07 February 2018

Freezer Cooking

I have been intimidated by the idea of "freezer cooking," "batch cooking," whatever you want to call it, for years. It wasn't until I participated in an online roundtable on meal planning last month that I realized something super important: there are different ways of freezer cooking. Maybe this is ridiculously self-evident to most people, but my mental picture of freezer cooking was that you had to dedicate a full weekend (or similar block of time) to cooking all the food in the world, and fill up your freezer with it, and then... I was a little bit foggy on how it was actually helpful, because I think I was picturing freezer meals as being a way to save dinnertime if you weren't able to make whatever you had already planned.

Last assumption first, while there are certainly some things that you can pull out of the freezer and use immediately, that's probably not going to be the main way that freezer cooking is helpful: quickbreads, breakfast cookies, chocolate banana oatmeal fudge bars, yes, but main dishes not so much... For full meals, it's more about having the prep work done ahead of time than about having healthy versions of instant pizzas in the freezer. Having a menu plan is still important—ideally, the freezer meals get built into the menu plan, so that they're written down and I can see on my planner a day ahead that I need to pull whatever it is out of the freezer and let it thaw in the fridge overnight.

Matt and I were talking about this a couple of weeks back, about slow cooker freezer meals specifically; he was confused about how it could possibly be all that helpful to have, say, a pork shoulder frozen with a marinade. "But you still have to cook it all day!" I certainly saw his point, but (as we were actually discussing an upcoming cookbook that I'm excited about on slow cooker/pressure cooker freezer meals) it got me to think through exactly how it would be helpful. Yes, in that case you still have the cooking time of a regular meal, but all of the prep work is done and if you're planning your cooking ahead, there's no last-minute "oh no, the orange juice has been sitting in the fridge too long and has a funny smell so I guess we're making carnitas with grapefruit juice today!" (It's not awful, for the record, but orange is definitely better.) And as we're getting ready to have a newborn in the house, even the 20-minute prep work of making a spice rub, coating the pork, dicing the onion, and making the marinade sounds a whole lot more challenging when I picture trying to do with with a tiny person who wants me to sit on the couch and feed him constantly. So in that case, yes, being able to dump the thawed bag into the slow cooker and turn it on instead of doing that small amount of prep work would be legitimately helpful.

Okay, now back to my first assumption. There certainly are people who do huge batch-cooking marathons and get an entire month's meals into the freezer in one go, and that works for them, and that's great! But there are other people who just make double batches of suppers when they know something freezes well, and stick one batch into the oven/slow cooker and the other into the freezer. Some people mainly freeze breads/sides/snacks, things they can easily use from frozen (or after a quick thaw). And some people just make staples ahead of time, things that can easily be transformed into a variety of meals, like beans, rice, tomato sauce, pesto, cooked meat... 

And any of those methods, or any combination of them, helps to save time and get dinner on the table more smoothly. I've actually been doing a little bit of several of those methods for years without realizing that I was "freezer cooking": sticking leftovers in the freezer when there's enough to serve as another full meal, keeping things like pesto and pureed beets portioned out in the freezer, storing batches of muffins or individually wrapped bars in there to be easily grabbed for quick breakfasts or snacks.

I've been trying to be a little more intentional about it as we prepare for a new baby, though. I don't even remember how I started reading the Thriving Home blog, but our family has enjoyed their recipes (and their "real food meets reality" philosophy) for a while now, and when Polly and Rachel released a cookbook full of freezer meals last fall, I was so excited to pick up a copy. Many recipes from From Freezer to Table have since become favorites in our house—their Killer Carnitas, Peach Baked Oatmeal, and Pesto Feta Tuna Melts all made it onto this week's menu plan! 

And in this last however-many-weeks pre-baby, I cannot tell you how helpful it is to have meal components already in the freezer and easy to assemble! I'm exhausted today, and had been dreading the end-of-the-day "they want to eat again?" time... until I realized that all I have to do is slice bread, pull pesto out of the freezer, and combine tuna with a couple of items from the fridge. I can practically make supper sitting down! Little Bear can peel some carrots for me, and if I have enough energy we can make ranch dip, but if not there's some hummus in the fridge. Easily-assembled suppers are very, very valuable!

Do you use any (or all!) of these methods of freezer cooking, or are there other ways of doing it that I missed here? How do you incorporate cooking ahead into your meal planning?

05 February 2018

Instant Pot convert

Confession: for the past several years, I've been ever-so-slightly scornful of the Instant Pot as a, perhaps not silly, but unnecessary extra appliance, a fad that would burn itself out quickly enough.

I was wrong.

This pregnancy has been... not easy. There's nothing seriously wrong with me or the baby; I have chronic loose joints, which during pregnancy makes standing/walking/bending down much harder and more painful than it otherwise would be, and means I tire more easily. I had to stop sitting on the floor months ago, for example, because it was too difficult to stand up and walk again. And now that I'm mid-third-trimester, I am so tired all the time, but that's kind of to be expected.

All that to say, my meal-planning abilities have been lackluster lately. By the time the kids are in bed and the kitchen is clean, and maybe I've even picked up after the two-year-old tornado, I am firmly stuck on the couch until bedtime. Getting chia pudding started in the fridge last night (3 minutes of work max) was an embarrassingly rare feat of breakfast-prep. Pulling meat out of the freezer so it can thaw in the fridge overnight just hasn't been happening. (Though to be honest, I couldn't tell you how much of that is due to being pregnant-hurting-tired and how much is attributable to the meat being in the chest freezer out on the sub-zero deck...) 

And so the Instant Pot has been saving me, over and over again. Oh, the chicken breasts are frozen and it's mid-afternoon? Not a problem. Ground beef is frozen and supper needs to be in the slow cooker in an hour? That's fine. I told Matt we were having moose stroganoff, and accidentally pulled out stew meat instead of steaks? Pressure cooker to the rescue. And the reason I first decided to give it a try: dry, unsoaked beans to cooked in less than an hour! I haven't even found a permanent home for it off the counter yet, because I've been using it almost every day. (And we got an 8 quart, so while it's not too heavy for me to lift, it's certainly heavy enough that I don't want to be hauling it up and down twice each day.)

Even with all of those applications, I would still have said that it was nice to have but not necessary... And then we got home tonight after a long afternoon of appointments and discovered that the pork shoulder I'd had in the slow cooker all afternoon was not done, not even a little bit. It wasn't the first time in the last month that a recipe hasn't gotten done in the called-for length of time in the slow cooker, but the other times were new-to-us recipes, so I figured they just hadn't been written well or I'd made too many "tiny adjustments" to the recipe. Tonight's planned supper was a recipe that I made successfully in the same slow cooker two weeks ago—the only difference was that las time I use high heat instead of low, because I got it started (quite) late. And looking back, all of the failed recipes were supposed to cook on low. So it seems that the low heat function of our slow cooker—which is certainly at least as old as I am—is no longer working properly. I guess it's time to actually read the four or so articles I have bookmarked on how to convert slow cooker recipes for the Instant Pot!

We've loved our ancient slow cooker particularly because it has a dial instead of buttons: with the frequency of power outages this winter, it has been helpful to have one that doesn't reset when it thinks it's been turned off and on again! But I'm also grateful, now that I can't rely on it anymore, that we have a machine that can take its place; it's rare enough for the kids and I to be out of the house for a long span while the slow cooker is on that, at least for now, it shouldn't be a huge deal to go reset the Instant Pot if we lose power while it is running. And we probably have less than three months left of winter, so power outages shouldn't be a regular thing for too much longer.

Do you have an Instant Pot (or other kind of electric pressure cooker)? What's your favorite way to use it? I would love more ideas—I know there are so many more things to do with it than the ones I've tried!

24 December 2017

20 November 2017

Making good use of mixers

I grew up using my mom's Kitchenaid stand mixer, and when she got a new one around the time I got married, she passed hers on to me. It being about as old as I am, when it finally stopped working last fall, there were no parts anywhere that we could find to repair it. Since I used it all the time, we wound up getting a new Kitchenaid as my Christmas present, but early, so that I could use it for all my Christmas baking.

Unfortunately, it turned out that they don't make them like they used to... Even a single batch of chunky cookie dough had the motor straining and groaning. After about a year of doing many things by hand since I didn't trust the stand mixer to be able to handle them, I was done; one of Matt's coworkers was interested in a Kitchenaid primarily for the attachments, which worked fine on ours, so we sold it and started researching other stand mixers. 

Well, my second early-Christmas-present-stand mixer just arrived, and so far I am very impressed and happy with my Bosch Universal Plus! I made a big batch of cookies Saturday night, and a "small batch" (2 loaves) of bread Sunday evening. It's so fast! And it had no trouble at all with a cookie dough stiff with oats, white chocolate chips, and frozen cranberries. And the bread... I have never made sandwich bread in a stand mixer, not even my mom's old reliable one, because the motors simply couldn't handle it. But the Bosch is made for bread-making: it combined ingredients perfectly, and kneaded the dough as well in 6 minutes as would have taken me at least 20 by hand. The loaves rose beautifully by the woodstove and again in the oven, and I couldn't help cutting into one as soon as they were cool enough. A perfect, soft, not-crumbly-at-all texture! And did I mention that it did all the kneading, and quickly? No more having to put off nap time for another 15-25 minutes because I just started kneading but now the two year old is melting down! 

From what we've read, the Bosch should last a long time; I sure hope so! Right now, I couldn't be happier with it.


Funny thing about those cookies: when I make desserts, I know that as a rule that Matt would just as soon not eat anything containing cranberries or white chocolate, and he won't bother sneaking cookie dough from my mixing bowl if it has oatmeal in it. But, somehow, when I combine all three, he's asking if I really have to bake any of it; can he just have the bowl and a spoon? ;-) I can't really blame him, but then, I do love cranberries and white chocolate. But seriously, these are some great cookies—and seasonal! (Though I make them all year round.)

Cranberry Oatmeal White Chocolate Cookies

1 cup butter, softened
1 1/4 cups sugar*
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon baking powder 
1/2 teaspoon salt 
2 cups flour (I always use at least a little whole grain flour)
2 cups quick oats
12 oz white chocolate chips 
1 cup cranberries (frozen is best, if you don't want bright pink dough)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Cream butter and sugar. Scraping down sides of bowl as needed, beat in eggs and vanilla. Mix in baking powder, baking soda, salt and flour. (Switching to dough hook if your mixer recommends it), Add oats, cranberries, and chips. When combined, scoop rounded spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Bake until edges just barely begun to turn golden, about 8-10 minutes. 

*Alaskan cranberries are substantially more tart than domesticated ones, so you may not want this much sugar; try starting with 1 cup.

My sister, who ought to know what she's talking about since she just won numerous ribbons with them at the fair this year, says that the recipe makes 6 dozen. I don't know how small she's making them... But I also can't say how many I'd get if I actually managed to bake all the dough, since that never happens! So, it makes a good lot of them, anyway. The dough freezes fine, too, if you want to make a full batch of it but don't actually want dozens of cookies sitting on the counter all at once.

11 November 2017

November

It's November again! I mean, it's November, and I'm posting again. Maybe; hopefully I will actually manage to finish a post this time instead of getting halfway through and running out of time and/or energy, and the draft sitting here waiting for me to finish it for so long that it becomes more work to make it current than to just start writing a new one. 

I had assumed that I would make it back to blogging regularly once I was out of the first trimester, but here we are, at 20.5 weeks, and I'm still feeling fairly first-trimester-ly. I'm pretty sure that I got the fabled second-trimester burst of energy in at least one of my other pregnancies, but not this time! At least my nausea is finally lessening, as long as I stay away from anything sweet and other foods that baby doesn't approve of. Little Bear and Kit are still very excited about the baby, and their enthusiasm makes it easier for me to not be so frustrated with how I'm feeling and how little I'm getting done. We found out on Wednesday that the new little one is a boy, and Little Bear is very excited; Kit was disappointed about not getting a sister, but that evening Matt had a conversation with her, and I'm not sure what he said, but she's perfectly happy about it now!

Among the things falling through the cracks lately has been celebrating the liturgical year this pregnancy; any extra energy goes toward exciting things like laundry or vacuuming. We did a credible job of celebrating Hallowtide though, and I'm hoping we will be able to keep that momentum through the coming Advent and Christmas seasons! I managed to make our family's favorite All Hallows' Eve supper, stuffed jack o'peppers:


We came up with costumes for both Halloween and All Saints; Thomas the Tank Engine and a butterfly princess, and St Nicholas and St Margaret of Scotland. Matt and Little Bear had fun making his crozier!

We made it to Mass for All Saints Day as a family, despite Matt's crazy work schedule right now, but couldn't make it back to town for All Souls; it doesn't work for me to have the car more than two days a week, and for some reason that I can't remember anymore I needed the car on Tuesday that week, and then my second day was Wednesday for All Saints. The kids and I talked about how November is a month particularly for praying for those who have died, though, and Little Bear and I filled in a Novemner calendar page with names of deceased friends and relatives so we could pray particularly for one person each day. What did you do for Hallowtide?

Between school, cooking, and keeping up with the house, I'm short on free time these days (probably obvious, given how long it's been since my last post!) Last week, though, I did manage to process about 30 lbs of Jonagold apples for the winter: 10 lbs portioned out for pies and kuchen in the freezer, nearly 20 lbs canned as slices and juice, and the last eight apples went into a pie earlier this week. Mmm. I used the pie and crust recipes from Joy of Cooking this time, and everyone though it was much better than my previous fruit pies. And the picky no-eating-sweet-foods baby even let me enjoy it! I think I'll be sticking with this recipe. :-)

Speaking of recipes, I keep trying to post Seven Quick Takes and it's just not working for me right now; I like categorical-type posts, though, so I think I'm going to start trying to write up a What's for Supper? post each week, like Simcha Fisher does; hopefully some of the things we make will be interesting or unique, but if nothing else, it would be good for me to see written down that yes, I did accomplish something each week!

11 August 2017

Homemade Graham Crackers

While we're thinking about the start of the new school year, here's a quick and portable snack that my kids love to help make:

1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup water
3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt

Cream honey, butter and vanilla. Mix in water. Add dry ingredients and combine thoroughly, kneading dough together. Split dough in half*, and roll or press out flat on two greased sheet pans. Cut into squares/rectangles, docking with the tines of a fork if desired, and bake at  F, one pan at a time, for 10-12 minutes or until bottoms begin to turn golden brown. Remove crackers to wire racks or countertop to cool.



*Theyll be slightly thicker and softer than commercial graham crackers, which we like, but if you want them crisp, divide dough into thirds instead and bake in three batches.

And if you have a choice between using sheets pans with and without raised sides, definitely use the ones without! I don't have any of those, and it's always a challenge to roll the dough out to the corners because the sides get in the way.

04 August 2017

Planning for the new school year

We're not remotely ready to start school yet, which fine as far as I'm concerned because why in the world are some school districts starting classes the first week of August? What happened to summer? Maybe this is just an Alaskan mentality, but we have so few months without snow on the ground, we need that whole 3-month break to get gardening and outside projects done, and get the kids outside as much as possible!

Plus, this year, first trimester ick has me thinking that waiting until the beginning of September really doesn't sound unreasonable. I do have a plan, though, even if I've only just finally finished ordering materials...

Okay, it's less of a firm "plan" at this point and more of a "well-considered list of materials". Good thing we've already established that I have several weeks left, right? 

We enrolled with one of the state homeschooling organizations this year, the same one I was enrolled in 7th through 12th grade. It is great: in exchange for agreeing to submit an Individualized Learning Plan for the year, a work sample for each subject each quarter, and progress reports at the end of each semester, parents are allowed to select the curriculum that works best for their students, and each student receives an allotment that can be used to reimburse purchases of non-sectarian materials, art supplies, music lessons, PE lessons (sports, swimming, martial arts, etc), field trips, etc. There are caps on how much you can be reimbursed in some categories, and you have to have at least four subjects—at least two of them core—that don't use religious/sectarian materials, or the allotment amount gets reduced. I sat down with our contact teacher from the organization a couple of weeks ago and wrote out Little Bear's ILP, which mapped out what subjects we'll be doing, what topics he'll be covering in each, and what our books/curriculum will look like. So for kindergarten, we're listed as taking Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Art. 

I expect to break Language Arts down into about three subjects on the weekly lesson plan: handwriting, reading, and circle (Waldorf-style song/storytelling/imaginative language development). For the latter, we're using the kindergarten curriculum from Lavender's Blue, a secular Waldorf-style program. I have high hopes for it, so I'll have to report back on it as we go. Handwriting will be the first grade book from Handwriting Without Tears, which just came in the mail today and honestly it looks waaaaay easy, so I'm going to have to keep on reminding him that the challenge is to do it neatly and carefully. I have a hand-me-down copywork book as well, which we may wind up using some of. And for reading, we will continue with Catholic Heritage Curricula's Little Stories for Little Folks, along with hopefully-frequent trips to the public library and the homeschool organization's library.

Math is straightforward this year: we'll be using RightStart Math, level B, with a book of Mind Benders logic puzzles from the Critical Thinking Company as a fun reward for getting other things done.

Science is a little more all over the place. He wanted to learn about "everything" this year, so we're planning to go through a couple of Magic School Bus science kits, starting with their Human Body Lab and going on to volcanoes and magnets. He reads so much on his own, and much of it nonfiction/science-related, that instead of working through a big science text this year I want to put more of a focus on nature study, spending time outdoors and learning about plants, animals, weather, seasons... We will see. I have a few Waldorf-style natural science books full of ideas.

Social Studies is going to be heavy on geography, because I love geography and he's going to learn to. :-) We have the first Maps Charts & Graphs book, which introduces the idea of reading the titular infographs with a focus on the local community. We'll also be going through a kids' atlas of the US and another of the world, reading through them and finding other resources to continue learning about any places or cultures that catch Little Bear's interest. We signed up with the Raddish kids' cooking program again, and that will also tie in with our learning about different places and peoples.

Art has never been my strong suit—I would go out of my way to avoid having art project disasters in the house—but I know it's important and I know Little Bear will enjoy it, so I was glad to see art projects included in the weekly lesson plans for the Lavender's Blue curriculum. 

And this won't be one of our classes for the state organization, of course, but we'll also be using the Who Am I? Kindergarten religion curriculum from Ignatius Press.


Writing things out is so helpful... I guess I  do have a plan for the year. Writing out weekly lesson plans is not going to be quite as simple as it was last year, but I think it's going to work out well. Little Bear just asked me to read this post to him, and now he's all excited about starting school; I convinced him that we need to wait until at least the week of the 21st.

If you have kids, when will (or did!) your school year start?