Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When the going gets tough, the tough stop cooking

I have been unusually busy as of late. Busy by pharma standards, that is - it's still nothing like my investment banking days, but I have spent a number of days in the past two weeks starting at 8am and ending at 7pm. It's definitely not like my investment banking days since I find myself with a lingering interest in cooking, even when I get home on the later side. The difference is that I find myself with less time to plan meals - I guess I didn't realize that how much I think about food when I have some down time during my work day.

Luckily this winter I've been trying make-ahead meals on the weekend and freezing batches for dinners during the week. Since it's still been freezing cold here in New England in mid-April, the hearty meals from the freezer have been welcome, in addition to being convenient. Though I must say, not everything has been successful and most of them weren't particularly photogenic, or else I was too hungry to bother with a photograph. In fact, the only photo I took of the recent make-ahead meals was this pile of napa cabbage:

The pile was transformed in Asian cabbage rolls via Serious Eats, from the cookbook "Not Your Mother's Casseroles". It's essentially a dumpling filling in a cabbage leaf, and while I love the ingredients in this recipe, somehow the flavour was a little off. It may be the ground pork that I bought wasn't that good (from Whole Foods, and not Savenor's the butcher shop with the best meats that I can find in a retail store), and it may have been a textural thing - I didn't put the pork in the food processor to make it smooth, which is what I would need to do to recreate the dumpling filling effect. It was also a ton of work - chopping scallions, mushrooms, ginger and cilantro by hand perhaps wasn't the most efficient thing to do if I'd thought of using the food processor. The recipe doesn't specify blanching the cabbage leaves beforehand, but I thought they were too stiff to roll without pre-treatment, so I ended up stinking up the kitchen as I blanched the towering pile of cabbage leaves.

Another lackluster attempt was a southwestern meatloaf, a recipe from one of the last Fine Cooking issues in our subscription that combined ground pork with cumin, red pepper and chipotle (among other ingredients), which in theory sounded good but in practice tasted just awful. We also have a small brick of meatloaf in the freezer that I haven't been able to bring myself to thaw, so it will be heading into the garbage once we start needing more space.

At least there were a few successful attempts thrown in there or else I would have thrown in the towel and resorted to takeout all the time, which was occurring with increasing frequency anyway since I hadn't frozen enough meals in advance. One was Tuscan Peasant Soup, an oldie but goodie Fine Cooking recipe that I consider to be a vegetarian meal since pancetta doesn't really count as meat given the quantity used in this dish. I used my homemade roasted chicken stock (made with 75-cent chicken parts!), San Marzano canned tomatoes (the Cento brand, which I think is imported from Italy) and dried white kidney beans that I soaked overnight then boiled for an hour. I'm not sure which or if any of these three ingredients made the difference, but it was the best soup I'd made and since it filled our large Dutch oven, we had plenty of leftovers to freeze.

The other surprising hit was a chicken pot pie recipe from America's Test Kitchen. They aren't kidding when they warn that this is a full-on production. None of the steps are particularly challenging, it's just that there's a lot to follow. It's the kind of thing that I tackle on a Sunday - I start by making the topping, go watch TV while that bakes, come back to poach the chicken, go back to watching TV while it cools, do all of the prep work for the sauce and then finally cook it all together before assembling the final dish and sticking it in the freezer. It's worth the effort to come home on a weeknight, pop the casserole out of the freezer and into the oven, and be ready to eat dinner in 45 minutes after whipping together a salad while the pie reheats.

As much as I like being prepared ahead of time, somehow it feels like these pre-planned meals work best with winter fare. Not sure what I'm going to do when the weather warms up, if it ever does around here...


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