Read an Excerpt
If this is the first time you’ve joined us, welcome to a new life, where you’ll have meals on hand without the every-evening stress of what to fix. You’re going to save money on your grocery bills and save time in the kitchen, so that you and your family can consistently enjoy together time over delicious, home-cooked meals, and perhaps share meals with others. If this is a reunion with old friends who have enjoyed Once-A-Month Cooking, welcome back. You’re in for more wonderful recipes and ways to spend meaningful time around the family dinner table.
As you launch into megacooking, we’re cheering for you! And here’s our promise: we’ll do all we can to help you not only realize your goals, but have a positive experience in the process. Whether you decide to cook a month’s dinner entrées at once, or two weeks’ dinner entrées, we’ll expedite your shopping and cooking. And we’ll even provide table-talk conversation starters to help you make the very most of that time when you’re gathered around the table.
What to Expect
For those of you who are new to the method, Once-A-Month Cooking is a different way to cook. You don’t have to be well organized or a good cook to successfully accomplish it. But you do need to expect and plan to
• Take a longer-than-usual shopping trip, preferably the day or night before you cook.
• Spend the bulk of your month’s food expense on this shopping trip (saving money over the course of the month).
• Cook with a partner for maximum efficiency and more fun.
• Cook half a day for a two-week cycle and a full day for a one-month cycle.
• Love the freedom and possibilities this will bring to mealtimes.
• Enjoy family-building times around the table.
• Take the stress out of having company for dinner.
A Look at the Recipes
The Recipesincluded in Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites have been selected for their taste, variety, ease of preparation, freezeability, and appeal to children as well as adults. Four of the menu cycles are classic, to use any time of year: two one-month cycles and two two-week cycles. Three additional two-week cycles are more specialized and add variety. The Summer Two-Week Cycleis for when livin’ is easy, grillin’ is big, and picnics are possible. The Gourmet Two-Week Cycleis more up-scale fare, on average, than the classic cycle entrées. And the Gluten-Free Two-Week Cycleprovides tasty alternatives for the person with gluten intolerance. We think you’ll find that the recipes in the Gluten-Free Cycle are every bit as tasty as the recipes in the others, and are perfect for the whole family where one or more members must eat gluten-free. As always, the person on a special diet should carefully check ingredient labels.
How to Get Started
If you have previously used Once-A-Month Cooking, you will find the same streamlined method with entirely new recipes. If you are new to bulk cooking, you’ll want to first select a cycle to prepare and read through the lists and charts that are your tools:
The new Menu Chartis your best Once-A-Month Cooking buddy. You will want to download and print a copy at www .once-a-monthcooking .com and keep it on the refrigerator, or taped inside a cupboard door. The more you usethe Menu Chart, the happier you will be because it will help you
• Incorporate into weekly shopping trips any fresh produce required.
• Select an entrée from your freezer to fit the number of people you’ll serve on a given night.
• Cycle through a variety of meats, poultry, and fish.
• Select an entrée for the day that will match your available time for final preparation.
• Write in ideas for what you will serve with each entrée. Following through with this important step will help you creatively use fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and keep track of items that you will need to purchase on a weekly grocery-shopping trip.
• Check off dishes you have served so you know what you still have to choose from—and when you need to plan your next Once-A-Month Cooking day.
The beauty of the big grocery trip is that you can avoid the need for many stops for "just a few" items the rest of the month. Those impulse trips blow the food bud get. But we know that you really, really don’t want to get full swing into your cooking day and find you’re missing a key ingredient, so we’ll help you form a complete shopping list. If possible, plan to shop the day or evening before you cook; you won’t have the time or energy to do both on cooking day.
The first step toward this is to check the items that you already have on hand. The Pantry Listis our guess at items you already have. Check and see, and if you’re missing some, add them to your shopping list. We give the quantities you’ll need so you can be sure that you have enough of each ingredient.
Your Shopping List by Categorieshelps you whip through the grocery store without a lot of doubling back. Supermarkets predictably display the necessities—meat, dairy, bakery, and produce—along the walls of the store. That means you have to travel aisles of impulse items to get to them! We hope to save you steps and detours.
One caution: If you are a super-diligent shopper who likes to buy meats and poultry on sale, remember that it is not wise to thaw meat or poultry, create an entrée, and refreeze it unless the meat or poultry is cooked before it’s refrozen. When a recipe calls for precooked chicken, we often recommend purchasing roasted chicken and deboning it. If you do this, keep in mind for your shopping plan that often supermarkets don’t make roasted chickens available until the afternoon.
An asterisk (*) after an item in the shopping list indicates that the item will not be used until the day the entrée is served. When the item is fresh produce, such as a tomato, you may want to delay purchasing it until close to when you’ll serve the dish. These items are all listed on the handy Menu Chart so you won’t forget to purchase them before they’re needed. Incorporate these into a weekly grocery shopping list so that you can continue to minimize trips to the store.
Truly you can navigate through a Once-A-Month Cooking day with just a basic knowledge of cooking skills. If you are an experienced cook, you’ll sail along more quickly. Using the Assembly Order, you will prepare your entrées in the order listed, beginning with your chopping, slicing, and grating tasks. Don’t be discouraged with the time this step takes. Once it’s completed, the dishes will come together quickly.
Keep the vegetables, cheese, etc. that you process in Ziploc bags or containers on the counter, refrigerating them if they will be sitting out more than an hour or two. Refrigerate all meat, poultry, and fish that you process (slicing, cubing, etc.) until it will be incorporated into a dish.
Depending upon the size of your family, a two-week cycle with some entrées divided into multiple containers could last for a month.
A Few Days Before Cooking
Make room for the bounty by cleaning out your refrigerator and freezer. You won’t need a separate chest freezer, even for a month cycle, if you’ve cleaned out your freezer before you cook. It’s time to throw out those hard knots of mystery food. Purge items from the refrigerator that have passed their expiration dates, and clear space for food you’ll need to refrigerate between your grocery shopping trip and completion of your cooking day.
On the Night Before Cooking
At every turn in the pro cess of Once-A-Month Cooking, you’ll find that following through with the suggested preparation saves you time and inconvenience. The night before you cook, spend a few minutes preparing your kitchen. Remove from the countertops all appliances, canisters, and décor items that you won’t use on your cooking day. Set out all items from the Pantry List on a counter close to the stove. Now add to these the ingredients from your Shopping List that don’t need refrigeration. Take a few moments to label freezer containers (see bottom of each recipe). Set them out on a table adjacent to the kitchen where you can sit a few minutes while you prepare entrées for the freezer.
Equipment You’ll Need
Finally, get out the basic equipment you’ll need for your big cooking day. Depending upon the cycle you choose, they will probably include the following:
Crock Pot—Each menu cycle includes at least one recipe to be completed in a slow cooker on serving day. If you don’t have one, use a large, covered pot in a slow oven (300 to 325°F.).
Food processor—Banish onion tears by chopping onions, a few wedges at a time, "pulsing" with the processor
Mixer or blender—for combining ingredients
POTS, PANS, AND SKILLETS
Baking sheet—for baking; for transporting to the freezer
Large pot with lid—for boiling soups, stews, pastas
Pizza pan—for baking and freezing
Roasting pan—for cooking meats
Saucepans—medium and small with lids
Skillets—large, medium, and small
BOWLS AND CONTAINERS
Freezer containers—Ziploc bags and containers as described on the Pantry List
Mixing bowls—small, medium, and large; for combining ingredients
Apron—to save your clothes
Clean sponges, dishcloths, and kitchen towels—for wiping and cleaning up
Colander—for draining pasta and spinach
Coolers and ice—for dividing food, if you’re cooking with a friend
Cutting boards—One for nuts, fruits, and vegetables, and another for meats and poultry. Or carefully wash your cutting board before moving from one food item to another (always leaving poultry last)
Fresh breeze—whew! Lots of aromas
Indelible marker—for labeling
Happy, supportive shoes—to save your back and feet
Hot pads (oven mitts)—to save your hands
Kitchen shears—for cutting chicken (wash well after using)
Knives—a selection of sizes. Be careful, okay?
Labels or Freezer Tape—for labeling entrées for the freezer
Ladle—for easy transfer of liquids into containers and freezer bags
Meat thermometer—preferably instant-read, for testing doneness of meats
Mixing spoons—for stirring
Music source—for singing while you work
Spatulas—for lifting and turning
Tongs—for lifting and turning
Vegetable peeler—for preparing vegetables
Whisk—for whipping ingredients
The Buddy System
If cooking in large quantity intimidates you; or if you have young children who will need your attention on cooking day; or if you just want to cook with some company, you have options. You can cook one day at your home, and another day at your friend’s home. Or you can cook once and divide the food. If you do the latter, the "away" partner should bring two or three medium-size coolers stocked with freezer "bricks" and/or ice. Don’t skimp on the coolant, since you want entrées to stay cold until they reach the other freezer. We’ve found that really large coolers, when stocked with entrées and ice, may be too heavy to lift into or out of a car.
Here is how we have done this when we cook together at Mimi’s: Mary Beth gathers from her cupboards any pantry items that Mimi says she doesn’t have, as well as any items from the shopping list that she has on hand, and puts them in a large basket to take to Mimi’s. She grocery shops on the way to Mimi’s, putting the bags of items that need refrigeration into the coolers in the back of her car. She buys bags of ice when she buys the groceries, and/or uses cooler bricks.
At Mimi’s house, MB transfers the groceries from the coolers to Mimi’s refrigerator. She leaves the coolers closed, with plenty of ice, close to the kitchen. She sets out the canned and dry goods with Mimi’s pantry list items and canned goods.
As entrées are assembled, Mimi and MB decide who will take which entrée. If Mimi, it goes into her freezer. If MB, it goes into one of the coolers, along with any item with an asterisk that will be needed when the entrée is served. Sometimes we package an entrée in two containers instead of one, and each of us takes half of it.
Once you get those dishes safely into freezer containers, here are some tips to guarantee good taste and texture when they’re ready for the table.
• Use the thicker freezer bags rather than regular food storage bags to avoid leaks and tears.
• Label freezer bags and containers with the following information: Name of recipe, date frozen, and the page number from Once-A-Month Cooking Family Favorites, for easy reference on the day you will serve it. Recent reports show that bisphenol A is unsafe for use in food contact applications. SC Johnson does not use BPA in its plastic products, Ziploc Brand bags and containers, and Saran brand wraps.
• Let the food cool to nearly room temperature before you pour it into a freezer bag. Plastic bags can melt if the food is too hot.
• Squeeze excess air out of freezer bags before you seal them.
• Some recipes call for more than one freezer bag. Be sure to label all bags, in case they get separated from one another in the freezer.
• To keep multiple freezer bags together, we suggest the following: If the item in the larger bag is not particularly "gooey," you can slip the small bag into the larger one to freeze. If it is gooey, use a strong plastic clip to keep them attached, or use freezer tape.
• Don’t overload freezer shelves; air needs to circulate between them.
• If desired, put plastic bins on freezer shelves so that the bags don’t "sag" down between the slats. When they do, and freeze that way, it can be hard to remove the bags.
• Use frozen entrées within six weeks, if possible.
• The safest place to thaw foods is in the refrigerator. Allow a full day for thawing, and a day-and-a-half for a large, dense entrée.
• Food can thaw unevenly in the micro wave. If you thaw in the micro wave, plan to cook the food immediately after it is thawed.
• Submersion in cold water is another safe way to thaw food, and works quickly. Do not leave the food in the water after it is thawed. Refrigerate or cook it immediately.
• Bacteria can increase rapidly in food that is thawed and left on the counter at room temperature.
• Place entreés you are thawing on a dish in case the freezer bag leaks or "sweats." A plastic plate with ridges works great.
Making It Work for You
Keep in mind that the point of Once-A-Month Cooking is to make it possible for you and your family and friends to enjoy time together over delicious, economical, home-cooked meals. We hope you will adapt this method to work for you! One way to do this is to tailor the number of servings to your needs. You’ll find that the recipes serve from 4 to 16 people, and there are a variety of serving sizes within each cycle, the average being 5 to 6 servings. If an entrée provides more servings than you will use in a given meal, you have options: You can divide the entrée to get two (or more) meals from it. You can divide the entrée so that you can take a meal to a friend. You can serve it when you have company. Or you can plan to eat the leftovers for lunch, expanding the cost savings from your Once-A-Month Cooking meals.
When adapting your own recipes to the Once-A-Month Cooking method, keep in mind that the following foods tend to not freeze well.
Raw salad vegetables; raw eggs in their shells or hard-boiled; potatoes; gelatin salads or desserts; icing made with egg whites; boiled frostings, or cakes with cream fillings; instant rice; rice, macaroni, or spaghetti when frozen by itself for another use; custard pies, cream pies, or pies with meringue.
Over the years we have heard about many applications people have found for Once-A-Month Cooking. Here are a few. We hope that you will be able to add your own:
• Sharon’s parents live in a separate apartment within her home. Often they eat dinner together, but Sharon also packages separate portions for them from some of the meals she prepares with Once-A-Month Cooking.
• When a friend of Kelly’s is having surgery or having a baby, she’ll give them the book and say "Choose 10 of your favorites and I’ll cook them for you." She and her husband enjoy cooking together.
• Beth uses Once-A-Month Cooking to keep the evening meals coming between Thanksgiving and Christmas so she can concentrate on extra cooking and baking.
• Heidi teaches a modified two-week cycle of Once-A-Month Cooking to a single mom’s group at her church. She incorporates how to teach their kids math, and how they can save time and money by not catching meals on the run. Lori teaches the moms to think ahead: when they cook one meal, to cook two or three. She encourages them to invite over a friend who has had a bad day and share a meal with them, so that they, too, can get the good feeling of helping others.
Excerpted from Once - A - Month Cooking™ Family Favorites by Mimi Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg.
Copyright 2009 by Wilson and Mary Beth Lagerborg.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.