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Pantry Management: Organizing Your Freezer for the Year Ahead

Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is back again, this time with a post about her goal to get a better handle on her freezer situation for 2017. It has inspired me to do an inventory of my own freezer compartment and I’m with her in resolving to be better about keeping that space in check!

I don’t usually make resolutions, but 2017 so far has definitely been about refining some parts of my life that overwhelmed me in 2016. For me, that’s looked like refocusing my freelance work, getting a better handle on healthy eating habits, setting financial and life goals with my partner, engaging in political activism, and taking time for regular self-care.

Another has been a newfound focus on maintaining my living space, the two-bedroom apartment in West Philly that my man and I have lived in for almost six years now. We’re both the kind of people who can spend days (or weeks) stepping over and working around clutter and messes when other responsibilities take precedence. But more and more, we realize what a positive effect a clean, organized, and uncluttered space has on mood and productivity in our home.

So far I’ve swept the clutter from my desk, deep-cleaned the bathroom, and KonMari-ed my clothes. Now, I’m focusing on the kitchen, and I’ll be sharing some of my cleaning and organizing projects with you over my next few posts.

First, I wanted to reckon with my freezers. I have a 5.3-cubic foot chest freezer in one corner of the big front room that serves as our living room, dining room, and kitchen, plus the freezer compartment of my fridge.

Over time, the contents had become the ice-crusted and mysterious, with plastic tubs of last year’s leftover soup jumbled with big bags of flour and tiny bags of roasted jalapeños. Finding ingredients I’d frozen months before while a hot pan was waiting on the stove had become more and more of a hassle. It was time to excavate and take stock.

If you’re particularly worried about the effects of a brief thaw on your food or have a hoard of delicate freezables like ice cream, you can prepare some coolers with ice packs in which to stash your items before you empty the freezer. I planned to work quickly, so I simply cleared the counter and the dining table and used those as my staging surfaces.

I sorted items by type as I pulled them out of the deep freeze. There weren’t too many surprises, but the biggest shock was seeing all that food set out in one place.

The three gallons of sour cherries I’d picked from neighborhood trees and then stemmed and pitted. The fresh-milled flour I purchased with the intent of starting up a weekly bread baking habit. The leek tops I always tuck away to add to my next stock pot. The expensive foraged mushrooms I’d dried to flavor a future batch of risotto. And so, so many tomatoes—frozen whole, roasted into wrinkles, peeled, stewed, sauced.

Once the chest freezer was empty, I chipped away at the ice buildup around the lid with a metal spoon and used a turner to scoop up the frost (and a few stray blueberries) at the bottom.

Then I stacked my gallon ziptops of precious local fruit one on top of the other by type, so that I wouldn’t wonder what lurked underneath without digging to the bottom, along with my big ten-pound bags of flour. Smaller bags of grains went on top of those, then bags of ginger, leeks, and parsley. I bagged up my cold packs to keep them together.

I made the choice to cut my losses and compost some especially unappetizing items, like stale baguette ends (for the breadcrumbs I’d never make) and batches of green soup (which I love fresh but just turns into runny green mud after freezing and thawing).

Next, I turned to the small freezer. Since it opens from the front, landslides of oddly-shaped items are a common occurrence. Despite its smaller size, so many bags of food covered my dining room table. (I pulled out everything but the gelato and the frozen fish fillets since I was worried about those thawing).

Once again, I sorted by type and had to let go of some dreams. I was never going to turn these two-year-old green gooseberries into something palatable, nor cook the fenugreek leaves I bought for curry shortly after moving into this apartment in…2012.

After wiping out several years’ worth of crud, discarding some of those sad, old items and grouping others (like the bags of aged celery hearts and bunches of parsley I save for stock) in the chest freezer with similar items, I restocked the small freezer.

I decided to keep ready-to-eat foods like recent leftovers, veggies, packages of meat, and small bags of items like nuts, dried mushrooms, and peppers there. I deliberately restocked this freezer so that there would be lots of extra room and easy-to-cook items in heavier rotation would be easy to find. (This is especially a plus with a colorblind partner who sometimes has trouble keeping up with my typically overstocked fridge full of unlabeled items).

As soon as everything was back in its frosty place, I felt much better about my year ahead. Not just because I’d crossed a long-nagging item off my to-do list, but because having a better handle on these ingredients makes me feel more confident about my ability to put some of my 2017 intentions into action.

Now that I know what’s in the freezer, I know what I should be using a little (or a lot) of each week until midsummer comes around, when I’ll start the cycle over again—a little more organized this time.

How do you guys handle your freezers? Are you good about keeping an inventory? And what’s your approach when it’s time to do a big clean-out like this one?

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Veggie Mac & Cheese

veggie mac and cheese

When I posted my meal plan last week, several of you spotted the veggie mac and cheese on the schedule and politely requested the recipe. As this is a crowd pleaser of a dish, I am happy to deliver (even if the picture isn’t my best work).

Know that this is one of those things that I never make exactly the same way twice. Instead, I work with a basic framework and wing the details. The batch I made last week used a full head of cauliflower, a giant bundle of curly kale, one onion, half a pound of pasta, and a cheese sauce made from butter, flour, milk, some of the pasta cooking water, and 8 ounces of grated cheese (half delicious Kerrygold and half the remaining bit of a block of yellow Costco cheddar).

Other times, I’ve made it with leeks, broccoli, and peas. Garlic, broccoli rabe, and mushrooms is another nice combination. Chopped ham or chunks of smoked turkey go in nicely if you’ve serving a meat loving crowd. It’s flexible, passes muster with many children, and reheats nicely.

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My Approach to Weekly Meal Planning

January 3-9 Meal Plan

One of my personal goals for 2016 is to make a weekly meal plan and stick to it most of the time (planning is nothing without follow-through). This is something I’ve done in fits and starts for years now. On the weeks when I do it, everything seems to run more smoothly. Sadly, as soon as life gets busy, it has also been one of the first things to go. And once the meal plan habit goes out of the window, I find myself awash in food waste, too much takeout, and a faltering kitchen ecosystem. Madness ensues.

However, I find that if I can make a rough plan, every other aspect of life feels a bit less unwieldy. Even if the plan is simply a store bought roast chicken and steamed broccoli and then a pot of soup large enough to last three nights, it helps keep the chaos in check. And thus, this commitment to myself to plot out dinners a week at a time, shop for them, and then cook what I’ve planned.

January 10-16 Meal Plan

My goal here is not to offer you a formula for your own meal planning. There’s plenty of that out there on Pinterest and countless other blogs. Instead, I’m giving you a peek into my thought process in the hopes that it might help spur your own. And so, here are the things I keep in mind to keep my aspirations in check and ensure that the plan is useful and realistic.

  • What season are we in? Is something available right now that might be gone by next week?
  • Do we have things in the fridge, freezer or pantry that need to be used up?
  • Is it a busy week? Am I teaching any night classes? Should I plan for voluminous leftovers for easy reheating?
  • Did I spot anything in the last week that I particularly want to make or try? Is there a cookbook that’s been particularly inspiring of late?
  • Am I working on anything that requires recipe testing that could be dinner?

Typically, a glance at my calendar, a trip through these questions, and quick consultation with Scott is enough to have a rough plan on paper. However, some weeks, I still remain stumped. When that happens, I pull out the big guns and consult my Things I Like to Make for Dinner list. For years, this list lived in my head, but last year, I finally typed it up and published it on my ancient personal blog so that I’d have easy access to it. Reading it through always helps.

Finally, once the plan is drafted, I write it on our chalkboard wall. Having it posted in the kitchen helps keep me honest and keeps Scott in the loop. I also post pictures of the meal plan to Instagram and from here on out, will occasionally share some of the recipes here (particularly if they put preserves to good use).

Now, here’s a question for you guys. Do you meal plan? And if you do, do you have a system? I’d love to hear about your thought process.

 

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