A non-chef attempts to make delicious frozen meals.
January 11, 2011 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Help me generate ideas for delicious meals that are designed to be frozen. Specifics inside.

The background:

My grandfather had a stroke nine years ago. Since then, my g-ma has been his fulltime caretaker: a selfless job she does without complaint. For the past nine years, my great aunt (grandpa's sister) has filled the freezer with sumptuous meals on a monthly basis. This meant that all g-ma needed to do was boil, bake or reheat the professionally frozen dishes (great aunt was a chef). My great aunt passed away a week ago which means that not only is everyone missing her terribly, but now g-pa has no more ready-made meals.

This is where I come in. I know that I cannot recreate what my great aunt did, but I would love to help my g-ma in some way. I've read everything I could find on MF about freezing meals (this thread here was particularly helpful), but still feel lost. I'm just not sure where to start.

Pertinent details:
-I am a mediocre cook whose experience with freezing food extends only to ice cubes.
-G-pa likes things like soups, meat-based dishes and wraps (can these be frozen?). He is not huge fan of vegetables, but will eat them if they are in things. He has no dietary restrictions.
-Tupperware looks like my best bet for storage. Does the food go bad if the container is not filled to the top?

Any tips/advice/strategies are appreciated!
posted by WaspEnterprises to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever I make (always meat-filled) spaghetti sauce or chili I always freeze half of it. Both freeze and re-heat really well.

I use quart-size ziplocks myself because I can portion just the right amount for a meal, freeze them flat, and label them, making my freezer look like a food filing cabinet. As far as freezing in tupperware goes, I don't know if this is procedure, but I always place a piece of saran wrap directly onto the surface of the food before I cover it so there's no air in direct contact with the food. Seems to work well for me.
posted by phunniemee at 6:01 PM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Random tip -- food expands as it freezes. Don't add so much to the container that it no longer fits when frozen, or in the case of glass storage, breaks. I do 3/4 inch from the top when I freeze stuff.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:10 PM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

German meat sauerkraut mashed potatoes casserole.

1 layer sauerkraut (optional white wine and bay leaves) (ground layer)
1 layer mince meat, some pepper
1 layer mashed potatoes, some nutmeg

some cheese on top

Funny thing is that it tastes BETTER when it gets re-heated.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 6:12 PM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wraps, you say? I make this half-arsed excuse of a Mexican-style wrap and freeze it:

Spread a wrap with cream cheese, top it with refried beans, mixed with mince (ground beef? whatever you call it) if so desired - I then add a layer of garlic, grated onion, capsicum and other favourite vegies but your Grandfather's mileage may vary - top with lots of nice cheese, roll up, and freeze whole wrapped in cling wrap or in slices in a container. Preferably reheat in the oven with a slosh of salsa over the top and covered with foil. And then add a dollop of sour cream before serving. Scrum-diddly-umptious.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 6:18 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can't cook all these meals at once. Buy a larger pot, and whenever you cook for yourself, cook in larger batches so you can freeze a portion for your grandparents.
posted by leigh1 at 6:20 PM on January 11, 2011

Sorry to hear about your great-aunt. Is it possible that she had a collection of recipes that you could peruse for the dishes she used to make?
posted by to recite so charmingly at 6:24 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

A google term that might help you is "once a month cooking". While you don't need to actually follow the instructions for cooking once a month, the recipes are designed for freezing and reheating later.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:34 PM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tourtiere is delicious, freezes well, and is relatively straightforward to make.

My condolences for your great aunt's passing.
posted by YamwotIam at 6:52 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I did not fully grok the art of freezing until I went through a number of extremely dated guides on the subject. The golden age of freezing was some decades ago, it turns out. If you are going to do this as more than just a one-off thing, something like this Ball Freezer book for under $5 all in will be well worth it. There will be lots of "I had NO idea you could freeze THAT" epiphanies, many wonderful ideas for how to package it up, lots of interesting old recipes, ones much better suited for a fan of meat-n-potatoes stodge than the curried lentil etc Googling will turn up.

Do use top-notch ingredients -- stuff that starts with mediocre, or already processed, food, is not going to be improved by freezing. But if you hit a farm and scoop up fresh food and rush it to your kitchen and into the freezer, adding better cheese on the way? Yes.
posted by kmennie at 6:56 PM on January 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

These are all wonderful suggestions . . . to recite so charmingly, I didn't even think about using my aunt's recipes--what a great idea.

leigh1, I took a great big breath when I read your response . . . for some reason I'd been feeling like I needed to make all this food at once and was freaking myself out.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 7:07 PM on January 11, 2011

Small tip: you can freeze things like soup, chili, etc. in ziploc bags rather than tupperware style containers. (Lay them flat until they freeze, then stack them.) They take up much less room.
posted by kestrel251 at 7:08 PM on January 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just about every soup recipe out there will freeze well, with the exception of ones containing pasta or rice, as the starch will turn to mush. It's pretty easy to cook the pasta or rice right in the soup later, though. Potatoes fall apart in reheated soup, too, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I regularly freeze split pea soup, gumbo, tomato soup, tortilla soup (without the tortilla chips), lentil-spinach soup, etc.

Also, casseroles and stews like enchiladas, lasagna, and jambalaya freeze well. For sandwiches, you can freeze prepared sloppy joe filling and baked falafel patties (not sure if your grandpa would be into those, but they're worth a try.) Burritoes and wraps will freeze well if all the vegetables are thoroughly cooked, otherwise they'll get watery. I *think* you could even freeze a wrap with scrambled egg in it, but you might want to test that first.
posted by zinfandel at 8:05 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of my go-to freezer cooking plans is marinara sauce and meatballs. Freeze the marinara sauce in 2 cup ziploc bags (as others have noted) and freeze uncooked meatballs on cookie sheets then store in large ziploc bags. Your grandma can then use the marinara for pasta, chicken, etc.; she can also cook only as many meatballs as she needs.

This default meal comes in handy (even for us, who do not have your g-parents' challenges). Let me know if you'd like recipes.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:27 PM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

The great thing about soups is that they freeze wonderfully.

Pea soup: Simmer 1 pound split peas, and about 1 1/2 pounds ham hock or 1 smoked turkey leg for about 30 minutes. Add 1 cup each carrots, celery, and onion, and a bay leaf. Season.

Beef vegetable soup: Sear some cubed beef. Sautee some carrots, celery, and onion, then transfer the beef. Add some beef stock, some tomato juice or puree, and simmer. If you like, you can add some barley for bulk.

These can easily be portioned out into single serving glad containers that can just be popped into the nuker to heat and eat. I've got a little experience with this.
posted by Gilbert at 9:15 PM on January 11, 2011

I don't know where you are but I go once a month to a place called SupperWorks where I prepare 12 to 24 meals at once designed to be kept in the freezer (this is 6 to 12 family meals divided in half). They have the recipes and have prepared all the ingredients, I just have to assemble the meals which takes about 1 to 2 hours. If these guys are not near you there is likely to be a similar supper club around you. This has been a huge help around our house this year.
posted by saradarlin at 9:40 PM on January 11, 2011

Here are a couple techniques for cooking large batches of food that freeze well.

First, cook in large batches, as long as you're cooking you'll be making roughly the same size mess whether you're cooking a few meals, or a month. Dedicate an evening to prep, a day to cooking, and a spouse (or child) to cleaning (just sayin').

Second, reuse every bit of what you buy. For instance, buy family packs of whole chicken thighs (I suggest thighs because they're cheaper and more fatty than breast meat, you'll find out why later). The evening before, bone the thighs, (it takes about three minutes, don't bother being too accurate, you want to leave some meat on the bones). Immediately throw the bones into a large stockpot with water, mirepoix (carrots, onions, and celery), and a good amount of spices (salt to taste), you're making chicken broth. (If your grandfather doesn't like the skin, throw that into the stock, too.) As you're chopping up the other vegetables that you might use (eggplant, potatoes, skins, whatever), throw them in the pot, too. Bring it to a boil, and let it simmer for at least an hour, preferably two. Strain out all the solids. Half a gallon freezer bag of bones, and half a gallon of vegetable bits makes about 1 gallon of broth. This is the stock you'll use for everything. You can even use it in place of water for mashed potatoes.

For stews, you're going to start with a basic roux. If you don't like massive amounts of butter, this is going to gross you out a little, but it's worth it. Melt several sticks of butter at the bottom of a large pot (preferably cast-iron, or enamled cast-iron like a french oven), once it is melted, mix in an equal part flour. Stir on low heat, don't stop it'll get darker in color the longer it cooks. By the way, if you want to make a proper gumbo, just keep it going until it turns brick red, normally a blond roux will be perfectly fine.

As others have suggested, pasta dishes tend to freeze really well, as do stews. Take a look at how the Bertolli dinners are packaged, they use a process called individual quick freezing (IQF), basically, all the components are cooked separately, frozen separately, and then packaged together. This is what you want to do, too. Make a huge batch of pasta sauce (basic recipe below), and then freeze it in ice cube trays. Boil up lots of pasta (don't forget to salt the water!), keep it al dente, then freeze. Chop up your vegetables (or if you're particularly lazy, buy pre-frozen, they quick freeze them to preserve quality pretty well), sautee the vegetables that may normally take longer (such as eggplant), and mix with a little sauce and freeze.

Cook the chicken you boned earlier any way you want, it cooks really quickly since it's pretty thin and the bones are gone. (I've included a few recipes below.)

For pasta dishes, you can just package the frozen sauce with an amount of pasta, vegetable, and protein. You can mix all different proteins and vegetables to keep variety. Alternatively, you can mix everything together in individual portion sizes on microwavable plates, as you would plate for an actual meal, wrap well in plastic, and have homemade microwavable dinners.

Lasagne is another dish that freezes amazingly well, I've know people that like preparing huge batches of lasagne, portion them in individual meal sizes and freeze. Homemade TV dinners.

For a basic stew recipe, take some oil, quickly sear the outside of whatever stew meat you want to use. (I suggest finding the cheapest well-marbled cuts of meat you can find, the fat helps keep it tender and flavorful.) Add in whatever vegetables you want, a cup of wine (whatever tasty wine you have lying around) fill with the chicken stock you made earlier, and 1 cup of roux to about 3.5 quarts of everything else, salt and spice to taste. Bring to a boil and simmer for at least 45 minutes. Once it cools, freeze in ladelful portions, I like freezing them in some sort of cup-size tupperware container (like the 1 cup ziplog containers), and then repacking them into larger buckets. The basic idea is that the smaller the frozen stew cubes (ew, but yum), the faster you can unfreeze them. Again, an alternative is to store them in single-serving tupperware so they can be reheated in the microwave. (Instant homemade stew!)

Stews of any kind go really wonderfully over rice, which is quite freezable, especially if stored with a liquid. Just cook the rice as you normally would, except take it out when it is about 5 minutes from done. If you are freezing the rice separately, put them in freezer bags in 1-cup portions, flatten, squeeze out all the air, and freeze. To cook them, open the bag slightly and microwave for 3 minutes. Alternatively, you can put the rice at the bottom of a flat-bottomed tupperware container, ladel some stew over it, and freeze, another microwaveable homemade meal.

A couple tips:
  • Salt and spice early and vigorously. As people age, their tastebuds die off, so spice a more heavily than you normally would. Go for big and bright flavors.
  • As you experiement and learn your recipes, don't worry about exact amounts, instead, remember ratios. It is much more useful to remember the ratios of major ingredients than x cups and y pounds, especially when you're cooking in huge volumes.
  • Use different spices for the same ingredients. A stew that has all the same basic ingredients, but uses soy sauce, ginger, and a dry sherry is a completely different dish from a stew that uses red wine and herbes de provence.
  • Freeze your leftover broth in ice cube trays, just remember to skim off any oil at the top. If anything else, it is the beginning of a really great chicken soup, your grandmother just has to add chicken (which can even be torn from a leftover grocery store rotissery chicken), frozen vegetables, and something like bowtie pasta.
  • Use fattier cuts of meat such as chicken thighs, they have much more flavor, are more forgiving when cooked, frozen, and recooked. If you think there is too much fat, cut off anything that is excess and throw it in your stock
A few recipes to get you started:
Basic pasta sauce
  1. Get a can of whole tomatoes look for cans that only have tomatoes on the ingredients list, run it through a food processor until the tomatoes are in chunks.
  2. In your saucepan/pot, heat some olive oil and garlic, pour in the can of tomatoes once the garlic is fragrant, also add a small can of tomato paste (again, look for something with only tomatoes so you can flavor and salt to taste). Add half a cup of dry red wine, a few bay leaves, basil, oregano, pepper, whatever else you want. Salt to taste.
  3. Bring it to a boil and then simmer, and let it reduce to the thickness you want. If you're too impatent and it stays too thin, add more tomato paste. Start with a ratio of 3 parts tomatoes to 1 part tomato paste.
  • This terrific as a basic red sauce, be it for pizza, baked ziti, or lasagne, just play around with the consistency.
  • A great way to riff on this recipe is to use different boozes (vodka, etc). Also, you can saute different vegetables to mix into the sauce to pour on top of pasta.
Breaded chicken:
  1. Mix some flour, salt and dried herbs of your choice. If you have it, also mix a batch of salt, dried herbs with breadcrumbs (I love using panko for extra awesomeness).
  2. Pat dry the chicken and dredge in the flour mix. This mean just lightly coat the chicken in the flour, just whatever adheres to the chicken when you put it into the flour.
  3. Beat a few eggs, dip chicken into eggs and then dip into the breadcrumb mix, cover well. If you don't have breadcrumbs, dip it into your original flour mixture instead (if you do this, you'll have more of a fried chicken texture).
  4. Place chicken onto a baking sheet and bake at 375 until they're 165 degrees in the middle (about 35 minutes).
  5. Freeze on microwavable plates with pasta and sauce for an instantly microwavable meal. I haven't tried it, but you couple probably freeze it with the pasta and sauce in the disposable pie tins to bake.
Chicken curry
  1. Prepare a basic mirepoix, also dice a few medium potatoes, and whatever other vegetables you like (I like also adding butternut or acorn squash for some sweetness)
  2. Heat your pot and add some cooking oil (I prefer canola oil for its high smoke point). Add in about two tablespoons of curry powder, and then add the chicken. cook the chicken until it is almost done, and remove. Add a little more oil and add in the mirepoix, sautee until fragrant.
  3. Add the vegetables that take longer to cook, and then add broth and roux. (Don't forget to salt!)
  4. Cut up the chicken and add it back into the pot. It should be close to boiling, once it starts boiling bring it down to a simmer.
  5. After about 5-10 minutes add everything else (such as potatoes and squash which don't take as long to cook).
  6. The dish will be ready to serve or prepare to freeze once the potatoes are finished. (I like freezing this one with rice.)

posted by thebestsophist at 11:47 PM on January 11, 2011 [18 favorites]

I really could mark all of these as best answer.

Thank you so much for the ideas!
posted by WaspEnterprises at 5:58 PM on January 12, 2011

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