Homemade. Dinner. Fast.

Homemade. Dinner. Fast. You don’t often see those three words standing so close together. But with a little preparation, it can be done–and done well.  The trick is to keep what you need in your freezer.

It involves three main ingredients:  pizza dough, grated cheese and sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

From the freezer: dough, grated cheese, pizza sauce.

In the morning transfer them from freezer to refrigerator.  Keep them all in the fridge for most of the day to thaw slowly.  The dough came out a couple of hours before dinner to sit on the counter and finish thawing. I then removed the plastic wrap, set the dough on a plate and covered it with a clean tea towel to warm up and rise a bit.

The crust:  I’ve been using this particular recipe for the past year.  It makes a thin, extremely crispy crust that is absolutely delicious.  Find the recipe on another really great blog, Dinner a Love Story.  The only difference being that I substitute half the white flour with whole wheat.  Works perfectly.  I also am a fan of prepping the dough in my food processor. It’s quick and easy.  The recipe makes enough for two crusts.  Wrap each in plastic wrap and tuck them into a freezer bag.

Grated cheese:  Freezing grated cheese destined for melting works well.  I cut a pound of mozzarella into three equal pieces that would fit through the intake tube of my food processor.  Freeze the cheese for about 20 to 30 minutes in advance for easier grating. Use the grating blade attachment.

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The food processor will definitely save time, but hand grating works fine, especially if you have lots of eager helpers.  I packed the cheese equally into three pint size freezer bags. One bag works for one lightly cheesy pizza, but use two bags if you like yours rich and gooey.

Ready for bagging!

Ready for bagging!

The sauce:  If all you have is a large can of diced tomatoes (or a freezer full of frozen ones), you can whip up this pizza sauce in minutes with the addition of four more common ingredients.  There is no cooking required! The recipe comes from cookbook author, Amanda Haas.  It’s so easy your kids can make it while you prepare a green salad.  Use some and freeze the rest.  I prefer sturdy jars for freezing this sauce in.

Putting it all together:  Simply spread the dough in a large, very thin rectangle on a heavily oiled (olive oil–it does great things to the crust) cookie sheet.  Cover with sauce and sprinkle with grated cheese.  I brush olive oil on any exposed crust, but I try to take the toppings as close to the edge as possible. I also drizzle some good quality olive oil over the top as well.

Bake at 500 degrees.  Check after ten minutes.  The edges should be brown and the cheese bubbly.

The result?  Gourmet pizza at a fraction of the cost of take-out.

What pizza toppings do you prefer?

With the addition of black olives.

With the addition of black olives.

5 Surprising Foods to Keep in the Freezer

You’ll save money and waste less with the freezer as your friend.  These five foods are handy to have on hand:

1. Tomatoes  When you find a great source for tasty tomatoes (your garden?), and you want to preserve the flavor of summer, it’s a simple matter to pack them clean and whole in a freezer bag.  When needed, simply rinse under warm water, and the skin peels right off.  Core and chop to the desired size while still semi-frozen.  When thawed they will be comparable to canned tomatoes.  Use in soups, stews, casseroles and sauces.

All that's left from last summer's garden.

All that’s left from last summer’s garden.

2.  Avocados  Simply wash, slice in half and peel.  Pop them into a freezer bag just like this.  Alternatively you could mash them up with a little lemon juice and freeze.  The texture of this fruit does change from its fresh state, but previously frozen avocado makes a great guacamole.  I like to use mashed avocado on my sandwich as a replacement for mayo.

Peel and freeze!

Peel and freeze!

3.  Grains  When you have time, make an extra-large batch of your favorite grain.  Let them cool thoroughly, spread out on a baking sheet before freezing.  Then divide grains into small portions in freezer safe bags.  Squeeze out all extra air in bag to avoid ice crystals and freezer burn.  Keeps in freezer for two to three months.  Use as the basis for a quick dinner, an addition to casseroles or soups, or as a breakfast cereal.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

4.  Milk  When I started buying organic milk on a regular basis, it was a shock to the pocketbook.  But then I found out that I could buy it on sale and stick the extra jugs in the deep freeze.  Yes, the texture does change.  It may be slightly “grainier” and needs to be shaken before use to blend the fat back into the milk.  Not great for drinking a glass with cookies but fine for cooking/baking, and I happily use it on my cereal.

5.  Ginger  We love cooking with ginger.  Unfortunately, it always seemed that we didn’t use it up before it went bad.  Then I stumbled on a tip in my Cook’s Illustrated magazine that changed my despair to, well, if not joy, then satisfaction…  Peel and freeze.  Easy.  Frozen ginger makes grating simple.  Also, check out this page from Lunch In A Box for more ideas about freezing ginger.

What do you find that works well coming out of the freezer?

UFOs and Aliens Invade My Freezer

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Yesterday I cleaned out the refrigerator, including the freezer. Especially the freezer.  It was definitely time for a spring cleaning. A while back I had organized the shelves by food type.  Seems I am the only member of this family who reads labels.  Nothing was where it should have been.  Plus, I had a UFO (unidentified frozen object) with no identification on it whatsoever and little to distinguish it by sight alone (My first mistake.)  There was only one option.

Defrost.

I placed the bag in the sink to thaw (my second mistake) and went about my business. It felt a bit like choosing a grab bag at a carnival.

Hours later, when the hoarfrost had melted away and the contents of the bag were visible, I still had no clue.  I gingerly opened the bag and sniffed.  Nothing.  A finger poke led to the “aha” moment.

Roasted bell pepper strips.  Late in the season when we were dismantling the garden, and the remaining peppers had all been green.  I roasted them in the oven, then preserved them for future use by freezing.  6 months had gone by.  I googled a freezer storage chart to discover that frozen cooked vegetables are best within 2 to 3 months.  Should I use them or throw them away?  Such a dilemma.

I haven’t mastered the art of canning yet; the freezer is still the best way for me to preserve food.  I decided it was time to learn how to use the freezer safely and more efficiently.

Snickerdoodle cookie dough balls or alien space creatures?  Looking a little frosty there.  Did I make them in September?

Snickerdoodle cookie dough balls or alien space creatures? Looking a little frosty there.

A few helpful tips:

1.  Obviously, it’s important to label and date all freezer bags and containers even if you think you’ll be using them soon–as I must have done when I chucked those peppers into cold storage.

2. Leave as little air as possible in all freezer containers.  Push extra air out of bags before sealing and always use freezer safe containers that fit the amount of food being frozen.  I’m guilty, guilty, guilty.

3. Cool hot foods quickly before freezing them by placing the pan of hot food in a large container filled with ice or cold water, stirring to keep the cold circulating. The sink works well for this purpose.

4.  Place food items in the coldest part of the freezer.  Keep them away from the door until they’re completely frozen.

5.  The best and safest way to thaw foods is in the refrigerator.  Foods can also be defrosted in the microwave.  Only muffins, breads, and other baked goods can safely be thawed at room temperature.  Oops.  I’ve been living dangerously it appears.

So, let’s see.  I baked the cookies.  Sam will let me know if they’re past their prime. Hey, it won’t kill him, and it’s worth a shot.  And we’ll see what I can come up with for those peppers.  Got any ideas for me?

Who could find anything here?

BEFORE: Who could find anything here?

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AFTER: Much better. Let’s give this organization thing another go.

Recipe: Baked Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal

Mornings are just plain busy—if not completely manic.  There’s not a lot of time to fuss over breakfast.  Since Sam took over putting together his own morning meal, he’s looking for easy.  But he also knows the requirements: whole grains, protein and fruits and/or vegetables.  So, while he’s quite adept at scavenging, (and what self-respecting teen isn’t) it’s also a comfort to know that Mom has a breakfast favorite ready to eat and only as far away as the freezer.

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Baked Pumpkin Pie Oatmeal

  • 7.5 ounces (1/2 can) pumpkin pie mix (We like the Farmer’s Market brand.  It always goes on sale around Thanksgiving so I buy lots.)
  • 1 egg
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 2 T. butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups quick oatmeal
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix first 5 ingredients in a medium bowl. Blend together well.

Stir the 3 remaining dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.

Add wet ingredients to dry and stir with spoon until just mixed.

Spoon resulting mixture into a greased 8X8 pan and bake for 25 minutes.  Check for doneness with toothpick in the center.  Bake an additional 5 minutes if needed.  Remove from oven and cool on wire rack.  Cut into squares when completely cool.

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Eat one right away, if you must (I always do) and pack the rest into a labelled freezer zip bag.  When ready for breakfast, simply remove a square or two from the bag and heat in a bowl in the microwave.  When hot, serve with milk, kefir or yogurt.  Top with fresh fruit and a drizzle of maple syrup if extra sweetness is desired.

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Sam likes to use the remaining pie mix to stir into his yogurt.  This is also a breakfast he willingly makes on his own or becomes a snack after school.  Alternatively, you could simply double the recipe using the whole can of pumpkin pie mix.

This recipe makes a delicious, not-too-sweet, hot breakfast in a hurry. The hard part’s done; just heat and eat.

Make or Buy: Yogurt (from scratch)

It’s time to take yogurt to the ultimate level.  I talk a good game, and I’ve written about both frozen and flavored varieties, but lots of people make their own.  Why not me?

I’ve been wanting to make yogurt for quite a while.  It sounds easy enough, but nothing can be that simple, right?

Well, turns out it is!  Here’s how:

First gather all your tools and ingredients.

  • 1/2 gallon of milk (I used whole milk for best flavor but you don’t have to)
  • 1/2 cup “starter” yogurt with live cultures (grocery store yogurt is fine)
  • dutch oven or other heavy pot
  • candy thermometer (great because it clips on side but other type is fine)
  • wooden spoon
  • whisk
  • small bowl

  • Heat milk on medium high, watching thermometer.  Stir pot the whole time to avoid burnt milk on the bottom and take off heat when the temperature reaches around 190 degrees (don’t boil).

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  • Have sink filled with a couple of inches of cold water.
  • Place entire pot into water to cool, stirring continuously, this time to keep temperature even throughout.

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  • When temperature reaches 105 to 115 degrees, remove one cup of milk and whisk it into small bowl with the half cup of yogurt until smooth.

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  • Now whisk this mixture back into the large pot with the rest of the milk.  
  • Fit with lid and wrap the whole ensemble in a thick towel for insulation.

For the incubation period, you want to keep the milk in a warm place.  I used the microwave to heat two cups of water in a large mug to boiling point.  Then I shut my towel wrapped package carefully inside (avoid jostling) along with the heated water–which kept the interior nice and warm.

The cup of heated water is in the back corner.

The cup of heated water is in the back corner.

Check on your yogurt after about 6 hours.  Taste for preferred tartness.  I let mine sit for 7 hours with happy results but you could go longer.

I’m not sure what it was about making yogurt that seemed so daunting initially.  I guess I assumed this was one of those unforgiving processes–where one false move can end in disaster.  But after my success, I’m thinking that, with a few more batches under my belt, I can probably ditch the thermometer and intuit the timing.

I can do this!  And when I do, the whole operation will take less time and trouble than driving to the store to buy it.  Make or buy?  Definitely make!

yogurt parfait with orange segments and chopped almonds

yogurt parfait with orange segments and chopped almonds

Friday Feature: Is It Spaghetti Or Is It Squash?

I bought a spaghetti squash at the market.  It sat on the counter for a couple of weeks, more as a fall decoration than a potential food item.  But then Thanksgiving came and went, and it was still there.  I figured it was do or die.  If I didn’t deal with the darn thing, I might end up throwing it over the bank in the backyard like I did with the one last year.

Using Carla Emery’s The Encyclopedia of Country Living as my guide, I found out just how ridiculously easy it is to create a delicious low-calorie replacement for angel hair pasta.

Step 1:  Throw the whole thing into a roasting pan and put into a hot 350 degree oven.  Prick the skin with a fork.  Bake for about 1 and a half hours or until a knife easily pierces the skin.

Hot out of the oven.

Hot out of the oven.

Step 2:  After it cools a bit (don’t want to burn your fingers), slice lengthwise and scrape out the seeds and the pulp.

ready to be seededStep 3:  Now the fun begins!  I used a large salad fork to literally rake out the “spaghetti” onto a plate.

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Now you’re ready to dress it up for dinner…

scrumptious

  • Top with pasta sauce and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  • Stir in a little butter, salt, and pepper.
  • Pour on a little cream and stir in some  grated cheese.

Other suggestions include serving it with chili or in a casserole or stir-fry.  I like the idea of using it in place of lasagna noodles.

We had leftover squash which ended up in Jim’s vegetable soup the next day.  You can also cook and then freeze the “spaghetti” for use at a later date.

Lots of possibilities here!

I’ll be back the Monday after Christmas.  Have a Happy Holiday everyone!!!

3 Emergency Dinners and Scenes from New York

My husband has been out of town for over a week.  He’s pretty much a homebody so this is definitely out of the ordinary for all of us.  He happens to be on the other side of the country working with utility crews from all over the nation getting New York City back in power.

Without him here every night for dinner, I’ve let mealtimes fall by the wayside–seriously.  At first, it  seemed like a vacation from the nightly stress of getting dinner on the table, but now, after a week of winging it, it’s rather tiresome. The most important lesson I’ve learned?

You have to plan ahead.

I know planning ahead for an emergency dinner seems counterintuitive.  But it isn’t.  Not really.

We rely heavily on a well stocked freezer and pantry staples so dinner comes together without too much fuss and bother.  Here are three of our favorites.

  1. Burritos  Beans and tortillas make the basis of this meal.  We always have cheese on hand, but if you don’t, it freezes well grated.  Fill them out with leftovers from the fridge: grains, meats, and/or vegetables.
  2. Breakfast   Eggs, any way you like ’em, cook up quickly.  Throw in some grated cheese and chopped spinach, olives or whatever’s tasty and available.  Whole grain toast with apple butter and breakfast sausage.
  3. Pizza  Using thawed pizza dough or pita rounds.  Top with your favorite jarred pasta sauce and grated cheese.  Add olives, ground meat, sliced tomatoes,or last night’s pan cooked broccoli and place under the broiler.

From the freezer:

  • tortillas
  • sliced whole grain bread
  • grated cheese
  • breakfast sausage (thaws quickly under running water)
  • pizza dough (taken out in the morning to thaw in the refrigerator)

From the cupboard:

  • canned beans (whole or refried)
  • olives
  • pasta sauce in a jar
  • apple butter

From the refrigerator:

  • leftover meats
  • last night’s vegetables
  • eggs
  • salad vegetables
  • fruit

Add a simple salad of greens or fruit to round things out.

Admittedly, these emergency dinners involve a working stove, refrigerator and plenty of light and heat.  So perhaps, strictly speaking, it’s not an emergency.  After Hurricane Sandy, an unplanned dinner is small potatoes to what the folks on the East Coast have endured.

        What are your favorite quick dinners?