Those of us who use Facebook sometimes live others' lives - and meals - vicariously. We also share their anxieties about their child's first day at school and the pressures of balancing work and family time.
Since fixing meals ahead and freezing them to be ready for the microwave or a lunch box is an important survival method, I asked my friends what are their favorite meals to make ahead and freeze for the family.
Surprisingly, ground meat reigned, whether in meatballs, meat loaves or lasagna. It seems the tried-and-true family favorites and comfort foods also are the ones frozen the most. It makes sense. A slice of meatloaf in a sandwich might be second best to hot for some, but others rated it as top fare. Meatballs in a tomato sauce or gravy, by themselves, or dipped in mustard or an Asian dip were right up there with meatloaf. But then, they are a mini meatloaf, only round.
Then there was lasagna, whether with meat or not. There were descriptions of squares of lasagna reheated in a toaster oven, adapted to a meat-less variety for one family member and another loaded with meat for a teenager with hollow legs.
Holly Wheeler, who has helped me with photo shoots for various projects, agreed to come spend an hour with me fixing three of these meals and sharing them between us. It took us an hour and roughly $40 to make three meals for eight or more people. And frankly, I watched her more than I cooked myself.
She cooks her meals from memory, small wonder, as she learned most of her recipes from weekends with her two grandmothers.
Here's how we did it:
Cooked one frying pan of chopped onions and garlic in butter or oil. While it was cooking, we sauteed two kinds of ground meat (in this case ground beef and italian sausage mixed) until light brown. We started a tomato sauce in a third pan, although we could have used our favorite commercial marinara or other jarred sauce and not felt the least bit guilty.
When done, we divided the onions between the three recipes, with some left over.
We layered the lasagna with noodles, cooked meat, sauce, and cheese. While it was baking we combined more of the same ground meats for the meat loaf and the meatballs, and added the rest of the ingredients, adding different condiments to each to make them different both from the lasagna meat and each other, departing from the recipes ever so slightly to do so.
For instance, in one we used ball park mustard, and the other Dijon mustard. In one, basil and oregano; in another thyme and fennel. Holly uses a name-brand stuffing mix as the bread in her meatloaf, so cornbread, plain bread or panko could be used in the meatballs. We did the same thing with the leftover tomato sauce, as a sauce for the meatballs.
Lastly, we browned the meatballs, baked mini meat loaves, and wound up with a wealth of food. There was leftover canned tomato sauce and tomatoes, so rather than put them into the refrigerator to be discovered in three weeks and thrown away, we combined them all into another sauce. Half went into the leftover lasagna meat (a small amount) and the rest into a separate container. Two more small meals! Both would go over pasta or some other starch for a throw-together meal. An unexpected bonus.
Holly Wheeler's Lasagna
Holly learned this from her grandmother when she was 6. Can sizes have morphed through the years, and she now uses no-cook lasagna noodles. She prefers cottage cheese to ricotta as it is moister.
1 to 2 pounds ground beef
3/4 pound Italian sausage
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (28-ounce) can good quality crushed tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon ground pepper
1 teaspoon basil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
9 to 12 cooked or no-cook lasagna noodles
8 ounces sliced swiss cheese
8 ounces sliced provolone
8 ounces sliced mozzerella
1 (16-ounce) carton cottage cheese
Brown beef, sausage, onion and garlic. Add tomatoes and tomato paste and all of the seasonings. Simmer at least 40 minutes.
Layer meat sauce, noodles, cottage cheese , swiss cheese and sauce, then repeat, using provolone every other layer and finishing with the mozzerella.
Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 30 minutes until heated through and bubbly.
This is delicious whether for a main course or in a chafing dish with toothpicks. (I've seen men stand around the table unwilling to relinquish their toothpicks until the dish was replenished.) This recipe can be doubled or tripled, and probably should be. It is the only dish that my friend Cynthia, who has years of gracious entertaining under her belt, ever ran out of while feeding a large crowd of hungry rare-book dealers in her home. Be gentle with the meatballs while shaping.
1/3 cup milk
3/4 cup cubed day-old loaf bread, crusts removed
1 pound ground beef or turkey
Chopped leaf parsley, not dried
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme, not dried
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour the milk over the bread in a small bowl. Let stand about 3 minutes and then squeeze the bread dry. Discard the excess milk and move the bread to a large bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix gently, gently, gently, with your hands. If possible, cover and chill the meat mixture for 20 minutes to help better form the meatballs during the next stage. Lightly grease a rimmed baking sheet. Gently roll mixture into 24 (1- to 2-inch) meatballs. Move to the prepared pan, leaving about 1 inch between meatballs. Bake for 20 minutes, until the meatballs become a nice golden brown. Serve hot.
Variation: Serve in a favorite tomato or marinara sauce.
Serves 8 to 10
My mother made this with great regularity. We would have it for supper one night, with near-ritualistic English peas and mashed potatoes, and then the next day for sandwiches for lunch. The rest was frozen for later. We always loved it. I've fiddled with the recipe some and list the variations below. In short, this is just a base for meatloaf - I change it around, and so should the cook. The ingredients are adaptable. Don't rush out and buy anything before checking to see if it is possible to just use what is available in the pantry. Meatloaf can be free-form or baked in a mold.
This recipe can be cut in half or even thirds quite easily, as nothing needs to be exact. The virtue of this large recipe is the extra meals for the freezer.
21/2 pounds ground beef
11/4 pounds ground pork or additional ground beef
2 slices bread made into crumbs, or panko
1/3 cup rolled oats
2 to 4 large eggs, beaten to mix
1 tablespoon prepared mustard, yellow or Dijon
2 cups tomato sauce or ketchup, divided
1 medium onion, chopped
11/2 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh herbs, such oregano, marjoram, thyme, or basil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil three loaf pans or one roasting pan with sides.
Mix the meatloaf ingredients, using just 1 cup of tomato sauce or ketchup, and pull together in a mass. Remove a few tablespoons and saute briefly in a nonstick pan to determine if texture or taste needs adjusting. Divide between the loaf pans or shape into 1 or more oval or rounds and move into a roasting pan. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, basting occasionally with the pan juices, until the center of the loaf registers 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. Spread the top(s) with remaining 1 cup tomato sauce or ketchup the last 10 minutes of cooking. Leave in the pan in the juices to rest for 10 minutes. Cool enough to slice without it breaking up. Move to a board or a serving dish.
Make an indention down the center of the meatloaf before baking. Fill with tomato sauce the last 10 minutes of baking.
Sometimes I use just bread and no oatmeal, sometimes no bread and a little more oatmeal or all saltine crackers. I've used whole milk instead of evaporated milk, and once I used cream.
Substitute a third of the meat with ground veal.
I've also left out the evaporated milk and added a Southern touch-cornmeal, cornbread, or crumbled tortilla chips as a different emphasis.