vegetables of my labor

Remember I told you that, as a precaution against Valentine’s-week insanity, I made all our meals for the week in advance?  Here’s how that ended.

We had tater tot casserole first.  It assembled in maybe two minutes.  (Maybe less.)  I greased a casserole dish (which was probably unnecessary but “just-in-case” might as well be my middle name) and laid out most of the tater tots from a bag of frozens.  Then over the tots I spread the ugly filling (cream of mushroom soup, sausage, and broccoli), arranged on top the tots that wouldn’t fit on the bottom layer, and topped it all with shredded cheddar.

tater tot casserole

What it lacks in looks it more than makes up for in flavor.  And Lovey adores the leftovers.

tater tot casserole plated

Then there was shrimp fra diavolo, which I served over angel hair pasta.  Waiting for the pasta to cook was the hardest part of this dinner.  I drained off the water once the pasta was soft, threw in a square of butter, then quickly heated the shrimp mixture in a hot-hot skillet with the lid on.  I wanted to heat it fast to prevent the (pre-cooked, once-frozen) shrimp from getting chewy.  It worked!

shrimp fra diavolo on pasta

On Valentine’s Day itself we had a romantic late-night game of Set, which I had just ordered.  Its arrival in the mail that week was one of the highlights of an otherwise rather bleak period.

chicken salad and Set (Valentine's night)

We enjoyed the game a couple times–as long as I could stay awake for it!  On Valentine’s night our dinner was super-simple chicken salad on crackers.  Port on the side.  Piping hot bath afterward.  (Solo, in case you were wondering.)

chicken salad on crackers, and Set (Valentine's night)

Finally, we culminated our week of devouring pre-made meals with the hot-and-cool of curry and celery salad.

chicken curry with peas, Greek yogurt, and celery salad

I’ve been meaning to try big cooking for nearly a year, and now that I’ve done it I plan to continue.  It’s just such a practical way to take the stress out of an evening.  I’d say “especially for working women” but stay-at-home moms are working women too, so this is a stress-buster for everyone!  What are some meals you’ve prepped ahead of time with good results?  I’d love to gather more ideas that aren’t casseroles!

squirreling it away

You know how squirrels can sense winter coming so they frantically churn up your entire yard hiding their foul-weather food reserves?  I understand that now.  What’s more, I’m starting to think it’s an excellent idea.  The difference: my impending crisis wasn’t winter but Valentine’s Day.

Last week I worked full-time at my usually-part-time flower shop job.  We’re talking eight- to eleven-hour days with no official breaks.  (We were allowed to eat and, you know, basic human stuff, but the rest of the time we were on the phone, helping in-store customers, or prepping orders for delivery.)

Anticipating the madness to come, I spent the Sunday that kicked off that crazy week squirreling away a week’s worth of dinners.  What follows is the (long) story of how two hours’ work yielded me several relaxed evenings at home.

The recipes:

-chicken salad (to eat on bread/crackers/pretzels)

-artisan bread (see previous)

-celery salad (something cool to go alongside fresh-made curry)

-shrimp fra diavolo (to serve with pasta)

-tater tot casserole (one of Lovey’s favorites that also happens to be very quick and easy)

If you want to do this too, I recommend using recipes you already know well.  It might even help to write down the order in which you plan to do each step if switching between recipes seems overwhelming.

1--it's 430, time to start

4:30–I started the dough for artisan bread (more on that here or here).  It’s 3 cups of water, 1 1/2 Tbs. yeast, 1 1/2 Tbs. salt, and 6 1/2 cups of flour.  Then it rises for two hours (though this time it only rose for one and turned out fine).

2--yeast & water for bread dough

While the bread dough sat on the stove to rise I assembled most of the other ingredients for my meals.

3--all the ingredients

The first thing into the oven was chicken.  My usual time-saving technique with chicken breast is to cook a whole package at once.  I pour about this much olive oil into a square glass baking dish, liberally sprinkle it with pepper and less-liberally sprinkle it with kosher salt, then put in the trimmed meat shoulder-to-shoulder, alternating the thick parts.

4--olive oil salt & pepper

Like this.  (I apologize if the sight of raw meat grosses you out.)

5--raw chicken in a glass baking dish

Then into a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes.

6--40 minutes for chicken to bake

Meanwhile, I tossed a bunch of shrimp into a colander under cold running water to thaw.

7--thawing shrimp

With rising bread and baking chicken and thawing shrimp taking care of themselves for a little while, I turned my attention to assembling other components of the meals.  First, Miracle Whip and relish went right into the container I wanted to store my chicken salad in.  No use mixing it in a bowl and then transferring it to another container later, right?  Made sense to me.

8--mayo & relish for chicken salad

That only took a second, so after I put away the refrigables (I’m making that a word for now) I started boiling some salted water in a pot on the stove.  I rinsed and chopped a head of broccoli.  Then I pulled the tails off my thawed shrimp.

I wanted to say I “detailed” my shrimp–and that might be accurate, but it sounds too much like car-care.  I don’t want you to think I vacuumed the shrimps’ insides and waxed their outsides, because that would cause problems–I’m thinking inedibility and/or a smelly vacuum cleaner.

9--detailing shrimp

About the time the shrimp had been detailed had their tails pulled off the water was boiling.  In went an egg, which I had set out at room temperature earlier so it wouldn’t crack when it hit the hot water.  If you ever need to drop a cold egg into a hot pot, warm it under hot water from the faucet first, or set it in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes.

10--boiling an egg for chk salad

Atop the egg-boiling pot went a steamer with the chopped broccoli.  I left the lid off because I didn’t want to accidentally overcook my veggies.  Vivid green is perfect; browning green is terrible.

11--steaming broccoli, uncovered, over boiling egg

Celery was next to hit the cutting board.  Some went into the chicken salad that was beginning to take shape; the rest was for the celery salad.

12--chopped celery in chk salad

The celery salad also called for leaves so, though I usually discard this part, I went ahead and saved it this time.

13--chopped celery leaves for celery salad

By the time I had hacked up all that celery the broccoli had reached its peak shade of green, so I relocated it to the sink and cooled it.

14--cooling broccoli to stop cooking

The egg was also done cooking.  It must have been a tad too cold upon entry into its boiling pot, because it did crack–but only a little.  The thing I hate is when part of the egg leaks out and cooks clinging to the shell; it forms an ugly mass of white rubbery stuff that’s no good to eat.  So at least that didn’t happen.

15--boiled egg cooling

I didn’t want to add the egg to the chicken salad just yet, so while it cooled I halved a lemon to squeeze over the celery salad.

16--lemon juice on celery salad

Then I started dealing with onions.  I recently re-watched “The Help” (loved the book and the movie!) and one of the maids–I think it was Abilene–said your eyes won’t water while chopping onions if you hold a match between your teeth.  (If I remember right, Skeeter squeaked, “Is it lit?!”)  I tried that (unlit!) and it worked for about half an onion.  My theory is that biting something makes you squint your eyes so less onion-fumes get in.  What do you think?

17--olive oil in celery salad, onions in chk salad

Part of my onion (minced) went into the chicken salad, while the other part (larger half-rings) went into a hot pot with some olive oil.  Once sauteed, that became the first thing in my container for shrimp fra diavolo (“brother devil”…means it’s hot!).

18--olive oil & onions

About the time the onions were cooked enough to toss in their storage container, the chicken that had been baking this whole time was ready to come out of the oven.  I always let my chicken sit for a few minutes before slicing it.  I was shocked and delighted to discover, when I started exercising a little patience, that the mythology of “collecting juices” is real.  Seriously, these things are so juicy they sometimes send savoriness zooming across the kitchen when I cut in.  Which is a little disgusting in one way, while being completely amazing in another.

19--cooked chk

So I let the meat rest in peace.  (Get it?  It’s dead.)  Meanwhile I salted and peppered my celery salad.

20--s&p on celery salad

It was also time for a little Parmesan cheese (grated, not powdered) to garnish the celery.

21--Parm on celery salad

By that point I was feeling okay about the egg’s temperature, so I peeled that bad boy and chopped it roughly before scraping it off the cutting board and into the chicken salad.

22--egg on chk salad

Shrimp fra diavolo needed more attention so into that mix went: a can of tomato paste, a glug of olive oil, a few cloves of minced garlic (deliciousness incarnate!), and, of course, the shrimp.  A little white wine and we were ready to call it good.  (By “we” I mean “I.”)

23--Fra Diavolo

All this in an hour!

24--an hour gone by

Because I got all excited and forgot that normally artisan bread spends two hours on its first rise, I jumped the gun and shaped the loaves at the one-hour mark.  Each boule goes onto a round sprinkling of corn meal to prevent it from sticking.  It stays there for 40 minutes before seeing the scorching heat of a 425-degree oven.  (450 is the recipe’s prescription, but I don’t like my crust as crunchy as French people like it, I guess, so I reduce the temp and skip the steaming called for in the original.)

25--bread shaped into loaves and oven preheated

I was ready to chop chicken…at…long…last.  Experimentation taught me that I prefer to mince my chicken for chicken salad because a.) the less chunky it is, the better it works as a dip or spread//b.) the smaller the pieces, the farther the mix seems to go.

26--chopped ckn

The one recipe I haven’t shown (except to depict some of its components in the ingredients shot near the beginning) is tater tot casserole.  True confession: I haven’t shown it because it looks unappealing.  You can see the mix in the container on the left: it’s cooked sausage (hamburger works too), cooked broccoli, and cream of mushroom soup.  Next to that, top to bottom, are chicken salad, shrimp fra diavolo, and celery salad.  There was another container of chopped chicken that I saved for curry, but it didn’t make this photo.

27--four basics assembled

And look! In just an hour and a half I had nailed all the main components of four nights’ worth of dinners.  And I’m not even a very fast cook.  Part way through I was thinking, “This is going to take forever and not even be worth blogging about!”  But coming out on the other side I attest that it is 100% worth both doing and recommending to others.  I could not have handled cooking during my hectic Valentine’s week, and thanks to this extra effort beforehand, I didn’t have to.

28--an hour and a half gone by

If you’re wondering about the other three nights mysteriously omitted, I figured we’d definitely be able to cover one with leftovers.  We always do.  And our grocery store was having a Chinese takeout special during Valentine’s week, so that was my fallback plan.  Then Lovey supplemented the menu with gyros on Wednesday, so these four meals really did carry us, and at a time investment of half an hour apiece, if you count kitchen-cleaning toward the time.

29--another half hour and all is clean

It was almost exactly two hours from opening the fridge to pull out ingredients to hanging the dish cloth over the edge of the sink and calling it a night.

30--all done

Do you practice “big cooking” sessions?  What tricks do you use to streamline the chore of cranking out a ton of food in a smidgen of time?  Seasoned homemakers, chime in!

P.S. Check in next Thursday to see how the meals turned out!

a truly SUPER bowl

It’s not really the bowl that’s super so much as what it contains.  Look; it’s tzatziki!


Until I wrote this post I was saying “tat-ZEE-key,” but I just found out (here) it’s actually “sah-ZEE-key.”  Oops.  Regardless, it’s probably the most delicious dip known to man.  It graces our beloved gyros (here and here) and a week ago it graced our Superbowl party snack table.  A quick rundown follows; for the full recipe check out Ina Garten {aka Barefoot Contessa} on Food Network.

All the ingredients were on hand, making this recipe even more of a dream come true. I don’t mean to talk it up too much, but oh, my goodness!  You’ll need:

-olive oil

-salt & pepper (not pictured)

-white wine vinegar

-a lemon

-a cucumber

-a couple cloves of fresh garlic

-sour cream

-Greek yogurt  (In Ina Garten’s recipe you’re supposed strain regular yogurt, but who needs that?  If you’re like me you only have one strainer and you’ll be using it for the cucumber.)

See the full recipe for amounts.  Basically, you mix a lot of yogurt with some sour cream and little bits of everything else (except the cucumber) and pop it in the fridge to mingle.

tzatziki ingredients

Shred the whole cucumber (wash first!) into a sieve over a bowl.

grated cucumber, drained & squeeeezed

Moosh in a tablespoon of kosher salt to draw out moisture–optional, see below*–and set the bowl/strainer in the fridge to drain for 3 or 4 hours.  Squeeze the cucumber shavings into as dry a lump as you can.  Don’t drink the juice!

salted cucumber juice

I tried it plain (back glass) and with ginger ale (front glass) but nothing could hide the fact that it was far too salty to be a health drink.  *I made a second batch of tzatziki on Tuesday after the Superbowl (yes, it is that good!) and that time I didn’t salt the cucumber.  There was more water to squeeze out of the cucumber after its fridge time, but I think that was a worthy tradeoff for not having to discard the juice.

yeast, water, and olive oil

While everything was draining I started making some pitas.  I’ve made plenty of loaf breads, and one thing I’ve wanted to try for a long time is flatbreads like naan, pitas, and tortillas.  The recipe for pitas is very easy.

above: In a small bowl, dissolve 2 1/4 tsp (1/4 oz) yeast in 2/3 c. water.  Add 2 tsp. olive oil.  In a medium bowl, combine 2 c. flour with 1 tsp. salt.  Pour the water/yeast into a large bowl and gradually mix in the flour/salt.

below: Knead until smooth and place in a covered bowl in a warm place for an hour.

dough rising under a towel

After an hour, punch down the dough.  Divide it into 6 equal pieces and shape them into balls.  Let them rest under a towel or oiled plastic wrap for 5 minutes.

pita balls resting under plastic

Press each ball into an oval using your hands and/or a rolling pin.  Let rise for 20 to 30 minutes, still covered with the towel or plastic.

shaped pitas rising

While they rise, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and put cookie sheets in the oven to heat too.  After the rising time, toss two pitas onto each cookie sheet–so if you have 3 sheets in there you can do all the pitas at once; if you don’t have 3 sheets just work in batches.  The hot metal makes the bread puff, which is awesome!

baked pitas

They deflate a little as they cool.  Cover them right away, because in my experience they also dry out quickly.  I stack them in a lidded plastic container.  I can fit all 6 in a container that’s just a little thicker than a sandwich; the compression doesn’t hurt them.  For dipping, I cut each pita in half (into a half moon) and in half (into a single layer).  Then I cut each thin layer into several irregular pieces, more or less bite-sized.

pita piece in tzatziki

What did you snack on during the Superbowl?  I won’t say “while you watched” the Superbowl, because I know that’s not the reality for everyone, even those who attended a party where the game was supposedly the main event.  We all know it’s really about Doritos, seven-layer bean dip, and various meats in barbeque sauce.