Make-ahead meals ease busy day dinners

03/18/2014 11:35 AM

03/18/2014 11:36 AM

Knowing we’ve all had enough ice and cold weather, I hesitate to mention that all of this month’s recipes are freezer friendly (I don’t want to jinx the warming trend outdoors), but they are. It’s nice to have something ready when you have a busy day planned or need to take food to a loved one.

I find it’s just as easy to double the recipes and I often freeze some in smaller containers (such as a meal for two). The most important things to remember about freezing are 1) be sure to always label frozen dishes well including a “use by” date and the reheating instructions and 2) freeze in a container that can go from the freezer to the oven and wrap it well.

The lasagna recipe is quick and easy to prepare in spite of the number of ingredients. If you try the mashed potatoes, the nutmeg is essential. I will never make mashed potatoes without a pinch of nutmeg again! Enjoy!

Classic Lasagna

Serves 8 to 10

2 medium onions, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound lean ground beef

14.5-ounce can basil, garlic and oregano diced tomatoes

2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste

8-oounce can basil, garlic, and oregano tomato sauce

1 bayleaf

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning

1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

3/4 teaspoon pepper, divided

12 lasagna noodles, uncooked

16-ounce container ricotta cheese

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 (6-ounce) packages part-skim mozzarella cheese slices

Saute onion in 1 tablespoon hot oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat five minutes or until tender. Add garlic, and saute 1 minute. Add beef and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes or until beef crumbles and is no longer pink. Drain beef mixture, and return to skillet. Stir in diced tomatoes, next four ingredients, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaf; set meat sauce aside.

Cook lasagna noodles according to directions, adding 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

Stir together ricotta cheese, eggs, Parmesan cheese, remaining 1/4 tsp. salt and remaining 1/4 tsp. pepper until blended.

Spoon half of the meat sauce mixture in a lightly greased 13x9-inch baking dish. Shake excess water from noodles, and arrange six noodles over meat sauce; top with half of ricotta mixture and 1 package mozzarella cheese slices. Repeat layers once.

Bake, covered, at 350 degrees for 55 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 to 15 more minutes or until bubbly. Let lasagna stand 10 minutes before serving.

To Make Ahead: Line a 13- x 9-inch baking dish with heavy-duty nonstick aluminum foil, allowing several inches of foil to extend over sides. Prepare recipe as directed in foil-lined dish. Freeze unbaked lasagna until firm. Remove from baking dish by holding edges of foil; fold foil over lasagna. Wrap in additional foil, making sure it is tightly sealed to keep out the air. Freeze up to one month.

The day before serving, remove lasagna from the freezer. Remove foil, and place lasagna in a lightly greased 13- x 9-inch baking dish. Cover and thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Bake as directed. (Note: Lasagna may also be baked frozen. Plan to double the baking times.)

My Shortcut: I buy fresh quality ground beef on sale in bulk and brown it all at once in my Dutch oven. (I hate cleaning grease off my stovetop). I season the meat with salt and pepper, and probably a little garlic and onion and when cooled, freeze in one-pound portions. Having ground meat and cooked, shredded chicken in one-pound portions ready to use in casseroles cuts prep, cooking and cleaning times during the busy week.

Loaded Mashed Potato Casserole

Serves 12

5 1/2 cups Yukon gold mashed potatoes

1/2 cup milk

8-ounce pkg. cream cheese, softened

8-ounce container sour cream

1/3 cup butter

1 teaspoon fresh garlic

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

6 slices bacon, crisply cooked and crumbled

Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste

Combine all ingredients except Cheddar cheese and bacon in a large mixing bowl. Beat at medium high speed with an electric mixer until smooth. Spoon into a lightly greased 13x9-inch baking pan; top with Cheddar cheese and bacon. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 10 more minutes or until cheese melts. (If you plan on freezing the dish, it would be best to fold most of the cheese in with the potatoes and/or add fresh Cheddar cheese to the top prior to baking.)

Notes: Most authorities will tell you potatoes don’t freeze well, but I’ve had good results with this recipe if I used Yukon Gold potatoes. Russet potatoes will be grainy and watery when frozen and thawed.

To Make Ahead: Prepare recipe as directed but do not bake. Use a 13x9-inch baking dish suitable for freezing and baking. Wrap securely in foil to prevent freezer burn. Freeze unbaked mashed potatoes for up to one-month.

The day before serving, remove potatoes from the freezer. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Bake as directed.

My shortcut: I buy a pound or two of good bacon on sale and cut it in about 1 1/2-inch pieces, and fry it all in a Dutch oven (again, I hate messing up my stovetop) and then store the cooked bacon crumbles in the freezer. I always have bacon bits ready for baked potatoes, quiche, breakfast tacos and casseroles). This saves me so much time and I don’t hesitate to make something that calls for bacon if I already have it fried.

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