Holiday Wreath Centerpiece has a Mustard Butter Dip and Hot Mary soup. Judith Dunbar Hines shows how having food on hand is great for when the relatives come and stay during the holiday season. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: January 20, 2013 6:04AM
Amid the flurry that is December, with shopping, decorating, parties and last-minute house guests, the practical day-to-day menu gets little attention. It’s easy to order-in when hunger takes over, but how much pizza and Thai take-out can your family really eat over the next 10 days?
Here’s my list of helpful hints on how to take care of those meals in the most efficient way. Spend a few minutes now and save hours later, using these tips.
First, take time right now to determine what already is on hand. Look for things that can be used in multiple ways. Shop for others and stock-pile them for quick meals on the run. Take one day to prep a few things that can be pulled out as needed. Then make a list of what you have ready and what you can quickly make from things on-hand and post it on the refrigerator for quick reference.
See my inventory for a starting point (accompanying story), and take a look at what I intend to do with those things for inspiration.
Begin with the freezer, using up anything with a long-ago date or tossing freezer-burned unidentified objects to make room for the new. My freezer has some leftover Thanksgiving turkey, packed with extra gravy. Voila — the beginnings of a wonderful pot pie. I add a bag of mixed vegetables and a topping of puff pastry, and now, in the space previously occupied by those ingredients, there is a tasty dinner for 4 to 6, all wrapped tightly, ready to thaw and bake.
A whole package of good quality bacon is baked on a rack in the oven. Cooked slices are frozen individually and go back into the freezer, ready for crumbling on a salad, popping into a sandwich, or just warmed up for breakfast.
Ready-to-bake pie crusts offer not only the possibility of a pie (using the apples or pears in the fruit basket on the countertop, or fruit from the freezer) but also a quickly assembled quiche. Crumbling some of the aforementioned cooked bacon, sautéing a bit of onion, beating eggs and adding grated cheese takes only a few minutes.
Make several while you are at it; eat one and freeze the others. A pre-made quiche is almost always in my freezer, ready for brunch, lunch or late supper, making a quick trip from freezer to oven for 45 minutes of unattended cooking while I hide the presents I’ve just brought home and whip up a salad.
Bags of frozen fruit promise plenty of smoothies on harried mornings, and inspire a hot fruit compote dessert.
A small plastic bin of seasonings is tucked into one corner of the freezer. From that valuable supply of frozen orange, lemon and lime juice, tomato paste, pesto, chipotle chiles and roasted garlic, I can add flavor to spontaneous salsas, pasta dishes and a bowl of rice.
All meats are on one shelf in the freezer wrapped in individual portions so it’s easy to thaw exactly the amount I need. I grab a package of Italian sausage, chicken breasts or fish, and saute it with the appropriate seasonings from that bin while a pot of rice or pasta cooks and in a very short while I can put dinner on the table for any number of diners, from one to 10.
While the season encourages entirely too many high-calorie treats, it is most important to counter that with vegetables and fruits whenever and wherever possible. That’s why I always have a big bag of pre-washed baby spinach on hand. I prefer that to a salad mix as my go-to green because, in addition to salad, I can turn spinach into a sauteed vegetable as a side dish, add a handful to a casserole or stir fry, make a filling for crepes or drop into a soup for a high-nutrition boost. Keeping a bag or two of frozen vegetables on hand is also important; stir-fry and mixed vegetables and a bag of peas are valuable add-ins when time is short.
Crepes are a great multi-purpose stand-by. Make a couple dozen of them yourself and freeze, divided by sheets of plastic wrap. Pull as many as you need and fill with vegetable/meat/cheese fillings. Or fill and roll, then wrap individually for the freezer. Bake directly from the freezer when the need arises for brunch, lunch or an easy but impressive light dinner. Yes, you can easily buy them ready-made at the supermarket, but the ones you make yourself have no preservatives, you can customize them as you and your guests like, and you can use up bits of things stored in the fridge and freezer, too.
Want to skip the crepe-making? Have tortillas on hand. Fill as above, adding a bit of salsa or Mexican spices, top with grated cheese and sour cream and bake, or just warm and serve with various toppings.
Omitting dessert from weeknight dinners probably is a good idea at this time of year, but when guests surround the table, its nice to have something available for a sweet ending. I make a batch of Winter Fruit Compote and keep it on hand throughout the season. A spoonful over a slice of pound cake or scoop of ice cream (seasonal eggnog flavored is my favorite!) is very festive. If you need something more spectacular but don’t want to bake, whip some cream and layer slices of pound cake, compote and the whipped cream in a deep dish for an English Trifle. And when guests are on hand for breakfast, I warm compote in the microwave and serve it with oatmeal or granola and yogurt.
What about the inevitable parties that crop up, planned or otherwise? Here are my favorite quick-picks:
After a cold day spent outside, everyone enjoys a warm drink. Welcome them in with a mug of Hot Mary. Simmer a bottle of Bloody Mary Mix with spices and serve it in mugs — adults can add alcohol.
A bag of cheese cubes can be made special and party-ready by arranging them into a wreath and offering a simple dip. Add apple wedges and celery sticks to the mix for variety and their healthful aspect, and the party is on!
So there you have it, my gift to you: Simple seasonal tips from breakfast to late night.
Happy holidays to one and all!
Judith Dunbar Hines is a cooking teacher, tour guide, writer and culinary consultant in Chicago. For upcoming classes, see email@example.com.