Darina Allen: The freezer can really transform busy people’s lives

THE new buzz word in the kitchen is ‘Batch Cooking’.

Quite simply, it means cooking double or triple the recipe each time so meals can be planned ahead, mixed and matched and frozen in handy, easy to defrost size portions. Typically, the big batch cooking session is done at the weekend, often on a Sunday.

It not only saves time during the week but also helps your budget and reduces food waste.

Here’s where the freezer, the magical kitchen appliance that almost everyone owns, can really transform busy people’s lives and you’ll also have more special time to enjoy and spend with your family.

But you’ll need to use it ‘smartly’ so here are a few tips.

Darina Allen: The freezer can really transform busy people’s lives

Most foods freeze brilliantly, including sausage rolls, meat balls, breads, soups, stocks, beans, stews, casseroles, tagines, muffins, fishcakes, burgers, cooked rice, cookie dough, cakes … food will freeze for ever but as a general rule it’s best to use up within a few weeks rather than months.

Of course it will keep frozen but both flavour and texture gradually deteriorate as does the nutrient value. Some foods like lettuce and mayo don’t freeze well — they will wilt and split.

For maximum convenience, freeze food in smaller rather than larger portions unless you plan to serve a whole dish for four to six people.

If not, freeze individual or a two portion servings instead — they defrost so much faster and cut down on waste.

Recycled yoghurt pots or muffin tins are perfect for freezing individual portions. Tray freeze whenever possible meat balls, sausage rolls, homemade fish fingers and chicken nuggets...

Then pop them into a reusable plastic box, interleaved with parchment paper or bag them in reusable bags, defrosting what you want when you fancy it.

Save tetra packs and litre milk cartons for soups. Allow some space for expansion during freezing.

Cook the favourite dishes that your family love but more of them. Here are a few favourite standbys:

Tomato fondue, we are never without this ‘great convertible’ serve as a vegetable, a sauce for pasta, topping for pizza, filling for an omelette, base for a bean stew, sauce for grilled fish or a chicken breast.

Peperonata and mushroom à la crème are two other indispensable standbys.

All soup — I’d never be without a stock of soup both thin and chunky. Cook up a couple of batches of bean stew also and of course some veg and meat stews, gratins and lasagnes.

When you manage to source some really fresh fish, an increasing challenge, tray freeze a few portions and also cook up a batch of fish cakes and a few fish pies with some creamy mash on top.

Mash potato or champ and potato cakes are also brilliant to batch cook, freeze both in dishes and individual portions. So here are a few dishes to get started on...

Homemade Fish Cakes x 3

Fish cakes are absolutely scrummy when they are carefully made and freeze perfectly.

Makes 24

3-3½ lbs (1.3kg -1.5kg) cold leftover fish, eg, salmon, cod, haddock, hake (a proportion of smoked fish such as haddock or mackerel is good)

3oz (75g) butter

12oz (350g) onion, finely chopped

3lb (1.3kg) mashed potato

3 egg yolks

3 tbsp parsley, chopped

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Seasoned flour

2 beaten eggs

Fresh white breadcrumbs

Clarified butter or a mixture of butter and oil for frying

Darina Allen: The freezer can really transform busy people’s lives

Melt the butter in a saucepan, toss in the chopped onion, cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 4 or 5 minutes until soft but not coloured.

Scrape the contents of the pan into a bowl, add the mashed potato and the flaked cooked fish, egg yolk and chopped parsley or a mixture of fresh herbs.

Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Taste. Form the mixture into fish cakes about 2oz (50g) each.

Coat them first in seasoned flour, then in beaten egg and finally in crumbs. Refrigerate until needed, then cook on a medium heat in clarified butter until golden on both sides.

Serve piping hot with pats or slices of garlic butter, tomato fondue and a good green salad.

Shanagarry Chicken Casserole

Another great recipe to double up and freeze for a busy day when you want something nourishing and comforting to eat.

A good chicken casserole even though it may sound ‘old hat’ always gets a hearty welcome from my family and friends, sometimes I make an entire meal in a pot by covering the top with whole peeled potatoes just before it goes into the oven.

Serves 4-6

1 x 3½ lbs (1.57kg) chicken (free range if possible)

A little butter or oil for sauteeing

12oz (350g) green streaky bacon (blanch if salty)

1lb (450g) onions, (baby onions are nicest)

Darina Allen: The freezer can really transform busy people’s lives

12oz (350g) carrot, peeled and thickly sliced (if the carrots are small, leave whole, if large cut in chunks)

1¼ pints (750ml) approx homemade chicken stock

Sprig of thyme

Roux — optional

Garnish

2 tbsp parsley, freshly chopped

Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.

Cut the rind off the bacon and cut into approx 1 inch (2 cm) cubes, (blanch if salty). Dry in kitchen paper.

Joint the chicken into eight pieces.

Season the chicken pieces well with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Heat a little oil in a frying pan and cook the bacon until crisp, remove and transfer to the casserole. Add chicken pieces a few at a time to the pan and sauté until golden, add to the bacon in the casserole.

Heat control is crucial here, the pan mustn’t burn yet it must be hot enough to sauté the chicken. If it is too cool, the chicken pieces will stew rather than sauté and as a result the meat may be tough.

Then toss the onion and carrot in the pan adding a little butter if necessary, add to the casserole. Degrease the pan and deglaze with stock, bring to the boil and pour over the chicken etc.

Season well, add a sprig of thyme and bring to simmering point on top of the stove, then put into the oven for 30-45 minutes.

Cooking time depends on how long the chicken pieces were sautéed for.

When the chicken is just cooked, strain off the cooking liquid, degrease, return the degreased liquid to the casserole and bring to the boil. Thicken with a little roux if necessary.

Add the meat, carrots and onions back into the casserole and bring to the boil. Taste and correct the seasoning.

The casserole is very good served at this point, but it’s even more delicious if some mushroom à la crème is stirred in as an enrichment. Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley and bubbling hot.

Scallion Champ

A bowl of mashed potatoes flecked with green scallions with a blob of butter melting in the centre, add the butter just before serving so it melts into the centre.

‘Comfort’ food at its best.

Serves 4-6 but will easily double up for batch cooking; Freeze in portion sizes that suit your situation.

1.5kg (3lb) unpeeled ‘old’ potatoes, eg, Golden Wonders or Kerrs Pinks

110g (4oz) chopped scallions or spring onions (use the bulb and green stem) or 45g chopped chives

350ml (10-12fl oz) milk

50-110g (2-4oz) butter

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets.

Chop finely the scallions or spring onions or chopped chives.

Cover with cold milk and bring slowly to the boil.

Darina Allen: The freezer can really transform busy people’s lives

Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse. Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions, beat in the butter. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serve in 1 large or 6 individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the centre. Scallion mash may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4.

Cover with parchment paper while it reheats so that it doesn’t get a skin and add the lump of butter just before serving.

Tomato Fondue x 3

You’ll never be short of a quick meal if you have some tomato fondue in the freezer.

Use it as an accompanying vegetable, a base for a bean or fish stew, sauce for pasta, topping for pizza or frittata, or filling for an omelette.

This is triple the recipe that serves 6 so enough to serve 18 portions

3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

350g (12oz) onions, sliced

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2.7kgs (6lb) very ripe tomatoes, peeled or 6 x 14oz tins chopped tomatoes

Salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar to taste

6 tbsp of any or a combination of the following: freshly chopped mint, thyme, parsley, lemon balm, marjoram or torn basil

A few drops of balsamic vinegar (optional)

Heat the oil in a casserole or stainless-steel saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and toss until coated. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat until the onions and garlic are soft but not coloured.

Slice the tomatoes and add with all the juice to the onions. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar. Add a generous sprinkling of herbs.

Cook, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes soften.

A few drops of balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking greatly enhance the flavour.

Hot tips

Christmas gifts at Ballymaloe

Pop into the Ballymaloe Cookery School shop to find Christmas gifts, fresh produce from the farm and gardens, handmade natural sourdough breads from our Bread Shed and Penny’s ferments from our Bubble Shed.

If you telephone ahead I can personalise the republished A Simply Delicious Christmas or copies of my new book One Pot Feeds All for Christmas gifts.

Edible Christmas Gifts

It’s never too early to make edible Christmas gifts, cranberry sauce is made in minutes but how about a pear and cranberry chutney, banana and date chutney or beetroot and ginger relish, ‘Darina Allen’s edible gifts for Christmas’ in my Saturday letter section of our website: rebrand.ly/rzew2w

A gift token for a foodie friend…

How about a masterclass on fish smoking with multi award winning west Cork artisan Sally Barnes at Woodcock Smokery?

Learn the traditional techniques of smoking wild fish. Tea, coffee and lunch included, to make a booking and for more information go to www.woodcocksmokery.com

Transition year course at Ballymaloe Cookery School

Transition year presents an exciting opportunity to learn a variety of practical life skills outside the classroom. Ballymaloe Cookery School has created this cookery course specially for transition year students.

In two busy, fun filled days of cookery demonstrations and hands on sessions you will learn how to make delicious homemade bread, scones, soup, exciting starters, main courses (plus some vegetarian options) and a couple of delectable desserts, a cake, biscuits and your very own pot of jam to take home.

There will be an exciting tour around our organic farm, gardens and greenhouses and the opportunity to learn about fresh herbs and wild and foraged foods. Accommodation available in the Courtyard Cottages at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Book on www.cookingisfun.ie or call 021-4646785

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