Sneaking Up on Freezer Cooking

Freezer Inventory

I’d mentioned that it is important to have a freezer inventory if you’re doing Freezer Cooking, Once a Month Cooking or the like.   You’d think you wouldn’t.  Surely you’ll remember all that work you went to when putting up that lasagna or soup, wouldn’t you?

Friends, you won’t.

Here’s a truncated example of the freezer inventory system I have.  I have a chart (made it in Excel, don’t snigger) listing the meals I make.   I have up to four check boxes for how many full family meals I have frozen.  An empty space means there’s no meal of that sort frozen.  A diagonal line sloping up to the right means I’ve added a meal.  The crossed line means I’ve used that meal, so it’s gone now.

This gets posted on the fridge, so that I can keep the list updated easily rather than wasting time and paper printing up a new one every time I add food to the freezer or heat up a frozen one.  Anyone can draw a diagonal line.  Anyone can heat up dinner, too.   This is a good system if more than one person in the house is serving meals.

Cook from Scratch

I’d posted a survey in my LJ about cooking and cooking habits. It’s probably pretty skewed, as anyone who reads my stuff is going to be interested in cooking. They’d soon stop reading out of boredom, otherwise, as household management and cooking is a definite interest of mine.  (We all have to eat and live somewhere.  How about systems to streamline things so you’re comfortable?)

It got me to thinking.  When we go to the beach, we stay in a couple of condo units that are basically a large two-bedroom apartment, complete with a reasonably decent basic kitchen.    When we go, we cook in rather than eat out.  With 6-12 people together, restaurants are far, far too expensive to be practical for a week’s stay!

This year, my mother did all of the cooking, but one meal my brother made.  *wince*  I had a project due when I got back, but you know, I really should have made at least one or two dinners. (Don’t let me get out of cooking a couple of meals next year, Mom).

Here’s the thing — I learned about prepping ahead from Mom.  Since she was doing the cooking, this means that meals were often put on to cook slowly in the oven, or simmer slowly on the stove while we enjoyed an afternoon at the beach.  Come five or six in the evening, we’d come up to the unit and there would be a heavenly smell wafting through the corridors.  It brought comment from many of the other people who weren’t making dinner.  They would be going out, or calling in for pizza or some such.

I used to wonder why in the world this place didn’t have  a crock pot as standard equipment (I’d be lost without mine!) when I realized that 80% of the people there wouldn’t use them.

Honestly?  I’d always chalked it up to people not wanting to cook on vacation, rather than a daily habit in their regular lives.   When I was growing up, one cooked dinner most nights.  Mom worked a couple of evenings a week for a little while.  I was old enough (12 or almost 13 when she started), so I cooked.  This was a family tradition.  When she was a teenager and her mother worked full time, Mom was expected to get her brother and sisters together to make sure dinner was on the table when Nanny got home1.  Cooking dinner was what one did. Working mom or not, somebody was cookin’ dinner.

But I have a question:  If you don’t cook, how in hell do you afford to feed your family?  I am hardly going to claim to be the world’s most frugal kitchen manager, mind you.  My family of three spends about four hundred dollars a month on groceries, so you can’t say I’m exactly cookin’ cheap.  (Those fresh veggies in the bento do add up!)  I don’t shop at dented can stores, I don’t clip coupons (it’s usually for pre-processed stuff I don’t use, anyway).  The only really frugal things I do are to look for cheap cuts of meat, eschew canned beans in favor of dry and cook from scratch for the most part.

I saw an advertisement in the grocery store bragging:  Meal for Four for Under $15! as if this were some sort of wonderful thing.  I started ranting at my shopping partner (I think it was my son that time), “Well, I would bloody well hope so!  Good God, what are people serving?”

Wondering if this was a knee-jerk response from sitting on my high horse, I got out my price book when I got home, and figured the price per serving for some of  my usual recipes.  Understand that this reflects the fact that I don’t pay more than $2.50/lb for meat.  I do watch sales. I don’t buy organic food hand-raised by virgin elves under the full moon, either, okay?  Making dinner for four usually costs me between $5.00 and $8.00.  How can you afford to spend much more on that?  My household isn’t poor, but we’re hardly wealthy, either.  How can you afford to spend fifteen bucks (or more, apparently) on a typical weeknight dinner?

If I didn’t cook from scratch, there’d be no way I could pull that off.

1Stories about her explosive reaction if dinner were not ready when Nanny got home are now stuff of family legend.


…the easier it is to stop up the drain

My coffee maker is on the fritz again.  I can’t seem to get more than a few years out of even the most expensive model.  Clearly I must be doing something wrong.  Not everyone buys a new coffee maker every three years or less.  I’ve had the no-frills version (lasted the longest – five years before the burner broke), a fancy version that brewed into a thermal carafe (it could be counted on to overflow at an inconvenient time), expensive models with timers and all sorts of bells and whistles.

And then I have this cup-top brewer.  I think I paid a couple of bucks for it.  I know it was less than three, anyway.  It works Every. Single. Time.   There’s nothing to break.  If I want to make a cup of coffee for a friend who doesn’t prefer that her coffee be strong enough in which to stand a spoon, why, I can make her a cup her way.  It doesn’t take any longer to make a cup of coffee than a cup of tea, it’s fresh each time you make it and you’re not mindlessly drinking too much coffee because there’s a full pot around.  (Goddess of Java, I may be, but I have a human liver that shouldn’t be asked to absorb too many drugs too often).

I am so disgusted with coffee makers, I swear I think I am going to buy the ten cup version (which is still cheaper than almost any automatic coffee maker on the market) for those rare occasions when I need ten cups of coffee all at once.   For parties, I can pour it in my thermal pump pot and be done with it.

Gearing up for the School Year

In anticipation of the insanity that is the school year, I just spent some time doing a rotating menu planner.  The idea is that you think of some X number of dishes that are reasonably easy to cook (ideally X>14) then put them in a reasonable order and rotate what you’ll cook.   I usually do 26.  I don’t know why I choose that number, but I do.  Ever thought up 26 dishes?  LOL.  I’ve heard people ask if you get bored when you make such a plan.  Well, I don’t know about you, but if I don’t have a meal plan, I wind up cooking the same five or six dishes all the  time!

It  makes shopping easy.  You just look at your plan, and make your grocery list from that.  OLQ used to do this and I liked it.  It cut food costs way down while still having tasty dinners.  Most of the meals are either crock pot meals or meals that I can make extra and freeze ahead.   In the case of crock pot meals, many of them I can double and freeze an extra night’s dinner for the next time it’s served.  I believe in Feed the Freezer Cooking where possible.  If you have a busy life, having meals in the freezer reduces the temptation to order carryout or fast food.  I’ve done the Once a Month Cooking thing, but I don’t find it sustainable in the long term.   I have a detailed article on what I actually did here. It might be useful.  I’ll be doing the planned-overs thing mostly, with maybe a cooking session or two on a free weekend if I get a wild hare.

Limitations are Real

As a caveat before I start this rant:  Lazy in all its forms exists.  I’m not discounting that.

It is a common thing to find on bodybuilding discussion boards a certain amount of sneering at lazy among those with some truly astonishing physiques.   (I read the “naturals” as steroid-enhanced isn’t my kink).  “You could have a body like this if you were just willing to get up at four every morning to do your cardio and then go to the gym every evening to work on your weights… blah blah blah.  You don’t have it because you’re LAZY.”

Thing is, we all know genetics plays a part in physical activity.  Michael Phelps couldn’t be a great football player.   He’s too skinny.  It would take steroids to put enough mass on him to be able to take being tackled by those enormous linebackers. A professional quarterback, a position that isn’t noted for being particularly massy out on the football field, averages an inch or two shorter than Phelps, but generally outweighs him by about 30 lbs.  That surfboard-flat body, long limbs and paddle-like extremities (which he was born with) are what enabled him to develop after YEARS of dedication his incredible swimming speed and skill.

Yes, you can manipulate your body stats to a degree with some serious time and dedication.  It’s certainly possible.  But after awhile, your final genetic blueprint takes over and you reach the end of what you is physically possible to manipulate –never mind what’s reasonable if you want a life outside of the physical manipulation.   It’s why attaining a certain body look as a moral imperative is idiotic when you look at it logically.

This applies to intellectual attainment, too.   Now, most of the people I interact with on a regular basis are pretty damn smart.  I like discussion — unscrewing the inscrutable, analyzing material, figuring out why.   It would be fair to say that my general social/discussion circle, were their brains bodies, would be at least amateur competitive bodybuilders with a couple zooming past me as (natural, there are no brain steroids yet) Mr. or Ms. Olympia.

Among my social circle, there is a common belief that if you do not think well and fluidly, if you’re poor at thinking outside the box and coming up with a creative solution, if you’ve not amassed by the age of thirty a pretty good knowledge base, and more importantly, learned how to learn, that you’re lazy. Now, remember, lazy does exist.  I had the requisite mental ability to get straight As in any high school.  I think I graduated with something like a 2.81 average and never got straight As until I decided to as an intellectual exercise in a community college.  (It was tedious, but hardly difficult).  So as far as lazy, I’d fit the bill.  I recognize it exists.

I suspect that many people who slap the lazy label on sloppy thinking are like me.  They’re flippin’ smart.  If they aren’t getting something mentally, it’s because they’ve decided not to try.  Can’t?  Don’t be silly!

But as a mental exercise: Imagine that the ability to spot faulty logic or  to think outside of the box is the equivalent of being able to bench press 500 pounds, and you’re in the 99th percentile for bench pressing ability. YOU could do it with ease. Someone in the 75th percentile (well above average) COULDN’T.

Disparity in the ability to REASON, it seems to me, genuinely exists. Like weight training, you can work very hard and fulfill the potential of *your* genetics, but that will still take an overwhelming amount of work that’s difficult for the naturally gifted to grok.

Breakfast Bentos

Photo_081909_002Yeah, I’m on a bento kick. It’s a hobby that ensures a healthy meal.  It’s better than jello shots or collecting used underwear, so get off my back!

This is a breakfast bento. Tomorrow is going to be a busy day for the man of the house and I. He’s got an ungodly early meeting and I have a class to teach. If I skip breakfast before teaching, I’m throwing dry erase pens and those plastic erasers at the students too soon into the day.  I like to hold off until at least noon…

I’d made “oatnigiri” (cooked steel cut oats molded into shape with cinnamon and sugar) that needed to be used up, so I figured a breakfast bento would be good for both of us to start the day off right.    Yes, yes, the term oatnigiri is a complete abomination since nigiri actually means “pressed rice”.  I didn’t name it and can’t think of a better term. If you can, then I’ll mention your linguistic genius in my next blog post and start using the term, crediting your brilliance.

It is interesting to point out that you can mold glutenous grains other than rice into shapes for later consumption.  If you’re not into rice, but wanna try it, there’s always polenta or a dozen other grains that you can cook sticky and thick, then make sure they’re either sweet or savory to eat for later.  Oatnigiri are good if you like steel cut oats in the first place.

Breakfast is usually a fend for yourself meal in my household, but since I was doing a breakfast bento for myself, it’s just as easy to do two as one.   I’ll do it in preparation for the really busy days.

Photo_081909_003Lunch for the man of the house I did make special, since I have a lunch meeting tomorrow, so wasn’t making one for myself.  I made it sort of special, anyway.  This is actually close to what we had for dinner.  The pork chops weren’t cut into bite-sized bits and I didn’t arrange dinner in a cute box, but while I’m making dinner, it’s just as easy to make a little extra to put in a plastic box for lunch.

I’m going to be taking a train trip to visit a friend sometime next month and need to figure out a couple of good ekiben for myself.  Ideally I’d like one to eat on the way down, then another to eat on the trip back home.   It’s the second one that has me scratching my head.  Of course, he has a fridge, so I suppose all I really have to do is make something that’ll take about 36 hours in a fridge okay, and it’ll be all good.  I’d rather have a bento than train or even train station food.

Got Plastic Ware? Have a Bento!

A bento made with no special equipment
A bento made with no special equipment

This everyday bento is made with no special equipment at all.  I didn’t even use the onigiri molds I have, but made those babies by hand.

I have had a couple of people comment they’d like to try bento, but are strapped for cash.  Hence, they can’t get a special box so they can’t do bento.  Nonsense, I say.  You almost certainly have a flat plastic container in your kitchen right now!  The most special thing I used in making it was special short grain rice and my “good” knives to cut up the food

This bento, which didn’t take forever to make, was made using a RubbermaidTM sandwich container.  I lined the bottom with lettuce, took sliced beef from the roast we had for dinner, made some onigiri, added some cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and sliced yellow pepper.

While not the coolest looking bento I’ve ever made, it’s a nice, basic bento that’s made from  what I have in the house.  In looking at it, I can see some grace notes I could have added still within the “no special equipment” caveat.  I could have put some sort of sesame seed decoration on the onigiri.  I could have cut the strawberries in special shapes.  But it was a speed bento that I wanted to be attractive and tasty, but not sweating the kawaii aspects.

Basically, if you get a nice 2-3 cup flat container, get a wide variety of food color, arrange it fairly nicely, and be sure to pack it tight, you’ve got a good bento!

Water and Personality

I spent a lovely day playing at riverspirit54riverspirit54‘s house yesterday.  She has the most beautiful spot by a narrow, shallow river with a broad sandy natural beach where we hang out, and  a rock cliff with trees clinging to various spots on the other.  From certain angles, it looks like something you’d see in Lord of the Rings for a close shot.  Beautiful.

You might get the slight impression that I like hanging out by water I can swim in.  A little hint here and there, maybe…  I’m a water baby.  I’ve taken vacations that did not revolve around water, and had a good time (especially if I was visiting a friend), but for the re-creation of my self, there needs to be water.  If it’s natural water, that’s so much the better.

Obviously I love to swim and go to some trouble to ensure that I do regularly.   And I don’t sneer at pools and chlorine and how awful the chemicals are.  When it’s that or nothing, I assure you a waterless life is not going to be my choice.  But, I prefer “real” water when I have the opportunity.

When I was a kid, we had a membership to a local pool.  Summer afternoons, except Wednesdays because we had a swim meet and were not permitted to tire ourselves out, were spent there from about noon until time to make dinner.  Daddy had a 16′ ski boat and on weekends, we’d be on Machodoc Creek1 or the Potomac river skiing, having a picnic and generally playing on the water.  If we begged enough, Daddy would sometimes take us to one of a couple of dockside restaurants that served steamed crabs.  OM NOM NOM NOM.  Nuttin’ like a Maryland crab feast with hushpuppies.  That was rare.  The definition of a boat is “a hole in the water into which you pour money”, so the fun of the boat was meant to be the central fun.

A vacation meant water.  We’d go to The Rivah2, or go with Nanny and Popie to Virginia Beach.  If we went to Disney World, we’d usually drive and stop for one day at a beach on the way.  We went to Nags Head a few times when I was young, and while from an objective point of view, it’s a better beach (wider, better waves, fewer people), Virginia Beach will probably always be The Beach in my heart.  Going down 44 (oops, that’s 264 now…) and waving to the bunny3 brings back really deep memories to me.

But each body of water has its personality and its moods.  It’s like getting to know a person, really.   Playing in a body of water, you feel the way the currents move differently at different times of the day or how it responds to the wind in the sky and the pull of the moon.  I think one of the reasons I love to play at riverspirit54riverspirit54‘s place so much is that her river (it’s always been her river to my family) has a powerful and soothing personality all its own.

1A branch of the Potomac near Dahlgren Naval Surface Warfare Center with nice, calm water that’s fantastic for skiing
2My aunt and uncle have a place on the mouth of the Potomac at the Chesapeake Bay. If you say you’re going down to The Rivah for the weekend to any real Richmonder, they’ll know you don’t mean the James

3When you get on 264 and head to the oceanfront, on the left there is a u-store-it place that has a bunny as a logo. In years past, the bunny had an animated waving arm. When my brother and I were very small and so excited we would almost pop about going to the beach, my parents would have us look for the bunny and wave to it. This year when Daddy was driving us down from Fredericksburg, I insisted that my children wave to the bunny. They thought I was messing with them, but Daddy backed me up that this was Serious Beach Tradition, so they did as I asked. I don’t think they truly believed I wasn’t messing with them until greendalekgreendalek came down a few days later and mentioned that he, too, had waved to the bunny.


It’s going to be a slightly quiet day today.  After I bid on a couple of projects, I’m going to listen to The Secret Garden and clean the house.  The link is to a free audiobook, by the way.  It’s not a professional recording, but the reader is quite good for a layman.   A lot of the Librivox books are read by several different people and I often find that distracting, but this one has the same reader throughout.

Though sometimes the different readers can be fun.  The accent of the woman who reads the first chapter of Three Men and a Boat: To say nothing of the dog by Jerome K. Jerome is absolutely charming.  She’s Indian and still manages to get the flavor Victorian masculine humor across very well.  The whole book is very funny.  I read it because it was mentioned in Have Spacesuit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein. And he’s right about the pineapple scene.

I started getting Librivox downloads because I wanted to cut expenses and my membership was an expense I figured it would be easy to cut. Basically, I was getting an audiobook a month for about fifteen bucks.  Which, I grant you, is cheap.  If you buy ’em in the store, they’re much more expensive.

I have close to 100 unabridged audiobooks. (I blame this on my mother.  She addicted me to being read to in the crib).   These days, I generally like to listen to something while I do chores I might not be enthused about.  Washing dishes is boring?  Hell, who cares?  I’m listening to a story!

My next listen is going to be Heart of the Hunter by a friend of mine, Sam Chupp. He’s a “real writer” in a way I’m not.  He’s been paid for fiction. (Sorry, unless you’re there, it’s hard to understand why this might seem like magic).

Maybe I oughta talk the man of the house into reading one of my novels as a podcast…

Power Outage

Downed TreeLast night my son and I came home from a party to find the police blocking an intersection in the driving rain.

When we took another route to the house, it became obvious why.  Downed power line.  That pole on the corner had been knocked down by the tree you see there falling.  That’s only a bit of it, as I didn’t get a pic before the majority of it was cleaned up.

As far as I am aware, no-one was hurt.  But power was off in our neighborhood for about 12 hours.  I slept in until 8, which is an incredible rarity for me.  I feel up to wrestling tigers, so I can only assume I needed it.

However, power was back on in time for me to talk to a client and get a couple of files to him.  If it hadn’t been on by 9:30, I would have had to have driven to another town to find a hot spot to check on email and the like so I could tie up the loose ends.  It’s amazing how dependent I am on electricity and Internet to work –even with a laptop and a web-enabled cell phone.

I felt bad for the linemen. Yeah, it’s their job and all, but it can’t be fun to be yanked out of bed to work all night.  I was just going to look for the camp stove to make them some coffee when the power came back on and they left.  Still, I’m glad they did work all night.  Prolly should send a nice letter to the power company.

I’m treating myself to a lazy day today.  I’ll do a little work, but nothing intense — just bidding and billing.  I’ll probably work on some fiction after I get my usual bidding done.  Maybe I’ll even do a little house decluttering in preparation for the next intense period.