Tacos From the Freezer

One of the ways we make dinner easier is by cooking in advance and putting things in the freezer.  The title is a bit misleading, because we don’t actually eat tacos from the freezer.  We have Taco Casserole, or Taco Lasagna. It is one of those super easy meals to make in advance and put in the freezer.  When I make this I generally make three or four casseroles (yes, we have a lot of freezer space), cook one and then freeze the others. When my friend Andrea (you may remember her from other entries, like Felony Milk) shared this idea with me I was very excited.  And then I thought that I couldn’t make it because the recipe included one envelope of taco seasoning.  Did you ever read the ingredient list on that stuff?  NO way I could put that in anything I make.  As I was walking home, I thought, DUH, I’ll make my own.  Creating your own spice mixes and having them on hand is really simple and makes your cooking life that much easier.  Awhile back, I shared a recipe for Seafood Seasoning that is akin to an “Aged Inlet” since I don’t want to get into any corporate trouble.  Here’s another one.  I actually mix this up by the pint, because we use is frequently.  In addition to seasoning meat for tacos, it is great mixed with yogurt or sour cream for dip.

Taco Seasoning

In a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid, put the following ingredients:

  • 2 T chile powder (we use Ancho Chili Powder)
  • 2 t garlic powder
  • 1 T onion powder
  • 2 t red pepper flakes (more or less– adjust to how hot you like things)
  • 2 t oregano
  • 2 t paprika
  • 3 t cumin
  • 2t salt
  • 2 t black pepper

Put the lid on and shake to blend.  I use about 2 tablespoons per pound of meat.  If you prefer this to be more like commercial seasoning, you should crumble the oregano very fine.

Purchasing spices in bulk really saves a lot of money.  Check out Frontier Co-op and Penzey Spices to read up and get informed.  Both of these sites are stores, so they want you to buy, but they also both have a lot of information.

Now, Taco Casserole

For each casserole:

  • 1 package of corn tortillas
  • 1 pint jar of Salsa
  • 1/2 lb. Colby cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1/2 C reserved)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1 lb. ground meat (we generally use beef, but any ground meat will work)
  • 2 -3 T taco seasoning mix (above), divided in half
  1. In a large skillet, heat about 1T of fat — just enough to brown the garlic and onions.  Saute the garlic and onions until golden brown.  Add 1/2 of the taco seasoning and stir around until it smells like tacos.
  2. Add the ground meat.  stir frequently to break up the chunks.  The meat should be in little pieces for this.
  3. Cook until the meat is all brown and most of the liquid has evaporated.  Add the rest of the taco seasoning and stir to mix thoroughly.
  4. While the meat is browning, oil the bottom of your casserole dish.  Put in a layer of tortillas to cover the bottom.  They will overlap and there will be some “bare spots.”
  5. Spoon in enough meat mixture to cover the bottom of the pan in a thin layer.  Smooth on some salsa and then a layer of each of the cheese.  Repeat the layering, ending with tortillas.  Cover with foil.
  6. If you are freezing it, put the reserved cheeses in a freezer bag and cover the casserole with foil.
  7. To bake: put the cheese on the counter to defrost. Put the cold casserole in a cold oven.  Turn the oven on to 350F and back for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil cover and add the cheese.  Put it back in the oven for 15 minutes.
  8. Let stand about 5 minutes before serving.

I get foil pans and make this casserole in the disposable pans.  I understand that this isn’t the most ecologically sound thing to do, but it makes clean-up fast and easy.  And let’s face it, part of why we eat out or get take-out or delivery is not only do we not feel like cooking, we don’t feel like cleaning up, either!

Summer Herbs for Winter Use

Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting on dill
Black Swallowtail caterpillars feasting on dill

A while back, I wrote a post about what to do when you have Basil in Abundance.  One of the suggestions is to make pesto and freeze it in ice-cube trays, pop out the cubes and store them in bags in the freezer for later use.  Not too long ago, I was watching TV and a commercial came on for a wonderful new product to help home cooks speed up dinner making by combining butter, olive oil, spices, and herbs.  We’ve been doing something similar for years: making what is called compound butters and freezing them in little balls or the cubes of ice-cube trays,  preserving herbs of summer for winter use.  While many of the green leafy herbs discolored (they turn dark), the flavor was excellent.  I am not going to say that they all tasted like we just picked them, because they didn’t, but they did taste more summery than dried herbs.  As mid-August approaches, many of the annual herbs are going begin their decline.  Before the summer herbs completely bite the dust, go cut them down and salvage as much as you can.  Here are some of our best combinations:

Cilantro: Make a “pesto” of cilantro leaves and stems, black pepper corns, garlic, toasted sesame oil, and salt to taste.  Freeze in ice-cube trays.

Dill: Snip the feathery dill leaves and mix with butter and salt.  Using a melon-baller, make little balls to freeze.

Oregano:  Pull the tiny leaves from the stems and add to ice-cube trays 1/2 filled with olive oil.  Freeze.

Tarragon:  Combine equal parts butter and olive oil in a bowl.  Add torn tarragon leaves and mix thoroughly.  Chill overnight.  Using a melon-baller, make little balls to freeze.

We also did some mixes, like cilantro and oregano, frozen in a neutral oil, like avocado, and oregano and basil frozen in olive oil.

Recycle those Pumpkins!

Every year, our CSA grows pumpkins. Big orange Jack-O-Lanterns, long slim pie-pumpkins, small tender “sugar pumpkins” that I sometimes eat like an acorn squash and sometimes make into pies.  But our favorite thing to do with them is carve: we love to carve Jack-O-Lanterns.

Greg and I carved our first Jack-O-Lantern a few days after we were married. We put a candle in and waited for the Trick-or-Treaters.  Of which we had well over 100.  It was our first Halloween in our home, and the first of many that we would run out of candy.  When we ran out of candy, I blew out the candle and brought the pumpkin into the kitchen, so it wouldn’t end up smashed in the street by some late coming trickster enraged by our not having any more treats.  The next morning I took it out to the trash thinking, “What a waste, really.”

The next year, the day after Halloween, my neighbor came and asked if he could have our carved pumpkins – a friend of his leaves them in his yard for the deer. I said that was fine and gave them away.  That was how we disposed of the pumpkins for a few years.

Then it occurred to me that Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins are edible, so why not make pumpkin muffins out of them, or custard, or pie? So I tested it out.  They really don’t have as much taste as a pie-pumpkin, and they are a little more fibrous.  However, they aren’t tasteless, and some over-baking and a blender can take care of the fiber issue.

So, in this day of recycling as much as we can, I say RECYCLE YOUR JACK-O-LANTERNS! Here’s how:

  1. Don’t carve your pumpkin until Halloween afternoon. This way, there isn’t much time for mold or bacteria to begin to grow.
  2. Use an unscented candle to light the face.
  3. When you bring it in after trick-or-treating, cut it in half and wash it out with hot water.
  4. Pat it dry and wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator.
  5. The next day, put the pumpkin, cut side down on a baking sheet (or two) and put it in a 350 F oven for about 2 hours, until it is really mushy.
  6. Let it cool and then scrape the flesh from the skin.   I use a grapefruit spoon for this – the serrated edge is really helpful.
  7. Puree it in a blender. I usually combine the pumpkin with equal parts of butternut squash – it helps with the color and improves the flavor.
  8. I store this in plastic bags in the freezer. Measure by 1 cup into a plastic bag. Lay the bag flat on a cookie sheet and put the cookie sheet in the freezer. I leave it for about four hours. These bags cane be stacked in the freezer, and when you need 1 cup of pumpkin for muffins, or two cu0ps for soup, you can just grab what you need and defrost it.

These bags keep in the freezer for a year.

Basil in Abundance

One of the things I enjoy about gardening is the ebb and flow. This year, my cucumbers are struggling. First it was a battle for germination. I think I had a storage issue over the winter, or for some reason, did not extract my seeds from last year’s fruits correctly. After I finally got sprouts, the plants didn’t mature long enough to develop true leaves – groundhogs bowled over the bunny-fencing, and all the critters were having a feast. And now, because everything got started so late, I am picking off cucumber beetles and squash beetles.

On the other side of the productivity scale, I have basil. My plants this year are about three foot high bushes. When I go out to pick off the tops to prevent them flowering, I come in with 2 or 3 cups packed with leaves. To use them fresh, I just add them to salads, or stack the leaves, roll them, and using kitchen shears, snip the leaves “chiffonade” over grilled vegetables, or sliced tomato, or sliced tomato and mozzarella, drizzle it all with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Basil is also wonderful in salad dressing:

Basil Vinaigrette

  • ½ C olive oil
  • ¼ Balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T sugar or honey
  • 1 t salt
  • ¼ C chopped basil

Combine all ingredients and process in a mini-processor, or blender. You can also just combine all of the ingredients in a jar and shake it up until the sugar/honey is dissolved. The oil won’t emulsify the same way, but it will still taste really great.

How does one preserve this bounty?

Dehydrating is one way. In my opinion, the Genovese Basil, most commonly grown in the garden, does not dry as well as other varieties. The variety I choose to dry is the Purple Basil that when dried has a flavor most similar to fresh Genovese Basil.

Another way is to make pesto, which can be frozen in ice-cube trays (for 2 tablespoon portions: 2 cubes = ¼ cup), or larger quantities in freezer bags. I like both methods. The cubes are handy to add to roasted potatoes for something a little different, and the bags are easy to store, and defrost quickly for a fast dinner. Measure 1 cup of pesto into a small freezer bag and press the air out. In the process you will flatten the bag. Put the bags onto a cookie sheet and place in the freezer overnight. The next morning, take them off the sheet and store them in your freezer. So here’s a quick, easy dinner:

  1. Defrost 1 bag of pesto.
  2. Cook 1 pound of pasta
  3. Beat three eggs in a large bowl
  4. Drain the pasta and combine with the eggs immediately and toss thoroughly. The heat in the pasta will cook the eggs and make them coat the pasta.
  5. Add the pesto and toss until the pesto is well incorporated.

I’ve done this recipe doubled, and frozen half of it. I reheated it in a casserole, topped with extra parmesan.

Zucchini and Summer Squash

Summer squash I found in my car upon arriving home from the CSA
Summer squash I found in my car upon arriving home from the CSA

Are they coming in like crazy, those zucchini and summer squash?  The farm manager at the CSA was sneaking extra squash into people’s bags.  I got home and found a Lil’ Slugger in my bag as well.  I don’t remember him putting it in there, so he must have had one of the apprentices distracting me!  Even the CSA manager has to revert to subversive measures to unload the zucchini!

The bottom line is that there is only so much zucchini bread we can eat, right?  And if we have grilled zucchini planks with dinner every night, what about all of the other great veggies (like the green beans!!)?

Here’s an easy preservation method for zucchini and summer squash:

I break out the food processor for this one, because I am generally talking about large quantities of summer squash!  If they are large, cut them lengthwise and scrape out the seeds.  I usually use a grapefruit spoon for this.  (I feed the seeds to the chickens, so I don’t end up with zucchini growing in my compost pile!) Cut the zucchini so it will fit in the processor’s feed tube and grate the squash.

Summer squash cut lengthwise
Summer squash cut lengthwise

Line a cookie sheet with a flour-sack towel, or a piece of old cotton sheet (I have cut several to fit for this purpose).  Spread the shredded zucchini onto the lined cookie sheet.  Lightly salt the squash and let it sit for about 15-20 minutes.  Roll it up in the cloth and squeeze out the excess water. Pack in zipper freezer bags, by 2 cups worth (Most of my recipes call for 2 C of grated zucchini).  Press the bags flat and lay flat in the freezer until they are frozen. When you want to make a delicious meal, like Faux Crab Cakes (below), just take out a bag of frozen zucchini shreds, and defrost them.

Faux Crab Cakes

  • 2 C shredded zucchini or summer squash
  • 2 C Bread crumbs
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T mayonnaise
  • 1 T of Seafood Seasoning Mix (see below)

Mix everything together and form into patties.  Fry in a pan, about 5 minutes a side, until golden.  Serve hot.  If you have any left, they are really great under a poached egg and covered in hollandaise sauce, or much simpler, on a bun with a lettuce leaf!

“Aged Inlet” Seafood Seasoning Mix

In a spice grinder (we have a dedicated old coffee grinder for this purpose), place the following:

  • 3 crushed bay leaves
  • 1 T celery seeds
  • 1 T dry mustard
  • 2 t ginger
  • 2 t smoked paprika (use regular if you don’t have smoked)
  • 10-15 scrapes of nutmeg (or 1/4 t ground)
  • 1 1/2 t whole allspice
  • 1 1/2 t whole cloves
  • 1/2 t mace
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1/4 t cinnamon
  • 1 T salt
  • 2 t black pappercorns
  • 1 t white peppercorns

Grind it all up until it is a powder.  This may take a little tapping and stirring between grinds.  Store in a jar with a tight fitting lid.