The Next Step: Cooking Show: Easy Essential Food Prep for Family Dinners   

...getting through life one step at a time.

...getting through life one step at a time.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cooking Show: Easy Essential Food Prep for Family Dinners

I love to cook.  I used to love to cook more than I do now.  Now there's a certain level of "chore" involved that makes it just a little less fun.

I actually came up with this prep-plan when I was a single, working woman, no kids, no husband.  And then my boyfriend moved in with me, and became my fiance, then my husband - and we went out to eat a lot.  Ahh, the "honeymoon phase."  Boy was that over when kids came into the picture.  And I'd love to throw chicken nuggets at them every nice or let them eat cookies every time they asked (hey, they are all natural cookies - *mostly* healthy ingredients - and they are EATING!  my two year olds are EATING).  But, of course I want them to really eat healthy and not survive on artificial ingredients and highly processed foods.

So here's what I do:

Start with a bunch of these pyrex food storage containers that go from freezer to oven to dishwasher quite easily.  And depending on where you buy them, you can buy red or blue tops, which also help if you need to make "kid friendly" recipes but you & your spouse prefer something a little more spicy.  (Red for spicy, blue for cool, get it?)

Another MUST is a reliable meat thermometer.  I have gone through a couple digital ones and after getting tired of replacing the batteries I went with a good old analog one - that also has a handy temp guide on the sleeve.  Poultry must be at least 170 degrees at the center in order to be safe to eat.  PLEASE keep that in mind when using any of the cooking options below.

1) Throw a little olive oil in the bottom and start throwing in your ingredients for main courses - chicken parts on the bone, pork chops on the bone, a nice ribeye on the bone (I stress "on the bone" because it helps keep the meat moist and flavorful while you cook longer at lower temperatures).  My "go-to" recipe includes one large chicken breast on the bone with skin and two chicken thighs on the bone with skin.  I never serve the skin, but it also helps keep the meat moist & tender.  My husband and I generally split the breast and the 3 little girls get enough meat from the two thighs that we are all happy and satisfied.

2) Find a salad dressing (non-creamy ones work the best) that meets your approval for ingredients and taste.  I've found that pretty much every flavor of Newman's Own works for me.  Add 1/4 cup to 1/2 a cup (depending on how much meat you are cooking) to the pan.

3) Cover with the lid and throw them in the freezer.  I buy the value packs of chicken at the grocery store, so I can usually get 4-5  of the 3-1/2-cup rectangular size filled and sometimes, depending on number of side dishes, we get leftovers and I've just made dinners for a full week!  (scroll down for the various baking temps depending on what you want - but rule of thumb here would be cover with foil, bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 to 2 hours - making sure internal temp of chicken is at least 170 degrees)

If you want to enhance this a little, here are some sides & seasonings I use often with just a little olive oil and no salad dressing.  Another (but more expensive) option is Avocado Oil - much lighter in flavor and texture and from what "they" say, it's better for you (no difference in fat or calories though).

Root vegetables:
Carrots, potatoes, celery, sweet potatoes, onions, brussel sprouts - all these hold up really well to the freezing and slow-cooking process.   They add flavor and work nicely as a side dish, especially if you give them a little immersion blender treatment and turn them into a variation of mashed potatoes. 

One tip I learned from watching The Chew, is to cook brussel sprouts with sweet potatoes because the sweet potatoes pull the bitterness out of the sprout and make for a very tasty combo.  I chop them, throw them in a pyrex with some olive oil on the bottom and sprinkle Penzeys Pumpkin Pie Spice liberally over them - sometimes layering it - sprouts/spice/sweet potato/spice, etc.  One medium sweet potato and a handful of brussel sprouts can fill the 3-1/2-cup rectangular size so unless you are feeding at least 4 adults, then prep this in multiple smaller dishes so you don't have the same side dish leftovers for a week.
This cooks right alongside the main dish in the oven.

I maintain that the easiest, best-quality, most flavorful spice options are to buy ANY of the spice blends from Penzeys Spices.  I have bought same-name spices from other companies, and even the fancy, organic stuff from Whole Foods just doesn't "pop" and hold up its flavors like the stuff I get from Penzeys.  And they have brilliant flavor combinations that make tasty cooking SO easy - one jar, a couple of shakes and you are done!  My favorite is the Sandwich Sprinkle, but that is pretty high in salt so if you want some flavorful salt-free options my favorites in that category are Arizona Dreaming (spicy), Bavarian Style (great on pork chops and pork loin),  Sweet Curry (excellent on turkey and in my meat muffins with lamb), and of course the classic Herbs de Provence (you can find this blend anywhere, but I swear this one is the best).  Most of them come with the handy "shaker" top so just shake a couple times over each piece of meat and you are done!

Options for cooking:
These prepped dinners really are versatile for your varied dinner-making schedules during the week.  If you remember to take one out of the freezer and put it in the fridge the night before, then you can slow-bake.  If you forget and need to go straight from freezer to oven you can crank the temp and still have dinner on time.  You can have slow-cooked chicken that falls off the bone, or you can have have quick chicken that is more firm.  I never bother to preheat the oven - I think that's valuable cooking time wasted.  I take the dish from the fridge, remove the plastic lid, cover in foil, and put it in the oven - then set the temp and walk away.  Here are some cooking options:

Freezer to oven: 
Remove plastic lid (you might think I'm redundant mentioning this multiple times but trust me, when you are as distracted as I am with a 5 year old and 2 1/2 year old twins it *is* possible to ruin dinner by leaving the plastic lid on during baking)
Cover with aluminum foil
Bake at 375 for 2 hours OR if you have time, 350 for 3 hours (the lower the temp and longer the cooking time, the better chance you have of moist meat).  If you are a skin-eater, remove the foil for the last 10 minutes.
Just make sure the internal temp of the chicken is at least 170 degrees for food safety!  If you check the temp and it's only at 140, you can estimate that the temp will rise 10 degrees with every 10-12 minutes of baking at 350 degrees.

Fridge to oven:
Remove plastic lid (seriously, keep repeating this!)
Cover with aluminum foil
Bake at 325 for 3 hours for moist, fall-off the bone chicken  OR if you are running late 350 for 1.5 - 2 hours.
Just make sure the internal temp of the chicken is at least 170 degrees for food safety!

Go straight to the oven from prep:
Probably didn't *use* the plastic lid in this instance, but just make sure it's not there :-)
Cover with aluminum foil
Bake at 350 for 1.5 hours - 2 hours, just make sure the internal temp of the chicken is at least 170 degrees for food safety!  If you check the temp and it's only at 140, you can estimate that the temp will rise 10 degrees with every 10-12 minutes of baking at 350 degrees

I hope the time you spent reading this more than makes up for the time you will save during the week following this prep guide!  And I hope you enjoy cooking just a little bit more now!  :-)

Bon App├ętit!

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