03 January 2012

Freezer cooking follow-up

I spent quite a bit of the holiday weekend in the kitchen – not exactly freezing cooking again, but cooking up some new recipes and old favorites that I’d been wanting to make. Still, cooking so many things at once reminded me of what it was like do to all that freezer cooking back in October so I wouldn’t have to think about meal planning while working on my dissertation. I said I’d try to report back, and because I’ve had a few requests for a freezer cooking update, I thought I’d let you know how it went!


Here’s what I made, and my thoughts on it:

pesto alfredo sauce with chicken (to stir in linguine): WINNER
It should be no surprise that I looked forward to this every time it came up in the rotation – pesto is my favorite food, and I adore pasta. I made three meals’ worth of these by cutting up a few cooked chicken breasts, preparing one of those Knorr’s creamy pesto packets, and stirring it all with a jar of alfredo sauce. I put the sauce in plastic quart-size bags, which could lay flat in the freezer. Easy to make, tasty to eat. Recommended!

beef tamale casserole: WINNER
I’ve already given you this recipe; it’s in regular rotation in our home. When I posted about this, I mentioned it might work as a freezer cooking meal, and indeed it does. I used the same amounts as originally listed, but split it into two 8x8 pans instead. I did the first baking step to set the cornbread, then topped it with the beef, enchilada sauce, and cheese, and flash-froze it before wrapping it up. Worked great!


creamy Italian chicken: MEH
There are a dozen iterations of this around the web (give it a Google and you’ll see what I mean). For ours, I used a can of cream of mushroom soup, a block of cream cheese, garlic, Italian seasoning, and mozarella cheese to top. This was part of my attempt to avoid casserole overload, but honestly? This wasn’t a favorite. I mean, it was okay, but did not live up to its reputation in the comments section for its many versions around the web. I probably won’t make this again, for regular or freezer cooking. There are too many other things we like more to waste time with it!

chicken enchiladas: WINNER
Enchiladas are a freezer cooking standby for a good reason – they’re tasty, they’re comforting, and they freeze like a charm (again, I flash-freeze so the sauce doesn’t freeze to the foil). I used my stepsister’s recipe with a creamy white sauce, which I’m planning to share with you all someday soon! I guarantee, though, that your favorite enchilada recipe will take to freezer cooking just fine.

sriracha (a.k.a. "rooster") chicken: WINNER (mostly)
This is another one in rotation in our house, and adapting it to freezer cooking was as easy as putting the marinade in a Ziploc bag, adding in the chicken strips, sealing the bag, squishing it around a bit, and throwing it in the freezer. Easy-peasy. The only suggestion I have is to cut back on the vinegar a bit OR don’t thaw it until the night before. I learned that the hard way and found that the chicken got rubbery texture when it marinated in the vinegar too long.


tuna noodle casserole: MEH
Another freezer cooking standby. I make mine with egg-free noodles, a can each of cream of mushroom and cream of celery soup, some sour cream or mayo or both or whatever I find in my fridge, frozen mixed veggies boiled with the pasta, and a can or two of tuna. I put that mixture into loaf-shaped pans and topped it with bread crumbs. And while I don’t know anyone who enthuses over tuna noodle casserole, this was tasty enough and relatively healthy (I use low-fat soup) and easy to prepare. I’d make it again but it wouldn’t be my favorite dish in the rotation.

coconut chicken: WINNER
We enjoy these already in our home, and they took to freezer cooking just fine. I popped them in the freezer while still raw, then thawed them in the fridge overnight before baking. I tried to make these the same week as sriracha chicken, so we could make garlic noodles or rice once for both.


baked ziti: WINNER
For ours, I mixed ricotta and egg to coat the cooked pasta, then stirred it into jarred spaghetti sauce and ground beef. After loading the pasta into loaf-shaped pans, I topped with mozzarella and flash-froze it before wrapping it up. The verdict? It’s pasta, of course I loved it.

Monterey chicken: LOSER (but my fault)
I used this recipe, which calls for cooked bacon. I am lazy. I did not cook the bacon, I just wrapped it around the raw chicken. MISTAKE. It’s not even that it was too greasy, but more like... soggy. There’s a good chance I used too much barbecue sauce, too, so the chicken was, like, floating around in greasy barbecue sauce. GE-ROSS. Plus I used thick-cut bacon, which never crisped up, so it was like chicken wrapped in ham. So I didn’t care for this at all, but that’s probably my own fault. Your mileage may vary.


So those are the recipes – what about freezing cooking, overall?

Pros:
  • Obviously, not having to think about cooking once I planned it all out. I don’t mind the act of cooking, but it was nice to not think about what to eat or write a grocery list. Mr. P did most of the “cooking”, actually, by popping the dish in the oven and making the rice or pasta.
  • Getting a month’s worth of cooking done in two days. It CAN be done, and you don’t need a million dishes to do it. Start with chopping all your veggies, then meat (if you start with the veggies, you don’t need to wash the knife or cutting board until the end). Then cook up all your meat (no need to wash the pan in between). From there, you just assemble! Most of the time, you can rinse – or even wipe – a bowl or utensil clean before reusing it to prepare the next dish. Trust me, unless there is raw meat or egg, rinsing is sufficient. I usually reserve one side of the sink for “rinsed to re-use” dishes, and I use one pan, one spoon, one measuring cup, one bowl, etc. Then I just wash them when I’m sure I’m done using them.
  • Trying new recipes. Unfortunately, I didn’t care for the new recipes too much (the creamy Italian chicken or Monterey chicken). But still, good to try new things!
  • It feels really, really nice to have a well-stocked freezer.

In the end, it was a positive experience and I’m glad I did it. But I admit there were several things I didn’t like:


Cons:

  • So much chicken. Oh my gosh, so much chicken. We normally eat a lot of chicken so I don’t know why it felt so different, but somehow it was. Perhaps because almost all of it was baked, instead of sautéd or grilled? By the end I was starting to dread dishes with chicken cutlets.
  • Baking anything in a casserole dish took at least twice as long as I expected – almost always an hour or more. The dishes were pre-thawed in the fridge, but it still took for-freaking-ever. That was annoying, especially for the dishes with raw chicken.
  • On a related note, running the oven every night for that long really showed in our electric bill. This was during October, so there is no way in hades I’d try this during the summer. I did try the toaster oven sometimes, but it seemed to take even longer, so basically I was annoyed either way.
  • Even with my efforts to have lots of variety, eating became pretty boring. I guess that’s to be expected. It did make the few times we went out to eat amazing in comparison, though!

Would I do this again? Unless there is another total-time-consuming event (like having a baby), I wouldn’t plan an entire month of exclusively freezer-cooked meals again. Too much baked chicken, too many “canned” ingredients, too few fresh vegetables, even too much shredded cheese (who knew that was even possible?). And I really started to miss cooking, which I enjoy.

But! I didn’t have time to cook, even if I was missing it. And if you find yourself in a position where you don’t have time to cook, this is ideal. Or, if you don’t enjoy cooking, getting it all done in a day or two might outweigh the cons I listed above, even if you don’t have extenuating circumstances that keep you out of the kitchen.

So! Freezer cooking does get a thumbs-up from me. However, the Once-a-Month-Mom guerrilla-style nothing-but-freezer-cooking sort of menu is not for me. I prefer to double recipes and freeze half when I have a chance, or get most of the cooking done in one day each week, not month. It all depends on your situation, really. If you’re in the mood to be super-organized and on top of things in this new year, give it a try and see what you think!

4 comments:

Shanna said...

I admire you for giving it a try. The recipes you chose were perfect for OAMC, in my opinion. I've considered doing this a few times but, like you, I really enjoy cooking and it's my preference to make one or two large meals a week [usually over the weekend] and eat twice on it or freeze part of it for later. Hubby & I take our lunches to work to save $$$, so that's usually where the leftovers go. You have some really good recipes [I've already tried the coconut chicken and it IS a winner!], and I'm going to try out a few more of them soon.

Having kids is not only time consuming, it's LIFE consuming :), so you really may want to do this again someday. Wish I'd been more motivated to do this when my kids were in school - it would have saved so much time and frustration during all those Scouting and band years.

Mary J said...

I see no sense in preparing a meal if you freeze it raw. Isnt that the whole idea of freezer meals? I only freeze cooked items, then freeze them, thaw in frig and MICRO not bake. I freeze lemon chicken on a baking sheet so they dont stick and I can take as many as I need. I even freeze cooked noodles in seperate bags along with soup. Chili is frozen in sour cream containers properly marked. Beef stew is frozen in zip lock bags because they take up less room. No sense in heating up the kitchen when you can nuke it.
Mary

Mary J said...

I only make freezer meals that can be defrosted and microwaved. This means all meat is precooked as well as pasta and noodles (in seperate bags)

Sarah said...

Hi Mary - I see what you mean. Some things are pre-cooked, like ground beef so I can get rid of the grease. I suppose those dishes could be prepared and frozen in microwave-safe containers (though I don't trust my microwave to heat evenly). I'd rather not heat chicken twice if I don't have to (again, microwave dries it out), so for those, I freeze them raw to bake once. Pre-cooking would save time on the other end, though! Anyway, the real appeal of freezer cooking for me was saving time planning and assembling, more than saving time heating it up.