CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I've been reading about a Crock-Pot cooking strategy that's so simple I can't believe I'd never heard of it. Basically, you plan a menu for a bunch of Crock-Pot meals, compile a shopping list, and prep and assemble all the ingredients at one time.
You plop the ingredients for each recipe in freezer bags and into the freezer. On the morning you're ready for a hot meal made with almost no effort, you empty the contents of a freezer bag into the Crock-Pot and simmer away.
Think of it. In less than two hours of dicing, slicing, measuring and mixing would yield the makings of days of hot meals sitting in your freezer. What a thoughtful gift those bags would be for a harried new mom, sick friend or home-cooking-deprived college student. Or for you, of course.
It seemed like most Crock-Pot recipes could be adapted to the freezer-to-Crock-Pot schematic.
After a little research, I found some tips on what works and doesn't in the freezer-to-Crock-Pot world.
Don't freeze sour cream, creams, cheeses and other dairy products, or delicate vegetables and fresh herbs such as green onions, parsley or cilantro. Stir those ingredients into the recipe at the end of the cooking time, or garnish on individual servings.
Place wet ingredients in the bag first, seal and knead the bag to mix thoroughly before adding chopped vegetables and meats. Seal and gently shake or knead to coat them.
For convenient dumping, place bags to be frozen inside bowls a little smaller than the Crock-Pot. They'll freeze in that shape and slip easily into the Crock-Pot when frozen.
Chop and prep all your ingredients first and place then assembly-line style down the counter. Open whatever cans you'll be using. Uncap condiments such as Worcestershire sauce, catsup, hoisin and soy sauce, etc. Pull all needed spices out of the spice cabinet.
Dump all ingredients in heavy-duty, zip-lock freezer bags -- this is not the time to skimp on bargain bags. Squeeze out as much air as possible. Place in the freezer.
That's it. The entire process took me about two hours to prepare and package four meals: Cuban ropa vieja (steak), Asian chicken, Hungarian beef goulash and coq au vin. The two hours of prep time included kitchen cleanup, but not recipe research, shopping list compilation and the shopping.
The research I've done for you. Recipes follow. I've also included a recipe for beef in red wine sauce I made recently and think would adapt easily for the freezer-to-Crock-Pot system. The shopping list and trip to the grocery store you'll have to handle yourself.Cuban Ropa Vieja
Yields 8 servings. Adapted from food.com.
2 pounds beef flank steak
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup beef broth
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
2 teaspoons vinegar
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 small onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and sliced into strips
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh cilantro, chopped
COMBINE oil, broth, cumin, oregano, vinegar, tomato sauce and tomato paste in zip-lock freezer bag. Seal and knead bag to thoroughly combine ingredients.
PLACE onion, green pepper, garlic and beef in the bag, seal and shake to coat.
EMPTY contents of freezer bag into Crock-Pot. Cover, and cook on high for 6 hours, or on low for up to 10 hours.
TO SERVE, shred meat and serve with tortillas or rice and sprinkle fresh cilantro on top.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 293 calories, 14.2 grams total fat, 4.8 grams saturated fat, 91.8 milligrams cholesterol, 4.5 grams sugars, 491.7 milligrams sodium, 7.3 grams total carbohydrate, 1.7 grams dietary fiber, 33.1 grams protein.
Yields 4 servings. The original recipe called for 2 cups of frozen corn, which I thought sounded strange. I omitted the corn, and instead stirred in 1 cup of edamame just before serving. Adapted from food.com.
Juice of one orange
Zest of one half an orange
1 cup hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon fresh gingerroot, grated
6 boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 red bell pepper, seeded, de-ribbed and cut into strips
2 carrots, sliced
1 cup edamame
6 green onions, chopped
1 cup cashew nuts
PLACE orange juice, zest, hoisin sauce and gingerroot in zip-lock freeze bag, seal and knead to mix.
ADD chicken thighs, red pepper and carrot to the bag. Seal and place in freezer.
PLACE contents of bag in a Crock-Pot.
COVER and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours, or 4 hours on high.
STIR in edamame just before serving.
REMOVE chicken to a serving platter and top with green onions and cashews.
SERVE over rice.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 570 calories, 22.9 grams fat, 87.8 milligrams cholesterol, 24.1 grams sugars, 1,369.7 milligrams sodium, 65.1 grams carbohydrate, 6.8 grams dietary fiber, 31.3 grams protein.
Hungarian Beef Goulash
Yields 8 servings. Recipe from eatingwell.com.
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 14-ounce can reduced-sodium beef broth
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced