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Make-Ahead Meals to Inspire Your “Eat More Dinners Together” Resolution

Suzanne Elizabeth Anderson

When I began my food column, I got out my calendar and wrote ‘themes’ for each future column. My plans for this New Year’s Eve column? Alaskan King Crab legs, champagne... you can see where this is going.

Over time, I’ve discovered that you, dear reader, are more interested in cooking in real life. Which doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy something trendy or over the top from time to time, but if you’re going to move from your chair in the living room to cooking in the kitchen, you want food that is accessible, affordable, and speaks to your needs. Which is what inspired this column.

I’m spending Christmas in Florida with Adeline, my ninety (and a half, she’ll note) year-old mother. Since Mom isn’t interested in cooking anymore, she heats soup and frozen dinners. Since I’m not keen on any ingredient list I can’t pronounce, I decided to cook a few of her favorite dishes, freeze them, so they’re available after I’m back in Colorado.
My intention is to provide main courses that are easy, healthy, delicious, but most of all are what she wants to eat. This strategy is ideal for elderly parents, friends who are recovering from an illness, or a busy family that wants to enjoy home-cooked meals together. If your family isn’t interested in stuffed cabbage, substitute beef and bean enchiladas, or beef tacos. Get the family involved in meal planning and they’ll look forward to meals together.

Now, let’s see what Mom wants to eat…

Three Meals at Once: Southwestern Stuffed Peppers, Stuffed Cabbage, and Oven-Baked Meatballs
First I began with one ‘foundational meat mixture’ that I’ll be able to use in all three dishes. Mix the following ingredients together and then divide into thirds. 3 lbs ground beef
1.5 lbs ground pork
.5 lb diced pancetta (optional. Or just use two lbs of pork)
2 ½ cups of cooked rice (you can also try other cooked grains)
2 beaten eggs
Saute, cool, and add to the meat mixture:
2 - 10 oz packages of frozen onions and peppers (or two onions and two bell peppers diced)
3 cloves finely diced garlic
1 large bunch of kale chopped into small pieces (adds flavor, texture, and vitamins!)

Southwestern Stuffed Bell Peppers
⅓ of the beef/pork meat mixture
2 - 14 oz cans of salsa style diced tomatoes
4-6 Bell Peppers cut in half, seeds removed
1 teaspoon each: chili spice mixture, cumin, coriander, oregano - or 1 package of taco seasoning, salt, pepper to taste
1 - 8 oz shredded cheddar cheese
Sour cream to garnish

Spread diced tomatoes in bottom of 9X13 oven dish, you can also add a small can of tomato sauce if you want more sauce
Spoon the meat mixture into each half of bell pepper, place on tomato sauce, cut side up
Cover with aluminum foil and bake in a 375F oven for 40-50 minutes (until meat is cooked through and peppers are softened)
Uncover, top with shredded cheese, and bake for another 10 minutes until cheese is melted.
Serve each pepper with tomato sauce and sour cream.

Hungarian Stuffed Cabbage
Make the Sauce
1 - 22 oz crushed tomatoes
1 sm/med onion diced
4 Tablespoons of butter
¼ cup raisins (yes, but trust me, their earthy flavor is beautiful in this sauce)
3 Tablespoons balsamic or red wine vinegar
3 Tablespoons of brown sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon salt

Saute the onions in the butter just until softened, then add the remaining ingredients and allow to cook for at least 15 minutes to let the flavors combine.

While the sauce cooks: cut the entire core out of the bottom of the cabbage. Gently loosen one large cabbage leaf at a time from the head, place into a large pot of water on the stovetop. Contine peeling off leave and placing them into the pot until you have about 12-14 leaves. Heat the water to a simmer, allow the cabbage leaves to cook until they are softened. Drain the water and lay the leaves flat on the countertop.

Oven-Baked Meatballs
I save the easiest dish for last. Take the remaining third of the meat/kale/rice mixture and using your clean hands, roll the meat into golf-balls sized meatballs. Bake in a 375F oven for 20-25 minutes. Use immediately, or let them cool and freeze them in freezer bags.

I love to bake meatballs and freeze them. They are ready for last minute weekday dinners when you come home exhausted but still crave a home cooked meal.

Here are my favorite ideas:

  1. Into a large large saucepan add 1 - 22 oz. can of whole or crushed tomatoes, one onion cut in half, 4 tablespoons of butter, salt and pepper to taste, and the frozen baked meatballs. As the meatballs reheat in the tomato sauce they will also flavor the sauce. In the time the meatballs are heated through, you can boil water and cook your favorite pasta. Serve the meatballs on top of the drained pasta or mix the drained pasta into the sauce, your preference.
  2. Make meatball subs! Same as above, but in place of cooked pasta, grab some hoagie rolls and a package of sliced provolone cheese, on the way home. Cut open the hoagie rolls, fill with sauce, meatballs, top with provolone cheese, give it a minute under the broiler to melt the cheese, and you’ll have a house full of happy campers!

Let’s cook to nourish those we love and make our dining-room table a place of homecoming at the end of our busy day. A very worthy resolution for the New Year!


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