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.
-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.
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).
While the bread dough sat on the stove to rise I assembled most of the other ingredients for my meals.
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.
Like this. (I apologize if the sight of raw meat grosses you out.)
Then into a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, I tossed a bunch of shrimp into a colander under cold running water to thaw.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The celery salad also called for leaves so, though I usually discard this part, I went ahead and saved it this time.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!).
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.
So I let the meat rest in peace. (Get it? It’s dead.) Meanwhile I salted and peppered my celery salad.
It was also time for a little Parmesan cheese (grated, not powdered) to garnish the celery.
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.
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.”)
All this in an hour!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!