Quick dinners from shelf-stable and frozen items
January 18, 2014 12:11 PM   Subscribe

I need to be able to pull together dinner quickly. I can't always predictably plan when I will be at home on weeknights, so leaving cooked meals or salad veggies in the fridge is a gamble that has often resulted in waste.

I wish to fix this with
* A carefully curated list of recipes that will allow me to prepare dinner quickly from frozen or shelf-stable items, for which I will my freezer and pantry accordingly.
* Using freezing techniques that allow for quick thawing
* Learning recipes that will make something delicious of frozen veggies or canned goods

My ideas are:
1. Precooking soups and stews and freezing them in flat ziplock bags. This should thaw quickly in warm water, then I can heat on the stove top.

2. Precooking or prepping and freezing meals in individual foil pans which can be put, frozen, directly in the oven. (So far I've only found recipes and instructions for 4 or more servings).

3. Freezing raw meat in thin pieces so that it will thaw quickly in warm water. Also burger patties.

4. Learning to make decent stir-fries - decent anything - with frozen veggies.

5. Expanding my repertoire of recipes like this one, which could quickly be assembled from frozen sliced chorizo, frozen shrimp and frozen green beans - would just have to pick up a couple of potatoes and peppers on the way home.

Things to know:
* No microwave
* No slow-cooker
* I'm cooking for one
* I love sardines
* Low carbish with lots of veggies preferred

What recipes and techniques would help me?
posted by bunderful to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
I don't own this -- yet -- but I was flipping through it in the bookstore and I may yet get it. Cook's Illustrated Best Make-Ahead Recipe Cookbook
posted by KathrynT at 12:19 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, I think you need a slow cooker or microwave. bc that might help a lot. but, you can freeze rice and quiona. any diet restrictions? i think you can freeze beans and soups and warm them up on a pot, same with the rice
posted by TRUELOTUS at 12:22 PM on January 18, 2014

I found Don't Panic; Dinner's In The Freezer to be a useful source of recipes and prep tips for precisely this situation.

Also, this requires a small initial outlay, but investing in a Food Saver would allow you to pre-prepare, for instance, a bunch of cooked chicken breasts with sauce, then freeze single servings in individual bags, and later reheat simply by dropping the packet into boiling water. Food Saver bags are less permeable than regular Ziplocs, and the machine creates a vacuum before heat-sealing them, so food keeps really well for quite a long time.
posted by Bardolph at 12:36 PM on January 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Zucchini soup- sautéed garlic, add chopped up zucchini, 3 large ones, add a liter of chicken stock, boil to bits and then purée with a splash if soy sauce and a table spoon of ginger. It's one dish that I love love love and never have to feel guilty about :-)
posted by misspony at 12:57 PM on January 18, 2014

pre-cut and freeze beef or chicken, and veggies...

Stir fry (including rice) then takes about 20 minutes to prepare...
posted by HuronBob at 1:00 PM on January 18, 2014

If you could see your way to spring for a microwave, I think you would make your life infinitely easier if you want to use frozen stuff as the basis for a lot of meals. You might also consider getting something like a pressure cooker.

Even without a microwave, I would suggest going to Trader Joe's and cruising through their frozen and jar and can sections and stocking up. In addition to complete frozen meals, they have a lot of different bags of frozen veggies and such you can keep in the freezer and use for meals.

If you freeze stuff like soup, sauces, etc. in ice cube trays, and then put the cubes in a ziplock, the small cubes will thaw faster than one frozen block, even a flat one. When I freeze soups and stews, I don't bother with thawing in warm water, but just put them in a pot on the stove on low and stir occasionally until they are thawed (microwave would be easier of course.)

Eggs actually keep for a while in the fridge, and an omelet is not that hard to make (here is one video online). Make a filling from frozen veggies, and some grated cheese, or whatever you want. Also, you can find a recipe for a sardine omelet here.

Also, this method of making pasta e fagioli is quick and easy. Serve it over quinoa or tofu noodles or something if you don't want to use regular pasta. Dreamfields lower carb pasta is actually decent also.
posted by gudrun at 1:11 PM on January 18, 2014

You can freeze raw meatballs on trays, keep them in Tupperware, and then bake them from the freezer. Usually it only adds about 5 minutes on top of the typical 15-20 minute cooking time.
posted by xo at 1:26 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Favorites: egg and veggie scrambles with cheese, and anything that includes beans.

One recipe that we ended up eating twice this week was tofu fajitas w/tomato sauce taking the place of the chili sauce. (I always make a double batch of this sauce during the week and use one for pasta night.) Except for the cheese and chives, the other ingredients - tortillas, vacuum-sealed tofu, onion, canned tomatoes, olives - can be stored in a pantry. Shelf-stable is the way to go when you don't have a lot of time or space.

My fridge is about a third of the size of a full-size with a very small freezer (like a bag of veggies and a carton of ice cream), a microwave, two burners and no oven, so we have some of the same restrictions. Uncooked grains like rice and pasta, a few cans of veg, the tomato sauce, a can or two of olives, some cheese and a few frozen fish filets go a long way.

If you want ideas about how to put them together, I bought one of these a few months ago. It's worth the investment.
posted by Occam's Aftershave at 1:30 PM on January 18, 2014

I make up batches of turkey meatballs regularly and stick them in the freezer - that way, I pull out a few when I get home, heat them up in the oven the same time I'm heating frozen vegetables on the stovetop, and have a reasonable meal in about 15 minutes total time. (There's about 10 minutes before that for the oven to heat.)

This is just a very rough guide to proportions, each batch makes about 8-10 meatballs, depending on size you make them.

- 20oz package ground turkey
- 1 egg
- 1 handful bread crumbs (you can leave these out, though I might add another egg for binding if you do.)
- 1 handful minced dried toasted onion (I get mine from Penzey's, but basically any dehydrated onion will do. You could put in other dehydrated veggies if you liked - basically, this soaks up some of the extra liquid and helps add binding)
- 3-4 ounces cheese. I usually do crumbled goat or feta or blue cheese, but most things will do. Not really essential, but tasty.

Mix everything together in a large bowl until throughly mixed. Set up a baking sheet or some other suitable plate that will fit in your freezer with a layer of parchment paper or something else easy to clean. Make meatballs, stick the whole thing in the freezer for 4 hours or so. When they're frozen, just pop them off the plate and into a plastic freezer bag (or whatever other container) - they'll be individual pieces, so you can then pull out as many as you want to cook.

To cook, oven at 350, cook for about 15 minutes until they're cooked through and brown on top. They're not the most elegant food ever, but they do make supper really easy.
posted by modernhypatia at 1:57 PM on January 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

I freeze boneless skinless chicken breast after I cook them. I slice the cooked chicken breast into strips then freeze about a handful per bag. It defrosts fast, no need to deal with raw chicken, 1001 different ways to use the chicken.

Here are some meals I make with the chicken strips
Barbeque sauce, heat frozen veggies
Add to green salad (will heat and season first)
Add tomato sauce (jar)
Make chicken salad
Use for meat in taco's
posted by JujuB at 2:03 PM on January 18, 2014

At some point, I bought a cookbook called Betty Crocker's Do-Ahead Cookbook because I had a similar goal. After reading through it, here's the main lesson I learned: Almost everything can be frozen. Except, do not freeze cooked egg whites; crackers, chips, and crumb toppings; creams, custards, or meringue; frostings; mayo or salad dressings; salad greens; raw apples, grapes, or tomatoes. In fact, that's the point of page 12 in that book.

So why am I telling this to you? Cook what you like, and warm it up in your oven. If it's something that can be overcooked, slightly undercook it before you freeze it to accommodate the warming up. According to Amazon, I've now saved you 0.01 plus shipping, but I hope I've saved you a lot of grief. Try any recipe, slightly undercook if necessary, and then off to the freezer it goes.
posted by Houstonian at 2:05 PM on January 18, 2014

A few of my favorite weeknight meals, which rely mostly on pantry or freezer items:

- This chicken and mushroom dish, usually with rice. The mushrooms won't be shelf-stable (though I suppose you could reconstitute freeze-dried mushrooms) but everything else is, as long as you use frozen chicken.

- There are lots of great pasta sauces you can make ahead and freeze. Then you can boil some pasta while you're thawing the sauce (in a smaller pan on the stove).Some ideas: pesto, Marcella Hazan's sauce, or a lighter tomato sauce with onions, mushrooms, carrots and spinach. If you're feeling extra-ambitious, you can sauté some meat in a pan, then add the sauce to the same pan, all while the pasta is boiling. Frozen shrimp and pre-cooked Italian sausages are both great for this.

- Frittatas or omelettes! You can use a combination of frozen veggies (broccoli, spinach) and shelf-stable things like onions and potatoes. Parmesan cheese is great for egg dishes and lasts forever in the fridge.

- There's always the tried-and-true slab-of-meat/sautéed-or-roasted-veggie meal combo. You could do, for instance, baked salmon with steamed broccoli. Or steak with sliced mushrooms and onions. Or my favorite: chicken baked in salsa with sautéed onions and peppers (you can buy a frozen onion-and-pepper mix which is ok for sautéing).
posted by lunasol at 2:12 PM on January 18, 2014

We eat almost exclusively from the freezer during the week. Granted, we do have a slow cooker, and I use that a fair bit for warming up frozen soups or cooking "dump and go" freezer meals (chicken curry, taco chicken, sweet potato chili, etc.). But we do a few other things that sound perfect in your situation - and they both utilize loaf pans (which solves your cooking-for-one problem). You can either use foil disposables or, what I do, line a loaf pan with foil, freeze the meal overnight, then return the loaf pan to my cabinet until I'm ready to cook the meal, at which point I peel the foil off and drop the frozen chunk back in the loaf pan.

I do lasagna in loaf pans and put them straight in the oven from the freezer (although they do take about 40 min to cook). I do a ground beef and veggie one and a spinach one that is SUPER easy to make a whole bunch of pans at once and stick in the freezer - get a box of no-boil noodles, a jar of sauce, a tub of ricotta, bag of shredded mozzarella, and a block of frozen spinach. Thaw the spinach (no need to actually cook it or get it warm... just unfrozen) and mix the spinach with some garlic (use the kind from the jar for super ease), ricotta, and mozz. and then layer sauce, noodles, spinach/cheese, noodles, sauce, etc. I can make at least 4 or 5 of these from one batch of ingredients.

We also have a favorite quinoa dish that I just figured out freezes great. Cook quinoa with sauteed onion & chicken broth; roast some sweet potato chunks coated in olive oil, salt, pepper; thaw some frozen spinach. Mix it all together or layer it in a loaf pan; freeze; dump in a pot over low heat when you want to eat. You could freeze it in even smaller portions than a loaf pan.

I've read not to freeze potatoes but it works fine for us.
posted by raspberrE at 2:15 PM on January 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Our dinner 5/7 nights of the week involves chicken poached from frozen + frozen veggies + sauce. In order to make this work, you need a lot of frozen chicken, either in breasts or tenderloins (we buy from Trader Joe's the big bags), various frozen veggies you like, liquids you like (wines, broths, coconut milk, anything), and sauces/flavorings.

Method is simple:
Put frozen chicken in a large saucepan. Dump in frozen veggies around the chicken. Put seasoning/sauce around in there. Cover in liquid until chicken is submerged (cutting with water is fine). Cover saucepan with lid, turn on burner to low, let it cook until chicken is cooked through. Give it a good stir. Dinner!

We have built up our pantry/freezer so that we have any number of combinations. To wit, last week, we enjoyed chicken with:
- green beans + coconut cream + curry paste
- mixed beans/carrots/peas + broth + tomato sauce
- broccoli/cauliflower + broth & sesame oil + miso paste
- onions/squash/zucchini + white wine + alfredo
- butternut squash/sweet potato + mixed wines + garlic paste

Once you get the cooking method down, you can do frozen to table in a half hour, with very little work. It's awesome.
posted by juniperesque at 2:22 PM on January 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thanks for all the ideas so far.

I may get a microwave in the future, but a slow-cooker is not on my agenda for several reasons.

A couple of you have mentioned using frozen vegetables (modernhypatia, HuronBob) - what kind are you using? How are you handling them? Do you thaw at all before cooking? Do you add other ingredients and seasonings? What cooking method?
posted by bunderful at 2:25 PM on January 18, 2014

Asian style frozen vegetables put directly into a hot pan with a little oil and then seasoned with soy sauce, garlic and whatever else you like can be a quick and easy meal.
posted by mmascolino at 3:35 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is exactly me, and one of the things that has helped a lot is getting a rice cooker, because the rice helps a lot of things go from "a couple things warmed up" to an actual meal. I am one of those people who has never found just protein+veg very filling, and rice has the benefit of making the meal a bit cheaper. Things I do with this:

Rice + well-rinsed canned black beans + salsa and shredded cheese.
Rice + frozen chicken (much like mentioned above about cooking first) + alfredo/masala/teriyaki sauce from a jar/bottle. Chicken plus something in the way of a frozen vegetable, I'm not very picky, put into the steamer tray on the rice cooker while it cooks.
Rice + chili, I usually have some in the freezer but canned would work, lets me stretch one batch out further.
Rice + dal makhani, I get a microwave version from the grocery store, would probably be way cheaper to just make and freeze.

My taste in vegetables usually runs to "what did the grocery store have on sale". I microwave, but if you're without one usually they reheat best in a saucepan with a bit of water.

I do not own a slow cooker that looks like the one my mom has; I did purchase a little ten or fifteen-dollar one and most of what it gets used for is chili. Big one would be better for cooking ahead, but I've got no place to put a big one, so if size is your concern, the 1.5qt variety is a lot easier to store than the 6qt variety.
posted by Sequence at 4:24 PM on January 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Broccoli carrots and onions can sit in the fridge for a few weeks without going bad. Pre-chop the carrots and store with a bit of water.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:39 PM on January 18, 2014

How about baked pasta? The only refrigerated item you need is cheese, which keeps a long time. You need 1 lb pasta, a large can of crushed tomatoes, mozzarella and parmesan, a clove of garlic, and basil (you can buy frozen chopped cubes of this at Trader Joes!) Cook your pasta al dente, save a cup of the seasoned water before you dump it. While it drains, saute the minced garlic clove in a little olive oil for 30 secs, pour in the tomatoes, add the basil & pasta water. Let it come to simmer and taste it, then season it. Add the pasta back in, mix in then put it in a 13x9 pan, cover in cheese. Cover your pan in foil, bake for 10 min, uncover and bake for 15 more. Cheap, easy, plus leftovers for lunch!

Also the frozen chicken breasts you get by the bag can go straight in the oven and take 30-40 mins to cook. Then cut them up, add to a pan of pasta, add a jar of pesto and whatever frozen, then steamed veg. Or cover them in honey mustard or teriyaki marinade half way through cooking and serve with rice, quinoa, bulgar or whatever you like.

Frozen tilapia thaws quickly in water and cooks very quickly under the broiler. I make it like this, but I cut down on the butter & mayo and use whatever herbs strike my fancy. I serve it with couscous and frozen peas.
posted by Requiax at 6:08 PM on January 18, 2014

Do you have a vegetable steamer (the metal folding spaceship thing)? Those make frozen vegetables simple.
posted by Comet Bug at 7:37 PM on January 18, 2014

I like to cook a roast on the weekends and then use the meat for lunch and dinners though the week. So I might make a pork roast on Sunday. Then eat with sour cream and hot sauce for lunches. Dinners I will use the meats and add to fresh or frozen vegetables to make curries and stir fry. The sauces make the difference. I will also make salads, taco style salad or meal, and potentially make pizza with a low carb crust. Soup will be another day by chopping vegetables in the morning and cooking when I get home. I usually have a baked dish with chopped vegetables, olive oil and the meat. Having the meat already cooked saves a lot of time. If you have freezer space, you can cook several meats the first week, portion and freeze to thaw in bag in warm water when you get home. I have also baked and frozen meatballs. Just throw frozen into you favorite sauce and heat. Instead of noodles, I bake vegetables with cheese and put my sauce on that.
posted by 101cats at 10:18 PM on January 18, 2014

Re frozen vegetables - the only veg I ever defrost prior to using it is spinach that goes into my smoothie. Mainly because a big lump of frozen spinach will not blend well. Everything else goes straight in the pan/wok to fry (onions, peppers, anything that says stir fry on the packaging) or into boiling water to boil (peas, broccoli, carrots etc).

You can make a very easy pea and broccoli soup from the freezer. Just boil a suitable amount of peas/broccoli in some vegetable stock. Add an onion for taste and some salt and pepper to taste, blend, eat.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:33 AM on January 19, 2014

You can flash freeze canned beans---lay them flat in a ziplock freezer bag, freeze flat and then after a few hours, take out, open the bag and shake them all loose. You can then put it back in the freezer and pull out a handful as needed. Many nights, I will cook some pasta noodles, a rice noodle soup packet or bowl of rice or quinoa, then complete the meal with a handful of frozen veggies, handful of beans and a splash of soy suave or stir-fry sauce. Just stir in the extras before you take the rice, quinoa, soup etc off the stove then top with a dollop of sauce.
posted by JoannaC at 8:58 AM on January 19, 2014

Re frozen vegetables:

Trader Joe's various stir fry mixes are really good from the freezer to the pan.

I've been in love with frozen cauliflower from Whole Foods recently. 1.99 for a pound, organic if that is important to you. From freezer to pan, splash of water, simmer with lid for about 6 minutes. Possibilities are endless if you like caulifllower: puree (maybe cook a bit longer) like mashed potatoes, not pureed with cheese sauce is delicious - like mac n cheese without the carbs. I don't know if other frozen cauliflower is as good.

Frozen butternut squash makes a really fast soup with good broth, a chunk of onion, salt and whatever flavoring you want. Fast simmer for 20 minutes or so then puree. Cream, coconut milk, milk, butter to add richness if/as desired.
posted by RoadScholar at 4:15 PM on January 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Frozen veggies in a wok: heat the wok to high temperature, add a good spoonful of curry paste (keeps very well in the refrigerator), stir for a minute, add frozen vegetables, stir till reasonably thawed. Add coconut milk from a can (lives forever in your cupboard), add lemon and soy sauce (both keep well in the refrigerator). Serve with rice.
One of my favorite get home late staples. Any light meat or any fish or shellfish can be added with the vegs if you like. During summer, I keep pots of herbs in the windowsill, and use them to add freshness and flavour just before serving.

Or stir-fry frozen vegetables with garlic, ginger and chili. Add stock from freezer. Taste with soy sauce add rice noodles for a noodle soup.

I really recommend a pressure cooker. It turns everyday cooking into holiday cooking, and more importantly, it lets you make the most of cheap cuts of meat. A Moroccan stew of any cheap cut of meat or fowl + root vegetables + onions and garlic + crushed tomatoes and lemon juice, spices with cumin, salt and pepper cooks for 30 mins in the cooker while you prepare a light salad and instant couscous. Serve with harissa mixed with some of the sauce from the stew on the side.

Or use frozen chicken stock to make a risotto. You need to have the stock in your freezer, parmesan cheese and butter in your refrigerator, and rice and wæhite wine in the cupboard. works perfectly on its own, but ant leftovers can be added.

Spagetti with olive oil, chili and garlic, all from the cupboard. But nice with parmesan.

Spagetti with sage (from a pot on your counter) and butter. Again, good with some cheese.
posted by mumimor at 3:20 PM on January 20, 2014

Getting really good (I like Spanish) oil-packed tuna and beans and keeping them in your pantry opens up lots of options for frittata, quick protein-y pasta, Tuscan bean salad, tuna salad in cups of lettuce, etc. Sweet potatoes keep surprisingly long time and can be used to add sweetness, vitamins, and starch to soups etc. or as a quick simple side roasted ahead of time and mashed, or cubed, quickly boiled, and dressed. Having canned chipotle in adobo on hand is another helpful pantry staple for adding lots of flavor to anything. Poaching chicken once or twice a week (just dump chicken breasts or thighs in stock or water to cover with or without seasoning of your choice, bring to a boil and let cook for 3-5 minutes depending on whether bone-on or not, turn off heat and cover and let sit about 25 minutes...store in the poaching liquid and you've got not-quite-stock-but-better-than-water to use for days too) opens up lots of possibilities too as you have cooked chicken ready to be chopped/sliced up for salads, pasta, soup, sandwiches, whatever.
posted by ifjuly at 2:45 PM on January 21, 2014

Imported boxed instant (it takes 5 minutes to cook, no foolin') polenta is a great shelf-stable cheat too, much tastier than the unstable fridged tubes.
posted by ifjuly at 2:51 PM on January 21, 2014

I'm a bit late to the thread but wanted to drop off this link about freezing portions thats made a huge difference to me. The photos show ground meat but it works with a half used jar of pasta sauce, grains, etc.

The frozen portions are flat, so you can use the defrost in a frying pan trick, or the typical running water method you described. But do know that you're supposed to use cool water, not warm water. You don't want the outer parts of the meat to be hanging out at human body temp, growing stuff, while the rest is still frozen. You don't save very much time either.

This sounds a tiny bit crazy, but stay with me. Once you've got your flat frozen blocks, cut up a few boxes into a shape like a magazine organizers and store your food upright like books. Maybe even organized by date, or type. Then you'll actually see what you have to eat, and actually eat it, which is the biggest challenge in freezing foods for me.

One final note, I found that once I had a nice new fridge, vs the old crappy one that came in my rented apartment, food lasted twice as long. I'm theorizing that the old fridge had higher temp fluctuations, and things just spoiled faster. It also didn't keep the humidity higher in the "crisper" bins so greens went bad in just a day or two. Wet paper towels help, to an extent.
posted by fontophilic at 6:56 AM on February 18, 2014

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