Thursday, March 16, 2017

Freezer Management (Or Lack Thereof)

I don't know about any of YOU, but since I've started trying to abandon the "Live To Eat" philosophy and adopt "Eat To Live", otherwise known as "Food Is Medicine", at least at the far end of the pendulum, I have gotten so I don't like to cook. 

And maybe I can't quite lay all the blame at that doorstep.

Part of it is being married to one of those Old-Fashioned Country Boys.  It's not all that fun to cook for them, gotta tell ya.  They don't think they've had a meal unless there's meat and potatoes.  And generally, they don't like to try new things.  Vegetables offered can only be corn, peas and green beans.  Carrots if they're mixed with peas.  Celery and onions if they're hidden in a sauce or broth.  Peppers, not the spicy kind, if they are chopped and cooked with onions and maybe some kind of sauce, or with mushrooms and tucked into an omelet and covered with cheese, or spread on a pizza and covered with cheese.  Salad is expected to be composed of head lettuce and tomatoes.  Little bits of shredded carrot and cabbage is tolerated because that's how it's served in restaurants around here.  But nothing else.  They love their desserts.  They hardly ever compliment their cook because they don't believe in complimenting anyone for doing something they're supposed to do.  Plus they have some kind of emotional attachment to their words so they don't use them unless they just have to.  However, if they're eating some other woman's cooking, then all hell breaks loose and you're sitting there with your mouth hanging open because you've been cooking for him for -- how long? -- and you have never heard that many words fall out of his mouth, all at the same time.  So, you know he knows how to be complimentary. 

Hubs isn't one to complain about the food, even when there's a good reason to, simply because he has tried it, and it has awakened the ugly troll that lives under the bridge during our younger years.  I mean, if I'm not going to get a compliment once in awhile, I'm not giving any truck to criticism, whether it's "constructive" or not.  He just takes his plate to the kitchen, and then after a decent waiting period, makes toast and peanut butter.  If asked, he says he "just wasn't very hungry", at mealtime.  But I know the drill.  I just don't pursue it because there's no point in it.  There are lots of things I know better than to prepare, unless I want to have to eat it all.  He has a whole long list of foods he "just doesn't care for".  Sheesh!  Now, my son, Spike, is a different story.  He often says things to me like, "This is the bomb, Mom...."  Heh.

Fortunately, Hubs makes his own breakfast, since it's just oatmeal prepared in the microwave, and his own lunch, since every day it's a sandwich made with store-bought coldcuts, store mayonnaise, anemic-looking store head lettuce and sometimes a hot-house tomato, but at least he's finally not insisting on buying that awful stuff that they call "bread" at the store anymore.  I have no clue why he isn't sick of sandwiches by now, as he gets tired of other things if he has to eat them too often, and how he can eat those awful gassed tomatoes is just beyond me.  He isn't that fond of leftovers and I think, to him, a tiresome sandwich is the better option over eating the same thing he ate the night before for supper, even though for sure it'd be better for him.

I would be a lot happier if we could just skip the evening meal entirely.  I'm tired by then.  The last thing I want to do is spend time in the kitchen.  I tried making our biggest meal at noon, but that meant I had to come in from the garden before I'm ready to.  And then, after making a meal, my momentum has drained away and I don't get anything else done. 

So I have lately been thinking about investing some time into preparing freezer meals in advance.  One Prep, Many Meals.  Seriously, if you think about it, this is just a matter of semantics, because what you're doing is cooking a big batch that no one eats right away, unless, of course, you hold out some for the evening meal on cooking day.  Hence, leftovers.  But we won't say this to Hubs, OK?

One of the first things I thought about was some Swiss Steak (also called Pepper Steak), because I had some steak in the freezer that was bought on sale and the reason why was because it was really tough and probably not the right part of the cow to BE steak, if you know what I mean.  It quickly became obvious that, in order to use the remaining steaks from that particular purchase, I'd have to cook with tomato, or marinate, the next time. 

Swiss Steak is an easy dish for less expensive cuts of beef that are not very tender.  Just trim off the extra fat, put the steak in a hot iron skillet and let it "sear" on both sides, then pour off any fat that has cooked out.  Cover the meat with chopped tomatoes, add chopped sweet peppers and chopped onion.  Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat, put a lid on and let it bubble gently till the meat is tender.  Maybe about an hour.  Salt and pepper when serving.  Serve over rice.

Home-canned whole tomatoes (including the liquid from the jar) are the best to use.  The tomatoes are rather fragile and they fall apart in pieces during cooking.  But if you don't have that, use chopped commercially canned tomatoes and add about half a can of water and a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar for each 12-oz. can of tomatoes used.  The reason for using chopped is that commercially canned whole tomatoes are tough and do not break down very well during cooking.  The reason for the extra water and lemon or vinegar is that commercially canned chopped tomatoes are in a thick tomato puree that is not as thin or "acid-y" as the juice that comes out of the whole tomato when they are being home canned.

I'm digging in the freezer, trying to find all the wrapped pieces of the aforementioned steak and then something becomes abundantly clear:

My freezer(s) have gotten away from me. 

So, just to make things simpler, I plan to use the freezer in the refrigerator that's in the garage for pre-made meals.  Somewhere, in the big chest freezer, are bags of cooked rice, blobs of mashed potatoes, at least a couple of individual-sized meatloaves, and maybe some containers of Sweet And Sour Pork. 

I've needed to defrost the chest freezer for awhile.  By this time I seriously have no clue what all is stored away in there or if I even WANT some of it by now.  Case in point, what I found yesterday: a gallon ice-cream tub marked "Gluten", which was actually baking soda, something that doesn't even need refrigeration, much less being stored in the freezer!  Then I found a bag that actually WAS gluten, along with the other ingredients for "Dough Enhancer": Ascorbic Acid and Lecithin (it calls for Pectin, too, but that's stored in the pantry). 

I have this bad habit of buying in quantity.  That's OK if it's something I'll use within a reasonable amount of time.  But it bites me if it's something I end up not using because a) I get lazy.  And/or b) I don't notice a difference between using it and not using it.  Where the Dough Enhancer is concerned, for the past couple of years I've been lucky enough to be able to buy wheat that's had enough gluten on it's own that I didn't need to add anything to get a good rise.  The wheat I bought last summer does not rise quite as well, I have to coax it a little.  But I like the idea of making bread with only five ingredients: flour, yeast, honey, olive oil, and salt, as long as it is still "light" enough that Hubs will eat it. 

Since "inquiring minds want to know", I found information about Lecithin here:
https://draxe.com/what-is-soy-lecithin/
http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/granular-lecithin-8-oz

and about gluten here:
http://www.thekitchn.com/vital-wheat-gluten-what-is-it-84612
http://www.kingarthurflour.com/shop/items/vital-wheat-gluten-16-oz

Maybe I will do similar to what King Arthur Flour's website suggests and just add a tablespoon of each per 1.5 pound loaf until they are used up.  I can then use the pectin and ascorbic acid for canning and jelly-making.  I have a strawberry freezer jam recipe and also an old banana jam recipe that calls for added pectin.  And of course the ascorbic acid is necessary when canning certain fruits, so a use will be found for that in late spring, if the peach and pear trees bear. 

Pineapple-Banana Jam
This recipe is from a 1960's Grit Magazine. Always a big hit when given as a gift. Actually makes such a delicious ice-cream topper no one wants to “waste it” by putting it on bread.

1 #2 can crushed pineapple
5 ripe bananas, mashed (fruit will measure about 6 C)
7 1/2 C sugar
1 bottle liquid pectin (or 1 box powder, mixed into the sugar)

Add sugar to fruit in large saucepan and mix well. (stir in a pat of margarine to eliminate need to skim foam.) Bring to full rolling boil and boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and at once stir in pectin. Then cool 5 minutes to prevent floating fruit. Ladle into hot jars and seal.

Easy Strawberry Freezer Jam
This recipe came from a neighbor during the 1980's. It has such a “fresh-picked” taste. My batch was always a little “runny”, but it has always ended up on ice cream, so no one cared.  Next time I make this I might try mixing the pectin with the sugar and omitting the water.

1 Qt. fully ripe strawberries (about 2 C when stemmed & crushed)
4C sugar
3/4 C water
1 box powdered pectin

Stem and thoroughly crush berries. Stir sugar into fruit. Let stand 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix water and pectin in small saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Continue boiling and stirring 2 minute. Stir hot pectin mixture into fruit, stir constantly till sugar is dissolved, about 3 mins. Fill sterilized freezer containers quickly to within 1/2” from top, cover with lids and let stand at room temp. for 24 hours. Then ready to use or store in freezer up to one year. Will keep in refrigerator up to 3 weeks.

I am also in the process of "using up" some other stuff I bought quite a lot of just because some member of a forum I was on was going on and on about how nutritious it was at the time.  Chia seed, for instance.  I've started adding a tablespoon of it to my salad.  I can't say it adds much as far as taste or mouth feel, but it's supposed to be a complete protein, and since I've already got them, I might as well use them up.  Here's information about chia:
https://authoritynutrition.com/11-proven-health-benefits-of-chia-seeds/

Of course the seed can be planted, as well.  Here's information about that:
https://dengarden.com/gardening/How-I-grow-and-harvest-organic-Chia
Looks like Chia has a growth habit much like Amaranth, which is another seed that I have plenty of and just haven't been using.  Amaranth, in particular the Hopi Red Dye variety. from seed I got in a seed trade probably ten years ago, comes up volunteer in my garden every year.  This is a picture from last year.  They are fuller and make more seed plumes if they get more water.


The seed is plentiful and is fairly easy to winnow on a windy day but generally is best to pour into a large bowl while inside and then go out into the wind and just "swirl" the seeds around in the bowl.  Or you can blow into the bowl while you are swirling it, if there's not enough wind.  Better to stand in the garden while you do this so if any seeds blow out, at least they will come up in the following spring.  The seeds are not heavy enough to fall straight down into the bowl while the wind blows away the chaff, if you try to winnow like wheat.  I haven't planted this variety of Amaranth for years, as enough seed drops on the ground before or during harvesting of the plumes to ensure some plants coming up somewhere the next year.  Love Lies Bleeding and Joseph's Coat are two other varieties I've tried to get established without success for years.  Joseph's Coat because the leaves are so beautiful.  Love Lies Bleeding because the red "flower" is interesting and beautiful.  There's also one called Golden Giant I've planted before and didn't ever see any emergence.  I've just about tried everything, including mimicking how Hopi Red Dye self-seeds.  Both Amaranth and Chia leaves are nutritious and can be eaten as cooked greens or chopped into salads.  And this grain is also a complete protein.  Here's additional information about Amaranth:
http://www.bobsredmill.com/organic-amaranth-grain.html

They are, in fact, related to what some people call "Pig Weed". Mom always allowed a plant to grow in her garden that she called "Lambs Quarter", and I thought the two plants were the same thing.  But I recently discovered that they are not.  Both produce leaves and seeds that are edible.  But Lambs Quarter is Chenopodium album and Pig Weed is Amaranthus retroflexus.  Here's what Edible Wild Foods have to say about Pig Weed:
http://www.ediblewildfood.com/pigweed.aspx
and here's what they say about Lamb's Quarter:
http://www.ediblewildfood.com/lambs-quarters.aspx

I'm still trying to "use up" a big bag of Ocean Spray "craisins" that I bought before I found out how they are made.  All they are is what's left over after the juice has been extracted.  A by-product that's sprayed down with corn syrup and then dehydrated.  I suppose there might be some nutrition left in them but it rankles on me how this is marketed to us.  Mostly all it is, is the skins.  A "craisin" should be made like raisins or not at all.  I can't tolerate a lot of sugar but I've been throwing a handful in my salad.  They're a nice substitute for tomato when there are no REAL tomatoes available.  When they are gone, (one quart jar left, now) I'll not buy this product again.  Instead, I bought quite a few bags of cranberries around Thanksgiving when they were available in stores and they were, of course, in the freezer too.  I got those out, cut them in half so they would dehydrate easier, and it took them just a little more than 24 hours to dry.  They take up half as much space and can even be vacuum packed in jars and kept in the pantry. 



This is how much I got from twenty-one 12-oz. bags.  And no, the fruit that you dehydrate yourself is nothing like the dried fruit you buy, because it's not only the cranberries that get sprayed with corn syrup or at least sugar of some kind.  That's what makes them crunchy (and so cloyingly sweet).  Without it, the dried fruit is "chewy", usually, and some fruits, like strawberries, have a kind of a "papery" mouth feel that I don't particularly like.  These cranberries are a lot like that, but I'll be using them in baking, mostly, so they will reconstitute somewhat in the baking process.  I make dried blueberries, too, when I can buy some in season, and they are great for using in muffins because they keep their shape and don't turn the muffin blue, yet being in the moist muffin reconstitutes them enough so you can get a little moist burst of flavor in your bite.  Of course it needs to be remembered that if the recipe calls for a cup of fresh fruit and you have dried, you'll need only half as much.

I usually prefer to keep dried fruit in the freezer because they hold their color better.  Also if there are a few that didn't get dry enough, they can end up spoiling the whole container.  I will never forget the time I bought quite a few bananas, on sale, and made dried banana chips.  It was before I had a way to vacuum-seal jars, so I double bagged them in ziplock bags and stored them in the pantry.  Many days later, I noticed some strange little insects flying around, and finally traced them back to those bags of dried banana chips.  They had chewed holes right through the bag.  There was no saving them.  They went to the compost pile and that was a serious bummer.

Do you have as much trouble managing frozen cuts of beef, chicken and pork in your freezer as I do?  Seems like I can't prepare a meal without digging all through the freezer.  For awhile, I tried to keep meats organized in large wire freezer bins that I saved out of an old freezer many years ago.  But they were large and pretty heavy when fully loaded, so they had to be on the bottom, and if they were stacked they were too heavy to lift.  Didn't help much.  So then I tried cardboard boxes and that didn't help much, either.  But lately I've been thinking about using cloth bags.  Hmmmmm.  I have a lot of old pillowcases from when we were raising kids.  Not very pretty, but clean.  They could hold a lot, or a little, without wasting space.  I could put new purchases in a separate bag and put it under the bag containing older purchases.  Also might be another layer that would help prevent freezer burn.  Annnnnnd, the bag would conform to whatever shape would be necessary for it to fit the space available. 

I tried really hard to maintain my focus and not start thinking about how the pantry needs to be cleaned out and reorganized, too.  BUT, they kind of go hand-in-hand.   

And Hubs was no help when he made a remark that he hasn't had any cake for a long time, so he brought up a mix from the pantry.  OMG, we've had them so long they have expired.  The one I baked did not rise at all in the oven.  So I checked the dates of all of them, and then checked for smell, critters, and taste.  The one I opened passed, so I mixed it up according to package directions, adding a tablespoon of baking powder.  That resulted in a normal cake.  I seemed to have several white cake mixes, and while they are nice in combination with fruit, Hubs usually wants chocolate.  So that I can use them up, I tried adding 1/3 cup cocoa along with the extra baking powder when I mixed one up.  And a couple of whole eggs instead of just the eggwhites.  Because chocolate cake mix does not expire here.

I think it'll do.  Normally I might be concerned with whether there are any vitamins and minerals left in the dry ingredients in the box, but it's a cake mix and therefore empty-calorie junk food, anyway.  As long as the box is still in good shape, there are no weevils present, and there is no rancid taste or smell, there's not going to be much difference in the taste.  But yes, if you're going to be using an expired cake mix, do examine carefully first.  And add more baking powder.  It's the first to die.  Maybe it's time for me to do like Glenda does, and mix up my cakes from scratch.

There are some jars of dehydrated apple stored in the pantry.  They are from when I had all those apples from Leroy's tree.  It was an experiment, really.  We have been buying apples at the grocery store.  Of course Hubs will not eat dehydrated apple slices, but I should be eating them instead of having an apple a day.  Originally I thought I would chop them and add them to muffins, but when I make muffins, I prefer to use craisins, dried blueberries, dried aronia berries or raisins as the dried fruit component.

I found a can of salmon that I bought a couple of months ago, and yes I would be more careful about using foods like this if they were expired.  But this was a more recent purchase and so it was within the "best by" date.  It became the basis for salmon patties one night, with enough mixed up and ready to fry to slip into the freezer for another meal.  My recipe for Salmon Patties is simple: one 12-oz can salmon, removing bones and any visible skin, flake the meat using two forks like you would do for pulled pork.  Do not drain off the broth.  Add 1/2 cup Bisquik and an egg and stir well.  Form into patties.  Fry in a skillet in a little oil till brown on both sides.  If they're too moist for patties, add a little more Bisquik, or drop them onto the hot skillet and tease into patties while they cook. 

I thought I had some homemade Bisquik in the freezer, somewhere.  But I searched and didn't find it.  Maybe I used it all.  Or maybe I'll find it when I'm looking for something else.  So I had to make some more and now THAT's stored in the freezer.  This time I just made half a batch, and I used my whole-wheat flour instead of "Enriched" all-purpose flour.  Enriched.  What a spin.  But anyway.  In the hunting process, I found another container of Lecithin.  *Sigh*.  Smaller than the other one, though, at least.

Biscuit Mix
Makes about 13 cups or 3 quarts. This mix can be used as is for pancakes by adding egg and water or milk.  Makes wonderful, fluffy dumplings, just by adding water.  The secret to dumplings is to drop the dough by spoonfuls into boiling soup or broth, quickly put the lid back on and don't take it off till the dumplings are done.  They should be a little slick on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside.  I never use this to make biscuits, but if I did, to 2 cups of mix I'd add 1/4 tsp baking soda, cut in 2 tbsp. butter, and mix in buttermilk to make a soft dough.  Handle biscuit dough gently or the biscuits will be tough.  Drop biscuits are good if you like crunchy outsides.  Sometimes I gently pat them to flat 1" thick rounds right before they go in the oven.  Mostly I use Biscuit Mix for making "Impossible Pies", of which there are many, all pretty darn good.  There are tons of recipes on the Internet.

I keep my mix in the freezer.  Storage won't be as long in the refrigerator.  Shortening and dry milk can go rancid and baking powder can lose it's fizz.

9 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. salt
1/3 cup baking powder
3 tbsp. sugar
1 3/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cup instant nonfat dry milk
Combine all dry ingredients in large bowl. Cut in shortening until evenly distributed. Mixture will resemble cornmeal in texture. Pour into large airtight container and store in a cool dry place. Will keep 12 weeks. If frozen, will last indefinitely.

While I still knew where the Bisquik could be found, I used some to mix up three individual-sized Impossible Garden Pies, as I had a few spears of asparagus coming up in the garden, plus a pint container of asparagus from last year, found in the freezer.  Even if I've used all my frozen chopped onions, there are always some Walking Onions that are greening up.  Hubs does not like asparagus, so these are allllllll mine.

Impossible Garden Pie

3 and 1/2 c. mixed garden veggies, chopped
1/2 c. chopped onion
Parmesan cheese or grated white cheddar or Swiss cheese
1/4 tsp. pepper
1 and 1/2 c. milk
3/4 c. biscuit mix
3 eggs

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease 7"x11" dish. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese and pepper evenly over vegetables. Combine milk, biscuit mix and eggs. Beat until smooth and pour over vegetables. Bake about 30 minutes. Let set 5 minutes before cutting.

Just so you know, I've been writing on this post for several days.  I didn't get all this stuff done in just one day.  My take-away from this effort, which won't be over for awhile yet, is that I just shouldn't buy so much ahead of time.  The beauty of having a well-stocked pantry and freezers is that when you decide to cook or bake something, you don't have to run to the store.  And you can stock up on things when they go on sale. Of course, if you have a garden, you must have a place to store jars of things you have canned.  Then there are those things that are better frozen than canned.  But there are lots of things that I will not buy again.  There is a happy balance in there somewhere. 

So I soldier on.  There are days when it's two steps forward, one back.  Like the day that Hubs went to Kentucky Fried Chicken with a coupon and came home with TWO BUCKETS of chicken.  *Sigh*.  Hmmmm.  I don't really feel like cooking tonight.  I think we'll just thaw out some of that.  Bake a potato in the microwave.  And there's some salad in the refrigerator......  Left-over green beans for Hubs (because the salad has peas and broccoli and mushrooms in it).

I know this post is about as disorganized as the freezers and pantry, and I apologize for that.  I hope all of you have made it through the winter weather and that spring is around the corner for you as it is for us.  We MAY have had our last night of freezing temps.  But we never know.  Mesonet changes its forecast at the last minute sometimes.  We've had freezing weather as late as mid-April before, so I won't be planting those tomato plants JUST YET.  I'll try to do a garden post next time.

Rock on....  Hugs xoxoxo