Leftover Time

So often, I hear the familiar refrain from friends, associates and readers, "Chef Geoff, I'm just too busy to worry about cooking dinner after I get home from work". It is an all too familiar problem.

Our lives are crowded by obligations that sap our time like a thirsty mosquito. There are the professional obligations of work, a necessary evil to pay the bills. There's the personal time drain for running errands, fixing the broken light switch, mowing the grass, and watching the Browns' game. There are community involvement, church, board meetings, drafting lengthy dissertations for the Lakewood Observer. And of course, there are the family issues that devour huge chunks of our available time; getting the kids to soccer practice, attending school meetings, getting the kids from soccer practice, Boy Scouts, running off to Front Line to get new soccer shoes (both turf and indoor), making sure homework is done, soccer games, and of course there's soccer. Our schedules are so jammed packed it is little wonder that when it comes time to think about dinner we reach a point of temporal overload.

The situation is undoubtedly worse for those who don't like their kitchens, much less the thought of actually cooking in one. But, even for those of us who view cooking as a recreational activity with gastronomic fringe benefits, sometimes our time banks are just too drained. Thus, we take short cuts, declaring that microwave hot dogs and Kraft Mac-n-Cheese is really the latest trend in dining. Without adequate time to prepare a meal, we resort to carry out - pizza or hitting a franchise eatery. While one might question the time management skills of those who complain they can't find an hour to cook dinner, but are able to devote 55 minutes to standing in line at Outback, that is an issue for later reflection. The fact is, the pressures on our schedules are very real, the lack of time acute and our ability to plan, cook and serve a nightly meal suffers as a result. Time management can help, and in the kitchen, actually planning on "leftovers" can be the perfect solution. Before you stop reading, with visions of greasy, reheated dried-out pork chops, give me a little credit; those aren't the kinds of leftovers I'm talking about.

In general terms, the process of preparing any given dish, does not increase dramatically by increasing the number of portions. Assuredly, cooking times may increase, but you don't have to constantly monitor the oven. When I cook Thanksgiving dinner, I always cook a turkey to serve 20, even though I seldom serve more then ten. While the roasting time will increase, except for basting, the additional roasting time does not require my time. And when I'm through, there's turkey that can now be turned into sandwiches, tetrazini, croquettes and so forth. Likewise, if I'm making a pot of spaghetti sauce, it takes no longer to make 2 gallons then 2 quarts. Why make a dozen meatballs when the investment in time to make 100 is not significantly greater (the key being baking, not sautéing)? I frequently buy two flank steaks or London broils, cook one and freeze the other in its marinade, perhaps pre-sliced for later stir fry. When you prepare extra, you have a freezer full of "prepared meals" that can be on the table with little preparation time and only cooking required.

My favorite dish for advanced preparation is lasagna. The prep time to assemble lasagna for 24 is only minimally greater then making a single batch for 6. Four quarts of sauce simmers the amount of time as one. 2 boxes of pasta cook in the same amount of time as half of a box. Assembling the additional trays for the freezer only takes another ten minutes or so, and multiplying the ingredient amounts should take no time whatever. But, the net result is 3 freshly made dinners, ready to pop in the oven from the freezer on a night that you're just to busy to cook. And, if you package your "leftovers" in a disposable foil baking dish, you even avoid the clean-up.
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Volume 1, Issue 9, Posted 03.34 AM / 20th October 2005.