Family Dinner, Solved: The Loaf Pan Library

Pans filled with the Chicken Pot Pie recipe ingredients // Photo by Becca Dilley

Pans filled with the Chicken Pot Pie recipe ingredients // Photo by Becca Dilley

Here’s all that you need to solve the eternal question of how to feed your family well: Freezer space (a chest freezer is perfect). A handful of suitable recipes. And about two dozen aluminum 9-inch-by-5-inch (8 cup volume) loaf pans with covers or aluminum foil to make lids.

We’ll get back to the details of the solution in a moment. For now, a quick recap of the problem: Anyone who’s ever tried to feed a group of people on a regular basis knows that the experience is like rolling a boulder up a hill, only to get crushed by it over, and over, and over again.

As it turns out, when you’re working on dinner plans, you’re allowed to choose two of the following three attributes: affordability, convenience, and taste/nutrition. Only two, mind you. Order in? It might taste good, and it’s certainly convenient, but it’s incredibly expensive. Frozen or other pre-packaged food? Affordable, convenient, not particularly tasty or nutritious when compared to home-cooked or good restaurant fare. Cooking from scratch? Cost effective! Delicious and nutritious! But… hours of time and a trashed kitchen are the price to pay. Far from convenient.

If you try to cheat the system by making something healthy and tasty, for example, and living on the leftovers, you’ll find your once-delicious home-cooked meal turning to sawdust in your mouth as the week progresses.

Even putting aside the fact that most food declines as it sits around in the fridge, two or three repetitions of almost anything sets off some kind of lizard-brain response that demands variety.

Now for the solution.

THE SOLUTION

“Trash your kitchen to produce a huge amount of good, inexpensive food” is part of the answer. When you cook a big, hearty, tasty batch meal, you’re sharing love with your family in a tangible way—controlling the ingredients and portions, and saving money in the process. The problem, as we’ve stated, is that leftovers lose their luster incredibly quickly, leading to miserable meals and/or piles of homemade food being composted on Thursday or Friday night.

The solution is deep-freezing two-to-four person portions in small, aluminum loaf pans, the kind available at nearly all grocery stores. While you may only have the stamina to eat homemade chili twice this week, you’ve filed away another four-to-eight meals’ worth in your freezer, and in a week—or two weeks, or a month—you can throw the loaf pan in the oven at 5pm, hang out doing whatever you’d like for 60–90 minutes, and then enjoy the fruits of your labor once again.

Once you’ve gone through this process a few times, you’ve created a library of home-cooked meals that you can choose from whenever you don’t feel like cooking from scratch or dining out. It feels like cheating, but it’s not—you’re just harnessing your banked up work and enjoying the fruits of that labor.

All you need to do is this:

1. Cook a big meal. Double or triple the quantities if you have the wherewithal and interest. More is better.

2. Eat a dinner’s worth, and throw a dinner’s worth into the fridge as leftovers. Take the other two-plus dinners’ worth and portion them out into loaf pans.

3. Cover the loaf pans with lids or aluminum foil, and write the name of the dish and the date clearly on the lid in black permanent marker.

4. Stack them neatly in the freezer, on a sheet tray if there isn’t a naturally flat place to put them while they cool and freeze.

5. Days later when you’re wondering what to do for dinner, voila: grab a beautifully preserved option from your freezer. If you’ve done this process three or four times, you’ll have a library of choices to select from.

Photos by Becca Dilley

Photos by Becca Dilley

WHAT TO COOK

Not all recipes can be neatly filed away in the Loaf Pan Library. Dishes that are in any way delicate or subtle don’t do well. Things like chicken marsala, steak, Asian noodle dishes, or most pastas, for example, do poorly. Rice also doesn’t do well coming out of the freezer, although it’s easy enough to make on the fly to accompany dishes such as curries, which do great in the freezer.

Recipes that work tend to be one of four kinds of dish:

1) Things that ride in a flavorful medium that freeze well. Curries are great, as are chilis.

2) Things that are made to be frozen and then baked, such as chicken pot pie or shepherd’s pie.

3) Hearty soups.

4) Dense, deeply flavored meats like smoked pork shoulder or carnitas that tend to be served with sauces / other flavorful accents.

That list isn’t exhaustive, and you’ll find that some things come out of the freezer in better shape than others. As you keep cooking / freezing / reheating, you’ll get a sense of what your family likes, and what emerges from the cold as good, or even better than it was when it went in.

THE RECIPES

What follows are three recipes that have treated us brilliantly in our own loaf pan library—think of them as starting points, and build your own stable of favorites from here.

Chicken Tikka Masala

The heat and depth of spice of many Southeast Asian dishes means that they retain bold flavors even after a cooking / freezing / reheating cycle, and they can be served with fresh rice and/or bread to further make the just-out-of-the-freezer meal feel legitimate and special. This simplified chicken tikka masala recipe (yes, chicken tikka masala is technically more of a British dish than an Indian one, but that’s a long, complicated story) is great right out of the sauté pan, and potentially even better after reheating. This recipe is lightly reworked from a version on AllRecipes.com

Ingredients

1 cup yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
4 long skewers
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Directions

In a large bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, ginger, and salt. Stir in chicken, cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat a grill for high heat. This can be an oven set to broil, a cast iron grill pan, or a backyard Weber-style charcoal grill.

Lightly oil the grill grate. Thread chicken onto skewers and discard marinade. Grill until juices run clear, about 5 minutes on each side.

Melt butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Saute garlic and jalapeno for 1 minute. Season with 2 teaspoons cumin, paprika, and 3 teaspoons salt. Stir in tomato sauce and cream. Simmer on low heat until sauce thickens, about 20 minutes. Add grilled chicken and simmer for 10 minutes.

Store whatever portions you’d like to freeze into loaf pans; transfer the ready-to-eat portion to a serving platter, and garnish with fresh cilantro. Optional: serve with rice and naan.

Karsten’s Three-Meat, Two-Bean, One-Pot Chili

Our friend Karsten Steinhaeuser of St. Paul wowed us at a dinner party with this bold, complex chili and we begged him for the recipe. It’s got smoky depth, meaty fullness, and an overall richness that makes it wonderful when paired with noodles or rice or even served sloppy Joe-style on a small brioche bun. As he notes, sour cream is a must for service.

Ingredients

1–2 dried ancho chilis
1 cup hot water
2 tablespoon oil (olive or canola)
4 strips thick-cut bacon (pepper bacon if available)
1 pound (about 4 links) seasoned pork sausage (my favorite is adobo sausage from the Wedge, but I have also used chorizo, Italian, and other seasoned/spiced sausages)
1 pound ground 85% lean chuck
¾ pound ground bison
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 green pepper, diced
1 tablespoon kosher salt
½ tablespoon black pepper
12 ounces chocolate stout (use a big and rich stout—my favorite is Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout)
1 can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes with all their juices
1 small can (15 ounces) petite diced tomatoes in chipotle (first choice) or adobo
1 small can (15 ounces) red beans, drained (or two if you like “beany” chili)
1 small can (15 ounces) black beans, drained
4 tablespoons good chili powder
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
½ tablespoon ground cumin

Directions

Soak the ancho chili(s) in hot water for 20–30 minutes (I do this while working on steps 2–5, the timing is just right). Then blend thoroughly using a stick or upright blender and set aside.

Add the olive oil and bacon strips to the bottom of a cold heavy pot or dutch oven (minimum 6–7 quarts). Set over medium-low heat and gently render out the fat, about 10 minutes. Remove the bacon and discard (read: eat it).

Increase the heat to medium-high and brown the pork sausage, about 6–8 minutes. Meanwhile, line a large plate or bowl with paper towels. When the sausage is browned, remove with slotted spoon and transfer to a towel-lined dish to drain.

Brown the beef and bison (together if sufficient space in pot, or separately in batches if necessary to avoid overcrowding), about 6–8 minutes. When the meat is browned, remove with slotted spoon and transfer to the towel-lined dish.

Add the onion and pepper to the rendered fats, season generously with salt and pepper, and saute until just tender, about 5 minutes.

Deglaze the pot with the stout, scraping any bits off the bottom of the pot.

Add the entire contents of the canned tomatoes, drained beans, and blended ancho-water mixture to the pot, then add the spices and stir to combine.

Finally, return the meats to the pot and bring just to a boil. As soon as it bubbles vigorously, drop heat to low and simmer very gently for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally.

Serving Suggestions

Sour cream (almost a must to balance the smokiness of the ancho and richness from the stout)

Smoked cheddar (initially I thought it would be overwhelming, but I tried both and prefer it to regular / sharp cheddar)

Very finely diced poblanos (low-to-moderate), jalapeños (moderate), or serrano chilis (hot) to add heat if desired; can also be mixed into the sour cream.

Notes

Re-heat gently over low heat or in a 200-degree oven.

Prolonged freezing seems to affect the texture of the beans just slightly. Start thaw in refrigerator for 24 hours before reheating if possible.

Chicken Pot Pie

A loaf pan chicken pot pie baked after being stored in the freezer // Photo by Becca Dilley

A loaf pan chicken pot pie baked after being stored in the freezer // Photo by Becca Dilley

The chicken pot pie is the classic out-of-the-freezer success story. Since the crust bakes for the first time right out of the freezer, it tastes fresh and crisp, and the rewarmed interior meat and gravy is no worse for the wear. During the six months of the year that Minnesota is mired in winter or winter-adjacent weather, there’s really nothing better. This recipe is lightly adapted from a version found on Epicurious.

Ingredients

4 pounds chicken breasts with skin and bones
4–6 cups chicken broth
3 large carrots, peeled, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 pound turnips, peeled, cut into ½-inch pieces
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
3 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), sliced and floated in water to sift out dirt
2 large shallots, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup white wine OR ⅓ cup chicken stock plus 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
½ cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
Cream cheese pie crust, or other pie crust (we like this one from Epicurious)

Directions

Butter baking dish or dishes. (Typically this makes about four loaf pans’ worth, each of which can feed 2–4 people depending upon appetite and other sides.) Place chicken breasts in large pot. Add broth to cover chicken. Bring broth to boil; reduce heat to low. Cover pot and simmer until chicken is just cooked through, about 20 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate and cool.

Add carrots and turnips to broth in pot. Simmer until vegetables are just tender, about 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer vegetables to prepared baking dishes.

Strain broth; reserve 4 cups. Remove skin and bones from chicken. Cut meat into ½– to ¾-inch pieces. Add chicken to vegetables in baking dishes.

Melt butter in same pot over medium heat. Add leeks, shallots, and thyme. Saute until tender, about 8 minutes. Add flour and stir 2 minutes. Stir in 4 cups broth and white wine. Increase heat to high and bring to boil, stirring constantly. Add cream and boil until sauce thickens enough to coat spoon, whisking frequently, about 6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Pour gravy over mixture in dishes. Stir to blend. Cool 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll out crust dough on parchment paper. Trim dough to pan-sized rectangles and turn dough over onto fillings. Trim dough overhang; tuck dough edge inside the dish. Cut a few notches in each crust to vent.

Freeze pans you’d like to enjoy later. For the pan(s) you’d like to eat immediately, place pot pie(s) on the top rack and bake until crust is golden and gravy is bubbling, about 50 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Got a dish that can be batched up and reheats beautifully from frozen? Tell us about it, and we’ll publish new and improved versions of this story—email food@growlermag.com.