I have a confession to make . . . my kitchen is filled with processed food. Pancake mix, frozen waffles, canned chicken broth, prepared breadcrumbs, canned tomatoes, frozen vegetables, and all manner of little jars and bags of “flavor enhancers.” But, ha! Before you condemn me, let me also say that while my life is made infinitely easier by all these little cheats and shortcuts, I am off the hook, because I have processed it all myself. It would be impossible for me to feed my family efficiently, healthfully, and deliciously, without all these mother’s little helpers, but that does not mean that I am willing to succumb to factory-produced salad dressings, packaged foods filled with chemical preservatives, and the like.
It’s all really just a matter of thinking ahead and using the freezer efficiently. The only real altercations my husband and I have had occurred when we were first married and he repeatedly threw away all my little kitchen dibs and dabs that, to his neat-freak eyes, looked like garbage. A roasted chicken carcass? ”That’s like money in the bank, and you threw it away???” I would screech. The leftover vinaigrette in the bowl after dinner—down the drain? Well, mister, we’ll just see how you like your crunchy broccoli and grilled shrimp pasta salad without dressing when you eat lunch tomorrow! The first mantra of a prepared chef is, first and foremost: Do Not Throw Anything Away. I know, I know, no one likes leftovers (including me). But here’s a different way of looking at things. Turn leftovers into something else, and then they are no longer leftovers, but pre-prepped ingredients. Leftover pot roast? Shred the meat, sauté onions and garlic, and add to crushed tomatoes and wine for an amazing ragu that’s divine with papparadelle. Last night’s vegetable side dish becomes tomorrow’s savory vegetable soup with the addition of a little chicken broth and some cannellini beans—grate a little parmesan on top and serve with hot crusty bread. Bacon leftover at breakfast? Crumble, chop, and stir into savory scones with a little grated cheddar, or add to smashed potatoes, or crumble on top of a tomato risotto. This is how we save money and stretch flavor. If you don’t have plans for using these leftovers right away, store them in freezer bags or containers, carefully label, and freeze for a night when you are pressed for time, or the cupboard looks bare.
The second rule of thumb is this: when you’re making a little, go ahead and make a lot. When we make waffles on weekend mornings, there’s always batter left in the bowl after everyone’s been served. It’s no extra work at all to go ahead and cook more waffles with what’s left (even make a double batch), cool, then freeze for weekday mornings. Beats Eggo’s. Making breadcrumbs or croutons for a recipe? Make extra and freeze. Roasted chicken for dinner? Throw the carcass in a pot with an onion (cut in quarters, don’t peel) and water, and you have a pot of homemade chicken stock before you finish washing dishes. Strain into containers and freeze for soup and risotto. If you really don’t have time to make stock (what, do you have tickets to the opera?), just freeze the carcass and make it later. Dicing onions? Go ahead and do a few extra, and freeze for when you’re really pressed for time. Making cookies? Triple the batch, scoop into balls, and freeze flat on a cookie sheet. When they’re frozen, transfer to a ziplock and bake as needed. They don’t even need to thaw first. Bake an extra loaf of banana bread, or whole wheat sandwich bread, or batch of cinnamon rolls, or anything you’re putting in the oven on a leisurely day. Make a huge pot of chili, a bigger batch of meatballs, more Bolognese than you could ever possible eat at one time. Your weeknights just got a lot easier.
Third, don’t ever let anything go bad. The only thing I have not successfully frozen is lettuce. I like to think of the freezer as a little time machine that gives me a minute to breathe. There’s nothing more panic-inducing than vegetables and fruit slipping towards oblivion. Take a trip down the freezer section of the grocery store, and you will see that’s there’s very little that can’t be frozen. Get some good containers, and those over-ripe peaches can be turned into compote with a little sugar and vanilla bean, easy to stir into an ice cream base, pour on top of whole grain pancakes, or stir into pound cake batter. Wilted greens and spinach can be washed, dried, chopped and frozen to star later in risotto, soups, dip, pasta. Learn from the corporate giants, but beat them at their own game. I do have an extra freezer, but it’s cheaper than a full-time prep cook, and I know intimately what’s in all our food.
Sicilian Cauliflower Salad
1 head cauliflower
1/4 c. pine nuts
1/4 c. currants
2 anchovy fillets, chopped to a paste
1/2 c. Italian parsley leaves
1/2 loaf ciabatta
2 cloves garlic, sliced paper thin
pinch red pepper flakes
4 Tbs. white balsamic vinegar
1/2 c. olive oil (plus more for sauteing)
1/4 c. balsamic vinegar
Cover currants with boiling water and set aside. Tear bread into bite size pieces and set aside. Toast pine nuts at 350 until golden and set aside. Cut cauliflower into florets. Blanch briefly in boiling water, drain, plunge into ice water and dry thoroughly. Heat olive oil in a large skillet. Sear cauliflower over moderately high heat until blackened in spots but still crunchy. Remove from skillet into a large bowl. Heat more oil in skillet and saute bread until golden and crunchy. Add to bowl with cauliflower. Add a little more oil to pan and saute anchovy paste and garlic until garlic just begins to turn golden. Scrape skillet contents into a small bowl, and add chili flakes and white balsamic. While whisking, slowly drizzle in olive oil, until emulsified. Drain the currants and add to cauliflower and croutons along with pine nuts and parsley. Toss with vinaigrette. Place balsamic in a small skillet and reduce over medium heat to 2 tablespoons. Place salad on serving platter and drizzle with balsamic syrup.