitchen Strategies" pieces this year, where I came up with solutions to common problems in the kitchen. It was a lot fun and I learned a ton!). Anyway, if you want to check it out, it's on my website here.

The woman I interviewed as the "subject" was like us, in that she likes to cook. And she cited liking the whole concept of having something in the freezer for the same reason you do . . . it's sort of like having a choice of home-cooked meals to choose from when someone pops over, or you just don't feel like cooking one night.

Erika W. said...

Ah! Thank you Lia! I remember that article now, and I also remember that I really wanted to try most of those recipes. I'm going to go pull out that magazine and put it on my counter to read through later.

Your link also reminded me of the cranberry article from last fall. I just picked up 3 pounds of fresh cranberries! I can't wait to put them to good use...(Now digging out that article too.)

Erika W. said...

Carolyn your magazine article sounds like it was ahead of it's time!

Joe, I agree with you mostly, but it does have it's uses- especially for days when I'm not feeling well and the last thing I want to do is cook. It's so much better to serve my family something healthy from the freezer instead of whatever I have lying around in a box.

All Things Jennifer said...

I wish I could be in the habit of cooking every night by my future intended's life and my own are just not fit that way, (yet) so like you did this weekend, when I cook, I cook several meals at once.

An entire month? I wonder...

And I too need to get working on the pizza dough. Perhaps tonight? :)

Erika W. said...

Jennifer, to me at least, cooking for the entire month in one sitting just has to be exhausting. A friend and I were just discussing how that must be. Doing it weekly maybe, but once a month? Yikes.