Monday, November 12, 2007

If you ate nothing else, it might feed you for a week.

I once volunteered to make the food for a gallery opening, and that's when I learned that cooking without a recipe might be fine for every-day cooking, but it is difficult to multiply into large quantities. How much is "some" times ten, when you're grocery shopping? How much is "until it seems right" when you're cooking huge amounts? So, when I had a chance to try some bulk cooking, I figured I should do some research, take lots of notes, and if it turned out well, I'd have something for future reference. So I made four lasagnas, and they did the job. They went together pretty well, they froze beautifully, thawed and baked well, were tasty for dinner, and even made a good midmorning snack the next day. That's pretty close to my mother's and my definition of the perfect dress: one you can wear, sleep in, and wear again.

So, tasty? Yes. Healthy? Could be worse. Convenient? Very: cook once, eat four times. Easy? It's all relative. But for a make-ahead, one-pot, protein-vegetable-starch meal, it's not bad. If you want less fat and salt, you could make your own thick white sauce with evaporated skim milk, flour, and butter. If you want it more proteiny-vegetably and less creamy-carby, I bet you could add more chicken, more carrots, and more mushrooms. There's already plenty of spinach.

Vast Amounts of Chicken Vegetable Lasagna

Makes 4 pans of lasagna. Each pan serves 4 with a side dish, 3 with nothing else.

20 ounces fresh mushrooms
2-3 cups grated raw carrots
2 large onions
1 head garlic
1 one-pound box De Cecco lasagna noodles
2 cups grated reduced fat 4 cheese Italian mix
3 split chicken breasts (one and a half chickens' worth)
32 oz frozen spinach
3 15 oz jars alfredo sauce (you will have some left over)
1 tsp each thyme, basil, and oregano

Take the spinach out of the freezer and set it aside to thaw. Cover the chicken breasts in water and bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, until just done, about half an hour. Remove from broth and let cool. Cut each breast in half (so the shreds aren't too long), shred the chicken with your fingers and refrigerate it until assembling the lasagnas.

Wash the mushrooms and carrots and peel the garlic and onions. Chop the onions and garlic, slice the mushrooms and grate the carrots. If you have a food processor languishing in the cupboard, this is the recipe it's been waiting for.

Get out your most giant skillet or frying pan. As you cook each vegetable, stir in plenty of black pepper and a little salt (the commercial alfredo sauce is pretty salty already). Saute the grated carrots in a little olive oil until they soften and the liquid evaporates. Set them aside. Saute the mushrooms in a little more oil until their liquid cooks off, and set them aside. Squeeze the spinach to get rid of the extra liquid and chop it. Saute the onions and garlic in olive oil until they soften and smell good, and then mix the spinach in. Add thyme, basil, and oregano to the spinach mixture, and saute it until the liquid cooks off. Set the spinach aside. At this point, you can refrigerate all the cooked vegetables and chicken and assemble the lasagnas the next day. Or just forge ahead! Just tidy up the kitchen before you do, so you have room to work.

Cook the lasagna noodles in lots of water until they're just bendy, but not soft enough that you'd want to eat them. Depending on the size of your pot, you might want to cook them in two batches so they don't stick together too much.

Set out 4 pans, and gather all the cooked vegetables, the jars of sauce, the cooked noodles, the chicken, and the grated cheese. Divide the chicken into two bowls, since there'll be two chicken layers.

put into each of the four pans, in order:

1/4 cup sauce in the bottom
2 noodles
1/4 of the spinach/onion mix
1/4 of one bowl of chicken
1/4 cup sauce
2 noodles
1/4 of the carrots
1/4 of the mushrooms
1/4 of the other bowl of chicken
1/2 cup sauce
2 noodles
1/4 cup sauce
1/2 cup grated cheese

Preheat to 400. If cooking immediately, bake 30 minutes, uncovered. Using disposable paper pans? Bake on a cookie sheet.

Wrap well and freeze. Thaw in fridge 20-24 hours. Remove from fridge and preheat oven to 400. Bake, covered in foil, for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 minutes more, or until brown and bubbly.

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