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Thinking about how to get even better at bulk-cooking

Posted: - Modified: | cooking, kaizen, life, productivity

two pans of lasagna

We like cooking in bulk. We find it to be an efficient way to make sure we’ve got healthy, inexpensive meals ready for the workweek. How can we improve our processes?

Cost and delegation: I’ve been tracking the cost per portion for the meals we prepare in bulk. Cost per portion tends to be between $1 and $3, while eating lunch outside tends to be about $8-12. I can prepare about 20 portions in 3 hours (+ tidying up of one hour or so), and have scaled up beyond that too. If we use $12-15 per hour as the replacement cost of labour (it looks like you can hire housekeepers for around that range), that works out to around $100 of savings if I outsourced preparation, and $160 if we do things ourselves.

I might experiment with this by hiring someone who’s experienced in bulk cooking and freezing, particularly if we can squeeze in 40 portions or more on one day. (It’s possible – see Once a Month Cooking.) If it works, then it can save us a chunk of focused time.

  • Upside: Time, new recipes
  • Downside: Cost and risk

Variety: Along those lines, we can adjust our grocery shopping so that we can eat even better. I was pleasantly surprised to find that lamb korma worked out to around $1.25 per serving. It still felt like such a treat. We don’t have to eat chicken most of the time, then!

We can experiment with new recipes for bulk cooking, and we can revisit old favourites. Next on my list: beef bulgogi, proper lamb korma (should try a few different recipes), lasagna (it’s baking season again!), shepherd’s pie…

  • Upside: Yum!
  • Downside: Slightly higher costs, time spent experimenting

Prepared meals and ingredients: We don’t use a lot of prepared ingredients like pre-cooked bacon, chopped carrots, or peeled potatoes. They’re more expensive than regular ingredients, and they’re typically not as fresh. We do use frozen vegetable mixes, which are much handier than cutting off corn kernels and chopping up carrot bits ourselves. We occasionally buy chicken drumsticks or thighs in order to save us time and mess in quartering them, and we also buy rotisserie chicken. We like frozen steamed buns, and J- has frozen nuggets from time to time. We buy the occasional frozen pizza when it’s on sale. In summer, we buy frozen burgers. We like the packaged lamb korma and the Jamaican beef patties. Canned soup is also handy. We hardly ever buy other frozen meals, prepackaged stock, and other convenience foods.

I would totally go for pre-chopped onions, as I hate crying over them. (None of the little fixes I’ve tried have worked so far; I’ll keep trying to hack this!). I would also go for peeled and chopped garlic, because I use so much of it. Fortunately, I can make my own packages. I’ve chopped and frozen most of our onions and all of our garlic. We’ll see how that works out! I’ll keep an eye out for other supermarket offerings, too. Being in a community-supported agriculture program means we buy very few additional vegetables (I’m currently drowning in a sea of broccoli rabe). We might experiment with using prepared meals to explore new recipes (like the way prepacked lamb korma firmly established that we have a taste for it) and with using prepared ingredients to make bulk preparations easier.

Prepared 1- or 2-person meals tend to cost around $4 to $5 per portion. Bulk meals like lasagna casseroles cost around $1.50 per portion, which is actually cheaper than our cost per portion for lasagna. Pizza costs around $2 per portion when it’s on sale.

  • Upside: Save time, try different recipes
  • Downside: Higher costs, package size is non-standard and throws off our storage scheme

Tools: I need to get better at using the tools we have: breaking out the food processor and chopping up lots of things, using the stand blender or the immersion blender for soups and purées, and so on. If I can use the food processor to do all the onions, then freeze chopped onions for use in future recipes, that would save me a lot of crying.

  • Upside: Save time
  • Downside: More washing (so it’s good to do this in bulk)

Meals:ingredients ratio: Right now, both our chest freezer and our under-fridge freezer compartment are at about about 1:4 (meals to ingredients by volume). We can make a concerted effort to spend weekends either cooking or editing one stack of frozen ingredients in order to replace it with one stack of frozen meals. Then we can shift to the chest freezer containing practically all frozen meals and the fridge freezer containing ingredients.

  • Upside: More convenience and variety, no need to dig around in the freezer for a meal, gradual editing of food in the freezer
  • Downside: Commits a chunk of our weekend (4-5 hours for every 21 portions?)

Meal density: Instead of packing individual ready-to-go portions, we might store just the main dish. That would double or triple our freezing capacity, but it would require more planning. Every three days, then, we would take out enough food for the next three days and defrost it. The next day, we would repack lunches. We would always make a large pot of rice each week, and we would keep frozen vegetables in stock. We might keep a few individual portions for emergencies.

  • Upside: Cooking main meals less often, having more variety
  • Downside: Defrosting and repacking takes time and foresight, might grab one of those multi-portion containers by accident when rushing to work

For this month, I’m going to focus on improving our meals:ingredients ratio, so that we can gradually clear out the old ingredients and provide a good base for future experiments. I may also prepare a large bag of chopped onions to see how well that works.

Do you cook in bulk? How are you improving your processes?

Batch cooking, community-supported agriculture, and gardening

Posted: - Modified: | cooking, gardening

W- and I are big fans of batch cooking. Making large batches of food and freezing individual portions means that our weeks go smoothly. There are no last-minute scrambles to cook dinner. We hardly ever buy lunch at work. Sometimes it’s like winning a very small lottery – will this lunch container be the one with the extra stuffing in it? Mmm. It takes just a little more time to make a double or triple recipe, and it usually comes to about as much cleaning up.

The community-supported agriculture program adds a bit of a wrinkle. Getting fresh vegetables every week means we cook at least once a week instead of every other week or so. The variety of produce means we try new recipes as a way to use up the produce: potatoes, zucchini, and eggplants might go into curry, green beans get turned into pakbet or sauteed vegetables. Even though it means we don’t get the full convenience of once-a-month-cooking (or however infrequently we can manage), the CSA program has been fantastic – more vegetables than we’d normally eat, and all local and organic too.

Cool weather and a slow start meant our garden wasn’t as productive as it was last year. The tomatoes have barely even started, and the bitter melons aren’t going to produce anything at all. We did get a few wonderfully sweet handfuls of blueberries and strawberries, so that’s something. Still, with tides of vegetables coming in every Thursday, I haven’t felt much like cultivating lettuce or even harvesting our basil.

The CSA we’re with (Plan B Organic Farms) offers a fall share from Oct 18 to Dec 31. It looks like a great haul, so I think we’ll sign up for that.

When gardening season starts up again, I’ll sketch a new plan for the garden to take into account the kinds of things we get from the CSA. No onions, garlic, lettuce or zucchini, but yes to herbs and bitter melon, maybe okra. Yes to peas, which were ever so yummy.

Maybe I’ll try farmers’ markets too. I do like the convenience (and the commitment device!) of having all the vegetables picked out, even if it forces me to get creative with all the zucchini.

It might be good to try out other CSA programs, too. Cooper’s CSA comes out a little cheaper and gets delivered to the house. That’s going to be much appreciated in winter.

Do you use a community-supported agriculture program? What do you think about it?

Thinking about improving our freezer use

| cooking, kaizen

We have a 5.3 cu. ft. Haier chest freezer in addition to the freezer drawer built into the fridge. We’ve had the chest freezer for two years now, and it’s been really useful. I want to see if we can make even better use of it before we consider scaling up. There isn’t that much space to grow in the current place we have the freezer, and moving the freezer elsewhere would make less convenient. I’d rather figure out how to use the freezer space more efficiently.

One easy way to to do that is to shift more of our freezer space from ingredients to prepared meals, giving us more time between cooking sprints. We tend to do a cooking sprint every third weekend. If we organize our space better and add more recipes to our cooking sprints, we might be able to cook once a month and enjoy more variety, too.

I spent some time this morning taking an inventory of what’s in the freezer, so I can plan to use those ingredients up. Here’s what we’ve got.

Butter 2lbs Cooking and baking; rarely goes on sale, so I could just get this on an as-needed basis
Crisco 0.5 block Mainly for baking vegan treats for tea parties. I haven’t been hosting tea parties lately, though.
Lard 1/4 cup Pies and egg tarts – more useful during baking season
Pie crust dough 2 discs Left over from the last baking season
Yeast 1 bottle Coconut buns, mmm
Bread 1 1/3 loaf Very handy
Burger buns 4 For burgers; useful in summer
Bacon 500g Mm, breakfast
Longganisa 1 pack of 12 links Breakfast
Steamed buns 5 packs Delicious – we tend to go through 1 pack / person
Cheese ends 0.5L To be grated for lasagna
Grated parmesan 8 cups Gift from Tania – I use it in lasagna and other pasta dishes
Nacho cheese mix 1kg Great for potatoes, fries, nachos, and so on
Romano cheese 497g To be grated for lasagna
Shredded mozzarella 120g Quick way to make lots of things better
Strawberry rhubarb tarts 8 From my experiment. A bit sour; needs a spoonful of sugar each. We don’t usually have dessert, though.
Turon half pack When we feel like frying
Vanilla ice cream 1 cup Just a little bit left – must finish it while the weather’s warm
Fruit 3.5kg For smoothies; must have this while the weather’s warm
Mashed banana 3 cups For banana bread and for smoothies
Basil 1 cup Raw ingredients for pesto. Can also be added to pasta sauce.
Cilantro 1.5L Stir-fries
Curry leaves 1 pack Thai curry
Dill 2 cups For… umm… mixing with cream cheese? We don’t cook fish often. I saved this from the CSA box.
Lemon zest 0.5 cups For banana bread
Oregano 1 cup For pasta sauce.
Carrot tops 3 cups Vegetable stock? But we have so much stock already.
Chickpeas 680g Curry, someday
Chopped onion 1 cup Also good for instant noodles or quick recipes
Green onion 2.5 cups Great for instant noodles
Parsley 4 cups Soups and sauces
Peeled ginger 1 cup Stir-fries and other Asian dishes
Red beans 1 kg Chili, someday
Chicken nuggets 460g J-‘s lunches
Garlic scape pesto 2 cups Dinner
Jamaican beef patties 12 J-‘s lunches
Lasagna 8 portions Dinner
Pesto 3 cups Dinner
Roast chicken with couscous 12 individual meals Lunch
Spaghetti with sauce 1 individual meal Lunch
Stuffed chicken breasts 5 J-‘s lunches
Beef mix (ground beef, onions, garlic) 4 cups For nachos, burritos, or pasta sauce
Burger patties 4 Must finish this while the weather’s warm
Dry salt bellies 412g For baked beans, because the pork bellies are sometimes not stocked at the supermarket
Italian sausages 4 For pasta sauce
Bag of ice cubes 1 L Drinks
Ice packs 3 To cool things down
Basa 1 fillet This one’s pretty old. I should throw it out.
Crab sticks 2 packs x 340g The occasional sushi; probably should use this up and then just buy on an as-needed basis
Halibut 1 L Gift; must defrost and fry sometime
Shrimp 340g Mm, pad thai.
Stocks and sauces
Bones for stock 3 chickens From our last cooking sprint
Chicken gravy starter 1 cup This must be from the other time we roasted chickens. We don’t often make or eat gravy, though
Chicken stock 14 cups We have so much stock. We should use it more often. Maybe I’ll use it to cook rice.
Turkey stock 2 cups This is from last year. I should toss it out.
Carrot sticks 340g From my let’s-freeze-the-carrots experiment
Chopped carrots 380g For chili or other dishes
Mixed vegetables 1.5kg For frozen lunches
Okra 520g For pinakbet. Hard to get at the nearby supermarket, so we keep a stash. Dependent on bittermelon availability, though, and that’s also rare.
Shredded zucchini 2 cups Zucchini delayed is zucchini denied. I should sneak these into brownies sometime.
Spinach 0.5 L For smoothies; must have this while the weather’s warm
Steak-cut fries 1kg Regular fries or chili cheese fries. Yum, although frying is scary.
Vegetable ends for stock 1.1kg When I figure out how to get through more stock, I’ll cook this into a vegetable stock

Some things are clear candidates for tossing. Some things are there because the community-supported agriculture box had more produce than we could finish in a week (dill, etc.). For many items in our fridge, though, it’s more of a shift from stocking up to buying ingredients as we need them – not a bad idea, particularly if we scale up and plan recipes well. I estimate that prepared meals take up a ninth of our current freezing capacity. There’ll be room to grow once we get through these raw ingredients.

We’ve adopted a few freezer practices that have turned out to be quite useful. Standardized containers make food easy to stack. Grouping loose items into large bags (red for meat, green for vegetables, and so on) makes it easier to dig through the freezer in search of something. I can figure out a better way to index the infrequently-used frozen items so that we get visual reminders to use them up – maybe in that home dashboard I’ve been building. Hmm…

Batch cooking

Posted: - Modified: | cooking, kaizen

From Sunday night: Cooking large batches of food can be tiring, but for us, it’s worth it. Today, W- and I baked two pans of lasagna, stuffed and roasted two eggplants (eggplant and sausage stuffing), four peppers (rice, tomato, and sausage stuffing), and two roast chickens (couscous and dried fruit stuffing). No special recipes – just notes from the Internet and from cookbooks.

Cooking roughly 48 servings of food and cleaning up along the way took a little less than five hours, with both of us working in the kitchen. Ingredients came to about $2 per serving. Eating out costs roughly $6.50-11/meal. $210-$430 after-tax savings is pretty good for 10 hours of enjoyable work.

Now we’ve got a pot of baked beans in the oven. Because the beans will take a few more hours to bake, W- and J- made brownies. The difference in sizes between the small and extra-large eggs prompted a quick economics lesson on pricing strategies. In the meantime, I’ve heated up some strawberry-rhubarb tarts for a late-night snack. Life is good.

We could scale up even more. If we converted the raw ingredients in our freezer to cooked portions, bought more food containers, and planned the additional recipes, we could double our capacity easily, and maybe even reach quadruple the capacity. The chest freezer can hold around 60 square Rubbermaid TakeAlongs with some additional room for loose ingredients, and the fridge freezer can hold some more. The Internet has many sites dedicated to once-a-month cooking and other batch cooking ideas, so it’ll be easy to find recipe ideas to add to our repertoire.

What would doubling our output look like? Let’s say we use today’s cooking as a template. For variety, we’d add two Shake-n-Bake chickens and a large pot of curry. We’d probably need 18 additional cups of rice, and more food containers. It would probably take 2-3 more hours; maybe just one additional hour if we use pre-sectioned chicken thighs and drumsticks. If our freezer restocking time coincides with a sale on chicken, I think we’ll give it a try.


Jalapeño jelly

Posted: - Modified: | cooking, life

I stirred the jalapeño jelly mixture as it boiled, mock-grumbling about the heat and humidity. “Why do we do this again?” I asked. There wasn’t a heat wave, thank goodness, but the canning process had already raised the temperature inside the kitchen by three degrees Celsius. To save electricity, we had turned airconditioning off while I worked in the kitchen. So it was just me, a fan, and three stove burners going at once: the jelly mix, the canning water bath, and a small pot to sterilize the lids.

I lifted the Mason jars out of the large canning pot, where they had been simmering for the last fifteen minutes. The routine was starting to come back to me: place the canning funnel; ladle the jelly into the jar; leave some headroom, scooping jelly out if needed; pop the bubbles; wipe the rim and the jar threads; use the magnet to pick up and place a lid; tighten the ring, then loosen it just a little bit.

It was still hard to imagine that I’d once prepared 95 bottles of jam/jelly/syrup during last year’s epic Canada Day weekend jam-making session – tokens for our wedding guests and gifts for other occasions. We’d somehow managed to give away or finish all of our blueberry jam. I’ve been waiting for blueberries to go on sale, but we haven’t seen prices like last year’s – maybe the yield hasn’t been as good this year. But jalapeño peppers were back to their sale price, so we scooped up enough for a double recipe.

As I bottled more jelly, the motions began to feel more familiar. I was happy to see the recipe was just the right volume for the seven bottles I’d sterilized. I lowered the jalapeño jelly into the large canning pot filled with hot water, set the timer, and turned up the heat.

After fifteen minutes, I used the canning tongs to pull out a jar. As the air inside the first jar cooled and contracted, the lid was sucked in by the vacuum. It popped reassuringly, resulting in a slight depression in the center of the lid. Each jar popped within a few seconds of removal from the canner. With each pop, the heat seemed to recede a bit further, replaced with memories of jalapeño spread on cream cheese and crackers. I moved the jars to the kitchen table and started working on the second batch of seven jars. It went more smoothly. If we had more produce – and a long weekend ahead of us – I could see how I might’ve kept on going.

For us, canning isn’t about the $1/lb difference between on-sale jalapeños and regular jalapeños (or other produce), the ability to enjoy the taste of summer while snow buries the earth, or even traditional recipes handed down through generations. The first time I ever canned something was during our August 2009 staycation, using recipes from the Internet, and I don’t actually tend to reach for jam or jelly when I have toast.

I sweat through the canning process for other reasons: enjoying tastes that are difficult to find at the local supermarket (such as apricot syrup and jalapeño jelly), and making gifts instead of giving things that people might be able to buy elsewhere. At the end of the day, I think it’s worth it.

Jalapeño jelly adapted from What’s Cooking America; we had an extra pepper, so I added a little more liquid pectin. Processed in hot water for 15 minutes, based on our old recipe.

Fills 7 – 8 500ml jars, depending on the sizes of your peppers

  • 4 whole jalapeño peppers
  • 9 jalapeño peppers, seeds removed
  • 2 medium or 1 large bell pepper (the recipe recommends non-green peppers, but we were fine with green as we had them around)
  • 1 1/2 cup white vinegar
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice (I squeezed them last week)
  • 6 cups white sugar
  • 170ml Certo liquid pectin (2 pouches or 1 box) – do not substitute powdered pectin
  • green food colouring

Remove the stems from the peppers. Puree the whole jalapeño peppers in a blender. Add the peppers without the seeds, and chop them in the blender. Add white vinegar and the bell peppers.

Transfer the pepper mixture into a large non-reactive pot over medium-high heat. Get it to a hard boil (lots of small bubbles), then continue boiling it for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Now is also a good time to start sterilizing your jars and lids in hot water, if you haven’t done so already.

Remove the pepper mixture from heat. Add the sugar and the lemon juice. Stir thoroughly. Put the mixture back on medium-high heat, and return to a hard boil. When it’s boiling again, add liquid pectin and green food colouring (I used 10 drops), return to a boil, and boil for a full minute. (If you omit food colouring, the jelly may turn brown.)

The original recipe calls for straining the jelly, but we skipped that step because we don’t mind texture.

Pour into sterilized jars, then process in hot water for 15 minutes.

In retrospect, I think I added too much pectin, because I didn’t do the ounce-to-milliliter check with the original recipe. We’ll just have to see if it’s too solid or still somewhat spreadable. Meep! Worst-case scenario, we’ll treat this as our stash and make another batch for gifts. Oh my, whatever shall we do… Winking smile

Cake was not a lie

Posted: - Modified: | cooking



Cucumber sandwiches. Chocolate cake. Burgers. Poutine. Free-flowing conversations that bring out all sorts of awesome things I didn’t know about my friends. Mmm.

Cucumber sandwiches, roughly based on this recipe:

  • Peel 2 medium-sized cucumbers (or 1 large cucumber) and remove the seeds. Grate it.
  • Mix the cucumber with 1 tsp salt. Put it in a strainer, put the strainer in a bowl, and keep it in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
  • Mix a softened 8-oz package of cream cheese, 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce, and 1/2 tsp garlic salt.
  • Stir cucumber into the cream cheese mix. Spread on buttered bread.
  • Refrigerate until ready to serve.

The chocolate cake was roughly based on the Portal recipe, except I was out of whipped cream, so I didn’t do the white dollops with cherries on top, or the candle. So it was really more like Black Forest cake. 

I always stress out in the lead-up to these get-togethers. Is the house reasonably clean? (“I promise, this kitchen was clean-ish before I started frosting this cake…”) But then people come, and the conversation gets going, and it’s awesome.

Catching a break before I clean up the kitchen. Happy.

A zucchini a day keeps the vegetable drawer okay

Posted: - Modified: | cooking

This community-supported agriculture experiment has surprising benefits. I’ve eaten more zucchini in the past week than I have in the preceding year. It’s the combination of:

  • loss aversion: powerful force in behavioural psychology
  • lack of choice: commitment device; also makes surprising contributions to happiness – people feel unhappy when overloaded by choice; I know I sometimes blank at the supermarket, and my lists are sub-optimal because they focus only on a small set of produce
  • thousands of Internet pages dealing with zucchini recipes: because lots of other people have been in the same boat

The other day, I made zucchini fritters. Today I decided to make zucchini pancakes. I mostly followed the recipe, except for the following moments:

  • “Soy milk? I’m fine with dairy, so I’ll just use regular milk.”
  • “Ground flax seeds. Hmm, I can do that… <grind grind grind> ARGH, this is taking forever! I’ll just add some egg replacement powder.”
  • “Honey… Hey, that’s not vegan. Fortunately, we don’t have any dietary restrictions. I wonder if it works with crystallized honey…”

Result: W- woke up to a yummy and filling breakfast. He said, “Is it the weekend already? Did I sleep all Friday?”

I like zucchini pancakes more than I like zucchini fritters. This zucchini brownie recipe I’m trying needs some work, though. It’s a bit dry and crumbly. I hate to admit it, but I think it needs more zucchini. Then again, I didn’t quite follow the recipe for that one. The other two zucchini turned out to be cucumbers, so this batch has just one zucchini. I’ll try it again with the next CSA batch. (Because there’s always more zucchini…)

Zucchini zucchini zucchini. Slowly getting the hang of this!