Mmmm. Chicken Enchiladas. Don't you wish that you could have a big ol' pan of homemade chicken enchiladas ready for dinner without chopping ingredients, cooking the sauce, and assembling the casserole? Well...you can! Enter that sometimes overlooked household appliance: Your freezer! You can use your freezer to simplify meal preparation, save time, and stock up on economical meal choices. That's exactly what I did last weekend. I have been reading a few books recently on freezing dinners, Can I Freeze It?: How to Use the Most Versatile Appliance in Your Kitchen by Susie Theodorou and Frozen Assets: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month and Frozen Assets Lite and Easy: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month both by Deborah Taylor-Hough. "Can I Freeze It?" really focuses on how freezing works, types of freezers, and freezing technique. The cookbook portion of the book has some truly mouth-watering recipes and yummy looking pictures! "Frozen Assets" actually focuses on the freezer to implement a "Cook for One Day, Eat for a Month" 30 day meal plan. This idea fascinated me. I mean, I'm good about doubling a recipe so that I can freeze half for an easy dinner later. And I'm all about freezing extra soup for future meals. And you might remember my knock off freezer section burritos? But, cooking all day for one WHOLE day to put away an entire month of dinners for your family? WOW! I have to admit that even for a handy cook like me, that sounded a little intimidating. Luckily, the author does an excellent job of walking the reader through the process with lots of lists, instructions, and tips.
After reading these books, I've been thinking about doing my own cooking session to make quick, easy meals from my freezer. Plus, my youngest sister who is due ANY DAY with her second baby kept calling to ask me to come up with recipes to stock her freezer. Well, this one is for you Angie. Now just don't go into labor until you put some casseroles in your freezer!
When I saw that a local grocery store was selling chicken breast halves for $.88 a pound I thought it was the perfect opportunity to put what I'd read into practice. And 88 cents a pound for chicken breast... what a steal! I know that many of you are partial to boneless, skinless chicken breast. They really do make for a convenient meal. But really, it only takes a few minutes to pull off the skin and free the chicken breast from the bone. Last week, while shopping my local supermarket, I found boneless, skinless chicken breast for $5.99/lb. Pricey! The lowest price for boneless, skinless breasts that I've seen lately is $1.99/lb. You can bet that I headed to the store with the special for those 88 cent chicken breast halves and plopped 4 big packages right into my cart last Saturday "while supplies lasted"! The total weight of the packages that I purchased was 18.2 lbs. I paid $16. Even at the lowest price of $1.99/lb I would've paid about $38 dollars for that much boneless skinless chicken breast. I left the store patting myself on the back for my savings.
Then the work began...
I divided the work of "processing" of my 18 lbs. of chicken into two days. On the first day, I cut up the chicken, made and froze raw packs of chicken to marinate for grilling and stir fry, cooked the chicken, shredded, portioned, and refrigerated it for my casseroles, and made chicken broth from the bones.
Here's the first package of chicken breast halves, ready to become one of many dinners.
And here is a whole chicken breast half from the package next to a boneless skinless breast that I trimmed out. Now, I've done this before, but the first time I did it, I didn't have a clue what I was doing. I found that it's pretty easy. Just 1) pull off the skin and 2) pull/cut the meat from the bone. Once I got the hang of it, it only took about 30 seconds per breast half to turn out a boneless, skinless chicken breast.
I packaged them into bags of 2 chicken breasts to marinate, then grill for my husband and I and packages of a single chicken breast for the grill that would remain "plain" for my daughters to share. I also cut up 2 pounds for stir fry.
Next, I poured in the marinade. When we're ready to cook these, the meat will marinate as it thaws. I purchased two types of marinade on sale at the grocery: Carribean Jerk and Teriyaki. I made one bag with each type of marinade for the whole breasts. Then, I poured more teriyaki marinade into one of the stir fry bags. For the other bag of stir fry, I threw together my own marinade of rice vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, sugar, Hoisin sauce, and soy sauce. I'll let you know how it turns out when I cook it up. I also recommend this Spicy Peanut marinade found in my post for Spicy Peanut Chicken Kabobs.
If you're thinking, "Sure, you paid $.88/lb, but look at all of the waste once you've gotten the boneless, skinless, chicken breast", then check this out:
This is what I had leftover once I trimmed out the breast portions. I threw out the skin and fat. A lot of this is rib meat. Like when you buy chicken patties or nuggets and the package says that they're made with "rib meat"? That's this stuff. Completely viable meat and when cooked up with the bones and onion, carrot, celery, parsley, poultry seasoning, a little salt and pepper, and covered with water, it makes an excellent broth. You can read all about how I make chicken broth right HERE.
Once the "leftover" pieces of chicken have cooked in the broth for 2 1/2 hours, it's super easy to pick off of the bone. I ended up with about 4 more cups of chicken once I picked my way through this. Picking the chicken off the bone was a ""Day 2 activity. Once I removed the chicken from the broth, I covered it and put it into the fridge to deal with the next day. 4-5 hours with 18 pounds of chicken was enough for me in one day!
I also picked out all of the veggies, strained the broth and covered the pot to put into the fridge overnight.
It's easier to skim off the fat once the broth has chilled.
Once the fat was skimmed, I measured out 4 cup (32 oz.) portions of broth into freezer bags.
My final task on Day 1 was to prepare the chicken for the casseroles. I selected two casserole recipes from Frozen Assets Lite and Easy: Cook for a Day, Eat for a Month":Cheese and Chicken Shells and Chicken Artichoke Bake and 2 of my own: Chicken Divan and Chicken Enchiladas. I totalled how many cups of cooked, shredded chicken that I would need for these recipes (7) and then I looked up how many pounds of raw chicken breast I would need to cook. Here's what I found:
Apparently, I need to keep a notepad by my computer (and a good hand lotion for my dry hands). So... I needed .6 pounds to make 1 1/2 cups of cooked, shredded chicken. For me, that meant that I needed to cook 3 lbs. to make a little over 7 cups. I put the chicken into a pot and covered it with water, and threw in some celery, onion, salt, and pepper for flavor.
I like to shred my chicken with two forks in a casserole dish. The sides of the dish keep the chicken from "escaping" while I shred.
At the close to my Day 1 chicken preparation, I measured the shredded chicken into portions for the casseroles that I would make the next day and labelled them. I also bagged up 6 whole, cooked chicken breasts for the Chicken Artichoke Bake.
Here's what I had at the end of Day 1: 2 bags of raw pack chicken in marinade for the grill, 2 bags of plain chicken breast for the grill, 2 bags of chicken cut for stir fry and packed in marinade, cooked chicken portioned for 4 casseroles, 1 bag of finished chicken broth, 1 pot of chicken broth to chill, then skim the fat and package the next day, and a big plate of cooked chicken to pick off of the bone for another casserole and chicken noodle soup. Whew!
I didn't take many pictures on Day 2. I'll share some of them when I post the recipes as I prepare them for dinners over the next few weeks. At the end of Day 2 I had: 1 pan of Chicken Enchiladas, 2 pans of Chicken Divan (one not pictured because I took a meal to a mom who is on bedrest until she delivers her baby), 1 pan of Cheese and Chicken Shells, one pan of Chicken Artichoke Bake, and 4 bags of chicken broth (16 cups in total). In addition to 2 bags of Crock Pot Beef Taco meat, a container of leftover Pasta e Fagiole, and a container of leftover Taco Soup, I have 12-14 meals stored in my freezer. You know, in case I decide to take a 2 week Tahitian vacation away from my family. As if...
Oh, and I also made this super easy Chicken Noodle Soup from some spinach and mushrooms that needed to be used up. It's low in fat, packed with nutrients, and absolutely delicious!
Krista's Chicken Noodle Soup
1-2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
2 cloves garlic minced
1 heaping cup mushrooms, sliced
2 cups chicken, shredded
32 oz. chicken broth
2 cups egg noodles
1/2 bag baby spinach, roughly chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
Heat butter or oil in a soup pot. Add in onion and saute until tender. Stir in garlic and mushrooms and cook for a couple more minutes. Add chicken and broth. Bring to a boil. Add noodles. Cook for 10-15 minutes, until the noodles are done. Stir in chopped spinach until wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
In conclusion, I have to say that I love the idea of having so many meals in my freezer! Especially coming into the summer. Now if the kids are playing and we're hanging with the neighbors, I don't have stop short and say, "Sorry, let's head in. I've gotta make dinner." Instead I'll just pop a meal into the oven and set a timer or have my husband fire up the grill. If I were still working outside of our home, it would be awesome to pull a casserole out of the freezer in the morning or the night before and put a healthy, homemade casserole into the oven upon returning home. Other benefits to having meals in the freezer: If unexpected company is coming, there's no need to rush to the store or scramble to throw a meal together. Someone in your community needs a meal and you'd really like to take something...just grab a dish from your freezer and go! If you're under the weather, out of groceries, or just don't feel like cooking...just fire up the oven and grab a meal from the freezer. I'm pretty psyched about all of MY "frozen assets".
I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!