Autumn is now well underway – the clocks have gone back , the darker nights are drawing in & the bright mornings have a frosty freshness in the air, meaning it’s that time of year when we begin craving proper, rib-sticking comfort food. Everyone has their favourite suppertime stodge, whether it’s a rich roast dinner or luscious layers of cheesy lasagne, but not everyone has the time when they get home.
Working full time, different shifts or having a jam-packed day can mean that time is limited when it comes to preparing a home-cooked meal. Whilst shopping at one of my favourite supermarkets on Tuesday morning, I had a similar conversation at the till, as I talked about making a week’s worth of stew & biscotti (hello to the lovely lady who served me!). This is where a bit of “stealth cooking” helps, taking the pressure off by preparing a few items in advance & keeping a stash in the freezer for when you need them. If you cook a little bit extra every mealtime, you’ll be more prepared than a Scout!
Once a month, I like to make a few meals for week-nights, so that when we get home we can pop them in the oven & relax. Everything is ready, there’s very little washing up & we get to eat fuss-free good food. Making a huge steak, ale & mushroom stew at the weekend, then freezing it in individual pots means instant pie filling anytime! Just take a couple out of the freezer to defrost in the morning, then knock up a bit of pastry when you get home & bake in the oven for a speedy version of a slow-cooked, sumptuous pie. Simple mashed potatoes can be wonderfully warming too when the seasons start to cool & having a few tubs in the freezer is always handy. My tip is to make a huge batch (at least double), then leave to go cold before dividing into separate two-portion tubs for freezing – there’s no point in cooking a small amount when you can make plenty with a little extra effort! It just takes a few minutes to reheat in the oven or microwave & also doubles up as pie lids for delicious stews (even more lazy!).
For fast mash, just wash, peel & slice thinly a 2kg bag of potatoes (keep the peelings for later) – I use a food processor if I’m short of time. Pour just enough boiling water over to cover them, add a sprinkling of sea salt & simmer until cooked (obviously, I have to do this in the microwave, because at the time of writing I still don’t have a hob that I can use – week six!). The reason I slice the potatoes thinly is because they cook so much faster & I really have better things to do than stand around watching pans boil. If you don’t have a food processor, just slice them by hand or chop into small chunks. It shaves a bit off the cooking time (always a bonus!) & makes a smoother mash.
Once cooked, drain & tip them back into the pan (or casserole dish if you’ve microwaved them). Add a generous chunk of butter, a couple of tablespoons of cream cheese, about 2oz of grated cheese & get mashing! Serve some immediately & leave the rest to cool, before freezing in double portion pots.
If you want to cheese up your mash a bit more, butter the inside of a casserole dish, tip the cheesy mashed potatoes in (fresh or defrosted) & spread roughly, making sure you get into all the corners. Sprinkle liberally with even more cheese, then grate half a crust of bread over the top – fine or chunky, whatever you prefer. Dust with a good pinch of dried Oregano, then bake it in the oven at 200*C for about 10 minutes. The cheesy crumb topping will go all golden & crispy, with fluffy, buttery, cheese infused mash underneath. Dish up & dig in!
Remember to keep your potato peelings, along with any carrot or parsnip ones & make homemade crisps out of them – it’s like free treats & no waste! Simply spread them on a baking tray & drizzle olive oil on top, along with a good dusting of sea salt & freshly ground black pepper, then bake at 200*C for about 15-20 minutes, turning them mid-way. Once crispy, tip them into a metal sieve to shake off any excess oil, then pop onto some kitchen paper & serve. Add a bit more seasoning if you like, maybe a splash of balsamic vinegar too. They’re great for munching while you’re catching up on your emails or watching a film (they also disappear rather quickly, which is why there’s no picture).
One of my favourite lazy ways to cook mash is to make miniature jacket potatoes & chuck them in the food processor afterwards. Carefully slide a few raw baby potatoes on a metal skewer & pop them in the oven at 200*C for about 25-30 minutes (no baking tray required). The metal skewers cook them from the inside as they heat up (I use this method for larger potatoes too – just use two skewers per potato). Once cooked, slide them off the skewers & put them on a board to cool for a couple of minutes. Put them in the food processor, along with a chunk of salted butter & a dusting of freshly ground black pepper, then whizz them up, crispy skins & all! If you like, add a splash of milk to make them creamy. Then tip into a small casserole or pie dish, grate cheese over the top & put back in the oven for five minutes to give it a nice crunchy cheesy topping.
If you’re really organised, next time you make stew just freeze a few ladles of gravy in a tub or zipped freezer bag & defrost it when you fancy proper gravy. If anyone checked out my freezer, they would find an icy treasure trove of ingredients & delightful dishes. I’ve always got a few bags of berries for puddings, plus some sweet crumble topping (I usually make extra just to keep in reserve). There are bags of breadcrumbs, portions of lasagne, meatballs, homemade garlic & bacon butter, along with generous pots of cauliflower cheese, mashed potatoes, chicken stock, random rashers of smoked bacon & homemade gravy. If you add to that the pizzas & chicken dishes I’ve made too, like kievs & cacciatore, it’s like my own little freezer shop at home!
By cooking just one extra portion of food for each meal & freezing it, you’re giving yourself time to do other things, even if it is just putting your feet up with a glass of wine in the evening. The best bit is you can also share the cooking with the rest of the family – get yourself an eye liner pencil & write cooking instructions on each tub (being careful not to smudge them) before freezing – it sets in the freezer & washes off afterwards too, so it doesn’t spoil your tubs. Then everyone can cook a proper, homemade meal & you can relax in the knowledge that your evenings are your own. Stay hungry 😉 A x