Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Make It Simple! (streamlining food prep and meal time! )

This post does not contain recipes. I have been asked to explain how I organize and streamline meal preparation.


Everyone knows that life is busy.  Mine always has been--early on it was with two precious girls to care for and grow with.  Nowadays it is filled with projects, projects, projects and family, family, family.  To "earn the time" to work on my projects, I must also manage meals, health issues, laundry, along with family, friends, e-mail, social media, etc.  

I often ponder how today's mothers ever survive.  I really could not have handled one more thing when my girls were young.  Between caring for them, making almost all of our clothes, canning, freezing, and preserving foods, volunteering at school, taking classes for myself, etc., it was a busy life.  But I was blessed--for ten years I did not have to leave home everyday and work for someone else--all my work was unpaid and incredibly rewarding!

I started early trying to make meal prep time more efficient and and less time-consuming.  I would make meatloafs and freeze them in big butter boxes (just the right size for a family meatloaf), large quantities of spaghetti sauce, big chili’s, etc.  (Please do not ask my family about my experimental ‘cinnamon chili’  !! Well you see, I had read that a little cinnamon was good in tomato sauces and chili, but no one defined "a little").

Even before we started a family, I shocked my dear English husband by insisting that I had to have a medium-sized chest freezer that someone was selling cheaply.  His mom had only recently gotten her first refrigerator and he thought I was CRAZY--but I can tell you that never in our lives since then have we been without a freezer, and never is it empty.  I go through regularly to make sure things are getting used up in time.  Mostly I cook and put stuff in there for an “easy” day in the kitchen on a regular basis!

I made menus, planned shopping lists, etc., but over time I learned that for daily living what works best for me is to “have stuff on hand” (i.e., in jars or in the freezer) when time to fix dinner.  Then some meal times do not take up almost any time at all.  Other days I cook (and freeze extras, etc).  


So what do I do to achieve my goal of having healthy meals while minimizing the time and effort to produce them?

The foundation of my system rests in the following:  SHOP IN BUILK and HAVE AN ASSEMBLY LINE FOR EVERYTHING:  WASHING, CHOPPING, STORING, and yes, even cooking.

SHOP IN BUILK to make meal preparation more efficient:

MEAT - I often buy at least enough for two meals.  When possible, I hope to have a little bit left over to put into the freezer to go into winter soups.  If I cook a huge amount, I hope to have several meals worth in easily accessible units so I can get out just the amount I need.

Tips on freezing:

Try to keep the air out of the package as much as possible.  (You can spend lots of time and effort on food sealers, etc.--I have one, but basically never use it anymore.)  

Please Note:  A number of the techniques described for meats and poultry can be successfully applied to Vegetarian foods and dishes.   I just make certain that the protein and other ingredients freeze well.   
  • As a for instance, lasagna noodles freeze well.
  • Rice included in cooked dishes freezes well.
    • The dish may be thicker when thawed and may require additional broth or sauce.
    • I have no idea how well sticky-rice would freeze, but I wouldn't try it.
  • When I made TVP-based marinara sauce, I froze it regularly.  It worked well.
  • I have no current information on how well tofu freezes.
  • Many grain-based foods may agglutinate if cooked, frozen, and re-heated.
    • I do not recommend freezing this kind--at least I would experiment with each one prior freezing a lot of it.

  • Sometimes all that is needed is the addition of more liquid, which is also true for many non-vegetarian foods.  
    • More tomato sauce or broth is a frequent addition of mine.

  • I have sometimes had quite poor outcomes when freezing creamy soups/dishes. 

  • Dairy tends to separate, so I rarely freeze cream-based foods.

  • I almost never make dairy sauces with flour; sauces with flour would be less likely to separate in freezing, but I do not know if I recommend it or not. 
    • Spaghetti sauces, chili's, and things of similar consistency.
      • For cooked sauces (including meats and beans in the case of chili), I have had great success using the same method as I describe for freezing chicken and meats below in what I call "Flat Packs:
        • Fill a gallon ziploc FREEZER bag, with enough to be about 5/8" deep when laid FLAT, leaving at least 1-in. space at the top.
          • I have to check along the way or it can get over-filled; then you have to remove the excess--messy.
        • Carefully lay it flat without squeezing the food out of the bag.
        • Expel ALL of the air remaining in the bag.
        • If there is any food on the "sealing lip" of the bag, wipe it off with a clean damp paper towel.
        • Carefully close the zipper. 
        • Freeze flat by laying it on a cutting board, piece of cardboard, etc.
          • If you bunch it up:
            • It takes a LOT longer to thaw
            • You cannot remove just the amount you would like to warm.
          • Keep it flat until thoroughly frozen.  
            • A stack of more than one bag takes a little longer to become solidly frozen.
              • Check before removing the board to make certain it is solidly frozen.
        • When ready to use, decide how much you want to thaw.  Break off that amount, expel the air, re-seal, and put back into the freezer while it is still frozen.
        • Warm your sauce, chili, or potage.
          • I do not use this method with things that are very runny.  That could get really messy.

    Poultry, cooked  -- I buy 2-3 rotisserie chickens at a time. -- Please see "Make it Simpler Alert" below for new shortcut!

    • Lay out some paper which comes as packing in boxes on the counter top to make clean-up easy.  
    • Then while the chicken is still warm I pull all of the meat off the bones.
      • I keep enough for a couple of meals in the refrigerator.  
      • MAKE IT SIMPLE ALERT: Perhaps they were there all the time I do not know; but in April 2014 I found that Costco does this job for you! At the end of the day they pull the breast meat off cooked chickens and vacuum seal it in about 2-1/4 pound packages which are good for about a month!
        • I save this until I wish to use it. I remove what I want and THEN I put it into the flat-pak gallon ziploc Freezer bag, as pictured below. Works just the same.
        • They charge very little for pulling it off the bone for you!
        • I don't know if they have them all the time, but I found them in one of the refrigerated display cases.
    • I pull the remainder apart into smaller chunks..  
    • Take  a gallon ziploc FREEZER bag (not the regular kind--you want a good seal and no freezer burn); lay the bag it on it’s side on a tray or plate (anything to keep it flat-ish while freezing).
    • Put the meat into the bag until you have a nice “layer”.  (Not crammed so close together that you can’t easily break it apart when frozen.).
    • When the bag is full, press out as much air as possible, then seal.
    • Use a Sharpie marker to label the type (chicken or turkey) and the date.
    • Stack as many bags as necessary on top of each other.
      • There are two bags in this stack--lots of meals:
    • Put into the freezer on the tray and leave the tray under the meat until it is frozen hard. (I usually leave it for a couple of days.)
    • Then remove the tray.  
    • At this point shake up each bag so that a few pieces can be easily removed at a time.
    • For longer-term storage, put that ziploc bag into another one and seal.  
    • When ready to use remove as much as desired, press the air out, and re-seal the bag(s).
    Beef, raw  --  I frequently purchase a whole tray of steak, etc.  
    • Wrap each piece in good heavy plastic food wrap.  
      • Very important:  AS YOU WRAP, press out as much air as possible.
    • Repeat the process, so each piece of meat is double-wrapped.(avoiding freezer burn)
    • Put the wrapped pieces into a gallon ziploc freezer bag, expelling as much air as possible.
    • Use a Sharpie marker to label the type of meat (beef, lamb, etc.) and the date.
    • When ready to use, just remove as many as you want to cook, thaw, and cook.

    Beef, cooked:
    • Ground:  
      • Brown in a skillet as normal, drain all liquids, and insert into a gallon ziploc freezer bag, making a layer which is maybe ¾-in. thick.  
      • Use a Sharpie marker to label with type of meat (beef, lamb, etc.) and the date.
      • Lay on plate or tray to keep flat while freezing.
      • Once frozen, bash it around a bit to break it up so it is easy to remove just what you need.
    • Roasts and tenderloin: 
      • Slice as you would for a meal.  
      • Lay out a large piece of heavy plastic food wrap.  
      • Place the slices on the wrap so there is about an inch all the way around each piece.
      • Put another piece of wrap on top.
      • Press as much air out as possible, making the wrap layers meet all the way around each piece.
      • Carefully roll up the wrapped meat (keeping it separated).
      • Put in gallon ziploc freezer bag.  Seal well.  
      • Use a Sharpie marker to label with type of meat and date.
      • Freeze the bag flat to keep the pieces separated.
      • When it’s time to use it, remove only as many pieces as you want, thaw, and warm.
    • I always keep packages of peas, beans, and corn. etc. in the freezer.  With some fresh potatoes, thawed cooked meat, and steamed vegies, a meal is ready in less than 30 minutes.
    • Onions - fabulous new trick:
      • Chop onions, brown, and scoop into one quart ziploc freezer bags. Make it about 1/2-inch thick. Expel excess air and seal.
        • THEN: Lay each on a flat surface that you can put into the freezer for a couple of days (like a cutting board).
        • Using the side of your hand, make an "+" right across the bag, creating four "pods" of the onions.
          • (Flickr won't let me extract my photo; I will put a photo here as soon as I am able to.)
        • When they are frozen, remove the cutting board from the freezer.
        • You can then easily remove the browned onions in segments.

    • I make my own marinara sauce in a concentrated form.  It is a huge and time-consuming project.  I make it in a 16-quart crock pot, then freeze in pint or quart jars.  
      • When I take my sauce out of the freezer, I add more tomato sauce and tomato paste and adjust the herbs to taste.  With the frozen cooked ground meat, spaghetti, lasagna, etc., can be prepared very quickly--once the sauce is thawed.  
    • If I’m out of my own sauce, I "doctor" store-bought marinara sauce and use my frozen ground meat…
      • Sometimes it comes out just about as good as my own sauce; sometimes it is not quite that successful, but normally it is pretty good.

    Au Jus:

    I keep every tiny teaspoon of au jus from meat and poultry, including the juice from the plate the meat rested on until served..  
    • I keep small jam jars in the freezer labelled Chicken, Lamb, Beef.  
    • I pour in each bit that I collect and put it back in the freezer until there is enough to use.
    Au Jus is CRUCIAL to making soup, potage, and many other dishes.
    • Sometimes I reserve the excess "juice" from a salad, or other dish. 
      • Freeze it if not using immediately. (another good use for tiny jam jars)
      • When creating a new dish, you can add all sorts, but a tiny bit of jam/preserves added to a tart sauce can make a nice complement to protein.


    From time to time I make my own broths which I use in soups, potage, and other dishes.  My favorite and most nutritious one is made from 100% grass-feed beef bones.  It is absolutely awesome (and just about as expensive to make as it is awesome).  I often use it in place of any kind of “fat” when cooking vegetables, etc.

    Potage (rich soup):

    I make potage in large quantities and freeze in quart jars. That is the time to go through the entire freezer and collect up all those leftovers and au jus to create a tasty potage. Freeze quarts of it for other days.

    For ideas on how to make your own, please see:

    Heating/Cooking Methods for frozen foods:
    • Thaw and grill, bake/roast, or heat as normal
      • Thawing Hint: If there is enough time, to speed the process, I put my frozen food in jars in the sunshine on a black surface--it thaws much faster on a hot day.  
        • DO NOT FORGET that it is outside.
        • I do the same for meats, but turn them every 30 minutes and bring them inside before they are completely thawed.  
          • They will thaw much more quickly than, say, a potage or marinara sauce in a glass jar.
          • DO NOT risk your health by using any method over which you will not exercise extreme caution and control.
      • Some foods lend themselves better to one method than another.
    • If you are in a hurry and do not mind using a microwave, you can speed the process by defrosting in the microwave, then heating or cooking as normal (oven or stovetop).
    • If you are in a big hurry, most things can be thawed and heated in the microwave.  
      • I do not "cook" meat, poultry or fish in the microwave, ever, but some people do.
      • I would prefer not to do so, but I do use the microwave to re-warm some foods.
    • I have not had good success in cooking frozen meats without thawing them.
    • For any dish with cheese on top--vegetarian or non--it works best if you omit the cheese until it is thawed and re-heated.
      • It is possible to carefully re-heat lasagna that already has the cheese, but the cheese may be a bit stringy or tough.
      • When I make lasagna to freeze
        • I omit the top layer of cheese.
        • I place a piece of good plastic food wrap over the dish, mashing it down well and smoothing it out all over to make certain the food is "sealed".
        • Then I place a second piece of wrap over the dish in the usual manner.
        • When thawed, I remove the wrap and heat with a piece of foil laid very loosely over the top of the baking dish.
          • If it looks at all "dry", spread a small can of tomato sauce over the top.
            • At some point during the re-heating process, use a spoon to press the additional sauce down into the original sauce to blend it a little bit.
          • (You can also microwave-defrost it to get it close to warm enough.)
          • When it is getting close to warm enough, I place the cheese on the top and finish baking it.


    I have described above my “assembly line” method for dealing with both raw and cooked meats and poultry to be frozen.  Now to the vegetables.

    When I purchase a lot of vegetables and/or fruits, I temporarily dedicate my sink, drainer, etc. to cleaning and draining.  

    First I scrub the sink with dish soap and HOT water.  
    • If I have any questions about meat contamination, I spray the sink with full-strength vinegar and let it sit for a few minutes.
    Then I fill the sink with cold water and add salt (to kill parasites--all those little black dots which come off your greens when you wash them).  When washing greens, I am very generous with the salt.  
    • You are going to wash it off, so it should not add sodium to your diet.

    I wash the vegetables in the order that makes sense--things like cucumbers, squash, peppers, etc., first--beets last.  
    • Rinse well under running water, drain, and dry when appropriate 
      • for greens--I shake them hard, then drain.  
      • Draining collards
    • When storing ALL foods, it is important to remove as much water as possible.
      • Shake and shake and shake leafy things.  
      • Dry other things with a clean towel.
      • I use paper towels around many things to further reduce moisture caused by condensation in the refrigerator.
      • Water is not your food's friend, especially while storing!
      • Air is also not your food's friend.
    I save the large-size spinach boxes and re-use them for cleaned kale, collards, etc.  
    • I pull out paper towels long enough to go all the way around (4 of the select-a-size towels sections).  
      • Put the paper towels in the box and load it with greens.
      • Wrap the remaining paper towel around the top, and put on the lid.  
    • You cannot overfill it very much, you can squash it a little, but the lid will not stay down enough to preserve it.  
      • Remember: air is the enemy of food storage.
    • Finished box 
      • I cut a chunk out of the lid of a box I recycled and wrote on the back of it with Sharpie Marker so I could differentiate between kale, spinach, and other greens. You don't have to do this, but it really helps me.
        • I made a few of these and wash and store them in a kitchen drawer for rapid access when prepping vegies.
    I clean fruit the same way.  
    • My family knows that if food is in one of the plastic store-type boxes with paper towels, it has been washed and is ready to eat.  
    • If it is still in it’s own box with no paper towel, it must be washed before eating.

    If I am not going into salad making mode, my cleaned vegies, grapes, etc., are ready to go into the refrigerator.


    When all the vegetables I am going to use are cleaned and draining, I set up a chopping station.  I personally like to use a largish plastic tray that holds a chopping board and is also longer than my NicerDicer.  

    I also use a small piece of packing paper from shipping boxes (which comes to our house regularly) and make a space for cutting ends off vegies, peeling onions, etc. (I am always making clean-up easier and faster. Paper is on the right of the tray near the garbage can.)
    • If I am chopping them before they go into the refrigerator, but not pre-assembling salads, they will end up looking like this (all ready to go out so each person can choose what they like on their own salad):
      • Please see NicerDicer notes below on chopping.
    Pre-Assembling Salads:

    Near-by, I set out my salad containers in a row. 
    • I have learned that they will keep longer if I use slightly small containers, slightly overfill them, and push the air out with the lid.

    First, I put salad greens into each container.
    • I save a few leaves for later, as you will see.
    Next I use my NicerDicer to “julienne” and cube the vegies.  I begin with white (jicama), then cucumber, then go to carrots, peppers, and finally beets, so as not to get vegetable dye on everything.  I use the smaller grid for jicama, carrots, and beets--nearest I can get to julenne.  Then I use the larger grid for cucumber, peppers, etc.  
    •  There’s a trick to chopping solid things like beets with the NicerDicer.
      • A NicerDicer cannot take a very large piece of "solid" vegies (like carrots, jicama, beets, etc.
        • Carrots - (I don't peel them, just clean and chop)
          • Cut about 1-In. sections, stand them on their end, and chop!
        • Beets, jicama, onions, etc.
          • Cut them into about 1+ inch chunks, not more than 1-in. tall
          • Place them on the NicerDicer, and chop!
            • You can go quite fast, so it's a smooth process.
        • This carrot is almost too big to julienne easily with the NicerDicer. Beets are also dense. Experiment to find the right size for you.

          • Julienned!
    Another NicerDicer trick is to slice through the item about the thickness you would like the finished product to be (i.e., as in 5/8" for cucumber).
      • Then lay 3-4 slices on the large grid of the NicerDicer and chop!
      • For finely chopped onions, I slice them about 3/8" thick and use the small grid.
    • As I chop each type of vegetable, I unscrew the container it chops into, take that over to the salad assembly area, and put that vegie into each salad--plop, plop, plop.
    • Repeat for each kind of vegie.
    • Add whatever else I want (dried fruit, etc.)
    Then I put about 6 leaves on the top.
    • I do NOT put in tomatoes, nuts, or seeds in at this stage.  
      • Tomatoes will get runny and nuts and seeds will get soggy.  
        • Also, I do not use my NicerDicer to chop tomatoes or nuts--too big a mess and ineffective.
          • Nuts just completely "gunk up" in the grid.
      • I add those things when I am ready to eat my salad.  
    • When the salads are fully assembled, I squeeze a little bit of lemon juice over each.
    • Then I press each salad down firmly and put the lid on (burping the lid to expel as much air as possible).
    • Later, if I am leaving the house with the salad, I remove the top leaves, add the remaining items and dressing, replace the leaves, and the lid.  
      • The leaves help contain the dressing so the lid is not all messy when opened.
    • Salads ready for the refrigerator
    • IMG_20130907_120237_390.jpg
      • With this storage method I have kept salads for a week.  I prefer about 5 days, but another day or so is usually ok.
    The over-filled boxes are a bit trickier to eat out of until you’ve had a few bites--you might drop a leaf or two.  But when you have pressed them down, they will naturally compress a little over time so you can fit in your tomatoes, etc.

    When ready to eat a salad at home, add tomatoes, fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, as desired.  
    • I often tip my salad out into a larger dish for ease of eating.  It plays havoc with my “nicely built” colorful salad, but it’s easier to eat.   (Target calls the bowl on the right a 'pasta dish'.)
    • And for variety, I add all sorts at dinner time. In this case it is rice and beans; sometimes it is a hamburger and onion; last night it was tenderloin slices from the freezer; tonight it was ground beef in tomato sauce with vegies cooked with lots of fresh chopped spinach..
      • I have been pleasantly surprised that almost ANYTHING is tasty on top of my salad, including chili, cooked meats and vegetables, etc.  I have put things on top that I would never have dreamed of and have yet to be anything other than pleasantly surprised.
    Pre-assembling crock-pot meals:

    Varieties for crock-pot meals are endless.  To create great variety and quick, easy prep time, here is an idea from others.  (I am actually at home most of the time, so haven't tried this idea.)  
    • The idea is to chop different combinations of vegetables that you want to use together and put them into bags in the same way I described prepping cooked ground beef or chicken (above). 
    • Add meats, broth, sauces, etc. 
      • You can always add the broths the morning you cook the meal, but if you want absolute minimum morning prep-time, put them in with everything else.
    • Lay the Freezer ziploc bags flat, expel excess air, and freeze. 
      • You may now have liquids in your bag, so use caution when laying it flat to expel the air and make certain it is completely sealed!
    • Pull out one bag per day, drop into the crockpot with liquid and meat, and you have a meal!
      • If one bag is not big enough, put the meats, broths, and sauces into a separate bag.
      • Then add both bags to the crockpot and come home to a delicious hot meal!
    Vary the items in each bag, so you have a different, healthy meal each time.  
    • Chop all your vegies assembly-line style as described above in preparing salad vegies.  Determine the size of the chopped vegetable by how long it takes to cook.  
      • More quickly cooked items can be chopped larger; items which take longer should be chopped smaller.) 
    • Add meats, sauces, broths, and even sometimes fruit
      • Expell excess air, seal, and freeze flat (for quicker thawing)
    .Here is an idea of vegetables you may wish to chop and put into the bags: 
    • Grab items like peas, niblets corn, etc. from the freezer and add them to the bags so your morning prep-time each day is the absolute minimum.
    • Carrots (chop small)
    • Onions
    • Beets (chop small)
    • Peppers
    • Drained canned beans may also be added.
    • Cooked rice

    [I really do prefer everything prepped and/or cooked at the time I eat--it is more nutritious that way, but I have learned that if I want to eat better I must have meals more available on many days, so it is a trade-off.  I prep-ahead when possible.]


    Re-usable bags can be sort of a nuisance in getting them in and out of the store.
    • I store mine on key rings with a carabiner--handy for grabbing.
      • This photo shows two carabiners clipped to my purse for keeping track of them in the store.
    • Of course you can also just stick all of the bags into one bag without folding, stuffing, etc.  Then grab that bag to take in with you.
    • Landfills will groan and say "thank you" if you use re-usable bags.  (It is now illegal to do otherwise where we live, which is awesome!)
    Please wash your re-usable bags regularly!

  • My daughter has recently been THANKED by baggers because her bags were clean!

    • They told her people bring them bags which are filthy with vegetable and even meat residue which is molded.  Apart from being disgusting, this is downright unhealthy and there is no excuse for it.
    • First of all, don't buy those 99-cent sort of fuzzy bags--they accumulate more bacteria and dirt in the fuzz and do not wash well, if at all.  
    • Buy the "nylon" type reusable bags which can go into the washer a zillion times with no problem.  
      • The big favorite in our family is ChicoBags®.  
        • They make quite a number of styles to suit your preference.  
        • The reason we use them most is because they also set up their website for very easy fund-raising, so my daughter has raised money for at least three schools by simply selling them to the parents to help them reduce or eliminate their plastic bag use.  
          • Whole Foods sells them with their own label, but we like the fund-raising.
      • I also have quite a number of other similar ones from various places.
    • When I unpack any bag with meat, fish, or poultry, that bag goes immediately into the laundry hamper.
      • If a bag has had nothing wet or dirty in it, I do not wash it every time; I might use it 3-4 times before putting it into the laundry.
      • A few times a year I put every single bag into the laundry, just to make sure they are all cleaned.

  • On laundry day, I happen to have some nice racks which let them dry flat, but they dry so quickly you can just hang them up any old way if that's your preference.


      Here's hoping some of these ideas will help speed you towards a goal of organized, efficient, and less time-consuming healthy eating!

      Saturday, September 28, 2013

      Potage - Suit Yourself!

      You will see that this post does not sound "easy" for "lazy" people.  There is nothing "difficult", but it is time-consuming on the day it is prepared.  When you have wonderful meals later, you will understand that "lazy" people who like it "easy" can really appreciate the benefits of spending some time making meals for many later days!

      I make a thick, rich concoction my husband calls "potage".  You could call it soup, but it's really thick.  You could call it stew, but that conjurs up in my mind a watery consistency that it never has, so I like his word for it.

      You will see that my "Potage" is very flexible.  The ideas below are really suggestions as to things you might consider.

      I make mine in very large quantity so I can freeze a bunch to thaw and heat later.  These directions cover that, but I also make variants of it in small and medium quantities--I just pick and choose what I want to add in each case.

      In this post I promised I would document some guidelines for making your own:

      Basically you are now going to use up all those leftover bits of meat and au jus you have put in your freezer (see post above for details).  So it's time to browse your freezer!

      Ingredients are endlessly variable, but I often start with something like the following from the freezer:

      • Note on ingredients:  There are many ways to vary what you do.  For instance, if you are reducing your fat consumption, use lean meats only and brown everything in sprays.
        • I personally use only coconut or other high-heat oils for browning. 
          • I try not to over-use any oils because I do not want my food to be "greasy".
          • I always DRAIN browned meats before adding them to anything.
        • Olive oil is very good for you but is not stable at high temperatures and should only be used for low-temperature cooking.
        • I do not use fat-free sprays.  
          • I use coconut oil spray now. 
          • Before I found it at Trader Joe's, I used olive oil I put into a Misto.  But coconut oil is MUCH better for your cooking, so I use it now wherever possible.
        • Avocado oil is also a high-heat oil--just check your oils' temperature susceptibility.  
      • Overheating low-temperature oils can turn them into something you seriously want to avoid!
      Au jus 
      • I am cautious about mixing various au jus 
        • I take into consideration how the flavors will be together.  
        • For instance, I am very cautious with lamb au jus; only using it with lamb because of it's strong flavor.
          • It often tastes much stronger than the lamb itself did.
        • I do NOT use the liquids from fish in my potage.
      • I mix beef and poultry au jus all the time.
      Meats from the freezer
      • Several kinds of meat make it tastier than only one
        • Even frozen sandwich meats can add flavor 
        • When my children were small I even froze chopped up hot dog leftovers, with amazing results). 
      •  I do make it with only beef or only chicken in smaller quantites.
      • Beef -- all sorts, including ground if I have some
      • Chicken 
      • Turkey
      • Buffalo  (I rarely have any of this leftover)
      • Venison  
        • I would use it if we didn't eat it ALL up every time
        • I would also use caution, venison is a delicate and unique flavor
      • NOTE:  Fish is a big NO NO -- it should be made into it's own dish.
        •  The flavor is too strong and overwhelms everything else--even for mild fish. 
          •  We never have many leftovers anyway.
          • If some is left for a day or two, I sometimes make fish chowder.
      • Of course you do not "have" to use stuff from the freezer.  
        • I sometimes start with a big slab of beef which I cut into pieces and brown, especially if I don't have enough stuff in the freezer.
        • You can do the same with chicken, etc.
      • It will taste so much better if you have a variety of meats!  
        • I would not call it "potage" if there is only one kind of meat.
      • Bits of spaghetti sauce or spaghetti and meatballs (chopped to bite size before freezing)
      • Bits of frozen marina sauces and or tomato sauces that were left when I made other meals.
      Vegetables, fresh and frozen - any or all of the following
      • Onions, always
      • Peas
      • Green beans
      • Niblets corn
      • Spinach, fresh or frozen (thawed, drained, and squeezed hard)
        • I prefer fresh, chopped
        • Use caution with frozen; it can sometimes produce a bitter taste.
      • Tomatoes if you like 
        • mine usually goes in as sauces or soup bases, but putting them in directly is great, too
          • canned whole or chopped, or diced, or smushed--everything is better with tomatoes in it!
          • If I am going for broth based flavor, I do not put in any tomato products 
      • Carrots 
        • I do not like hard carrots (or mushy), so I always steam them for about 10 minutes before adding them.
        • I use them with caution as freezing can leave them mushy. 
          • Somtimes I add steamed ones when I thaw potage.
      • Potatoes
        • I never put potatoes into anything I am freezing; I do not like watery, grainy potatoes
          • If I want them in, I cook and add them when we are going to eat
      • Pasta
        • I do not put pasta in if I am going to freeze it; I add it when cooking.  
          • A little bit may creep in from time to time and that's ok; it will require more liquid when you thaw it
      • Rice
        • Rice works pretty well, you just have to add a LOT more broth.
      • Beans (canned, or cooked previously -- drained)
        • Use with caution for freezing.
          • I add them later when I get it out to use.
          • I do however freeze chili with good success, so it's up to your preference--I just don't like mushy broken up beans.  Perhaps the vegetables and meat chunks here tend to break them up.
      • Squash - winter
        • Butternut squash can be a truly delicious addition.
          • I do not freeze it; I add it later.
      • I often use Tomato-Basil soup, or other tomato-based soups 
        • and/or the sauces and marinas mentioned above.
      • Meat broths (chicken or beef)
        • If I want to, I put concentrated broth cubes into a little boiling water from the microwave and break them up to add more flavor
      • ALWAYS add au jus if you have it--it does more for the base than any other single thing you can do.  
      • Add as desired.
        • I often add more basil, salt (if needed), pepper (if desired), or cumin or cayenne--just use things you like.
          • Taste, so you do not overdo them.
        • Add chopped garlic if you like.
          • You can cook it with the onions by adding it toward the end of the onion-browning time.
      • Many spices get stronger as they "meld" with the food, so use caution.
      • Others tend to get "lost" 
        • Taste, taste, taste!  (Something I never used to do.)
      Guidelines for Prep:
      • Put the base or bases from above into any of the following:
          • Stock pot (for large quantities)  
            • For cooking on the stove-top 
              • with a diffuser to keep it from sticking
            • I sometimes use a 16-quart stock pot when making enough to freeze, or a 12-quart, or an 8-quart
              • Yes!  I love my huge pots!  :-)
          • Crock pot 
          • Large oven-compatible Dutch Oven 
            • I use a large Lodge Dutch Oven sometimes if it's going into the oven
              • cast iron can create a wonderful flavor for some combinations
        • You will add more later to get the quantity right, so do not begin with a huge amount.
        • Put on the heat to begin the warming process.  
          • The temperature you set will be determined by how long it will take you to do the remaining jobs and how big a hurry you are in.
          • For stovetop, use a trivet to help avoid sticking!  
            • And stir.
      • In a skillet, chop and brown onions
        • You could do this in the stockpot or the Dutch Oven if it is suitable, but I always drain the onions to get rid of excess oil.  (It's a taste thing with me.)
      • Chop (and brown if needed) all the meats.
        • Add to the base
      • Add bunches of vegetables to the base
        • I add a whole bag of each vegetable for large quantities.
        • I lightly steam carrots before adding them, as noted above.
          • I don't usually put carrots in large quantities to freeze.  As noted, I add them to what we are about to eat.  But they can be added with care.
        • As it begins to go together, I add more of whatever I want.
        • Just add vegetables that you actually like eating.
          • I would never put brussels sprouts in, for instance.
        • When using tomato-basil soup in the base, I sometimes chop up lots of fresh spinach to add during the final cooking time.
          • But I add it to what we are about to eat--not the large quantity going into the freezer.
      • Add more of any of the bases above until you have it the thickness you desire, plus a tad because it will reduce a little while cooking.
        • You can always add more as it cooks and you see that it is needed.
      • Add spices as desired, see recommendations above.
      Cooking times:

      Lid Hint:  Because I am "at home" most of the time,when using the stove-top or a crock pot (once begins to steam, I do NOT put the lid on tight.  I off-set it by about a half an inch so the food does not taste "steamed" and large puddles of liquid do not accumulate on the top.
      • If I am cooking in the oven and use a lid, I also off-set that lid.
      • Recent crockpot lid-propping invention:  three toothpicks inserted around the edges under the lid.  
        • I would NOT leave the lid off-set while leaving the house.
        • I do not leave it offset until it is gently steaming.
        • Leaving it on all the time is fine; just stir the liquid on the top into the rest of it.
          • When you get home after being gone for hours, take the lid off entirely, stir, and let some of the liquid cook off if you have time.
      • If you have several hours, put only on "medium heat" until it gets warmed through, then reduce heat and let it simmer very gently--barely even bubbling, if at all.  
        • This will "meld the flavors together".  
      • If you are using a crockpot and it does not automatically cook at a high temperature for the first hour or so (many of the newer ones do this) and you want to speed it along, then put it on "high" until it's steaming after being stirred, then reduce to "low".
        • The FDA would likely disagree, but if all the meat is cooked before it goes into the crockpot, I would put it on low and leave it all day with no problem.  
          • [I take NO responsibility for the outcome of anyone using any ideas I post on this blog, as stated at the top of the page.  These are simply a record of what I do.  Anyone experimenting with my ideas must use their own judgment and common sense while taking responsibility for anything they do.]
      • If you are short on time, put it on "medium-high" until it is hot. 
        • Remember, when cooking on the stove top, it will be less likely to stick if you have it on a trivet.  
          • If you do not have a trivet, use caution, common sense, and a spoon!
        • If all the meat is cooked before adding it, and you are in a hurry, you can thaw and cook the vegetables in the microwave (do not OVERDO), add them to the mixture, get it hot and eat basically immediately, although I would gently heat it for 15 minutes to meld the flavors.  
          • They always say to put a little water in the microwave dish, but I never do.  There is a great deal of moisture on the outsides of frozen vegetables.
          • I use one of those plastic "lids" designed for a microwave, which helps it cook.
      • Occasionally stir gently
      • If you are not in a hurry, you can put the vegies in frozen and let the heat cook them as it simmers.
        • I would not put solid-frozen anything into a cockpot, although small amounts of peas, corn, and green beans might be ok if you have the right size crockpot and are putting it on all day long.  Just use caution.
          • In modern crockpot cooking, it is apparently important to have it filled the correct amount.  
            • I have had no problems with this in my old fashioned crockpot, so I am only repeating the guidelines I am reading on new crockpots which sound very complicated.
        • If you are not in a hurry, whether you do it on the stovetop, in the oven, or in a crockpot, use the lowest possible temperature to keep it hot, but not bubbling.
      Preparing it for use after being frozen
      • Thaw and heat and enjoy!
        • You may sometimes want to add more broth or soup once it is thawed.  I go by how it thick it seems compared to how I want to eat it.  Normally I do not need to add more broth because I get it close to the way I want it when I make it.
      • If potatoes, pasta, canned beans (drained), or other starches are desired, cook and add them at this time.
      • As mentioned above, you may freeze it with rice, but I never do that for the large quantities I am going to freeze.  I add it when I get it out of the freezer.
          • Then if there are leftovers, I might freeze a small quantity that has rice in it.
            • I will need to add more broth to potage with rice.
          • Favorite "shortcut" -- use the rice from leftover take-out or restaurant meals.
      Serving suggestions:
      • For thick tomato-based potage, you can serve with grated cheese on top.
      • If it is "spicy", try a dollop of sour cream on top (as well as the grated cheese, if you like).  
        • This makes a nice "presentation if you have guests.
        • Definitely NOT low-fat!
      • You can use bread or toast on the side as well.
        • Increases carbs significantly.  The way I normally make my potage is pretty low-carb.
      • Salad on the side is good, but you are getting a lot of vegetables in this by itself.
        • Because I eat of LOT of salads, I often put my salad in a large dish, and put spoonfuls of potage on top--delicious!

      By adding and subtracting ingredients, and by adding things once I thaw it out, I can change the flavor significantly so it doesn't become boring.

      Have fun with your own variations and eat healthy!