By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Strategies for cooks with odd schedules

The alarm clock goes off much too early in our house, some hours before the sun thinks about rising.

This isn’t really a problem, except that it does mean that if I want to have a prayer of being functional the next day, bedtime needs to be correspondingly early. Also, by evening, I’m tired and have little interest in cooking.

All of this puts us in an extremely large boat containing a whole lot of other people. Too bad this imaginary nautical construct doesn’t allow for chatting, because I’d love to hear how others handle the whole dinner dilemma.

But I can tell you how I’ve been handling it lately, and often, that is to cook supper in the morning before work. Leftovers have always played a major role in our kitchen, and still do, so that not every morning has to be spent cooking, although there may be some time spent preparing for the next morning. For example, we’ve got pizza left in the refrigerator one night, so the next morning maybe I’ll simmer a pot of beans while folding laundry. It will go into the refrigerator before I leave, so that the following morning, making chili will be fairly quick. I’ll make a pan of cornbread that evening while the chili reheats.

The chili contains a fair number of vegetables — onions, garlic, leftover squash puree, peppers from the freezer, home-canned tomatoes — so chili and cornbread will be a complete meal.

The following night we’ll have soup, or finish off the last of the pizza, and then chili again the night after that.

This only works, of course, if there’s enough time between turning off the clock and leaving the house. But the make-ahead method can be adapted to other schedules by cooking the beans, for example, in the evening and refrigerating them before bed, or making two or three meals on the weekend to last the week. Or making a few hearty casseroles once a month and freezing them to pull out in the morning before work. Pizza dough can be frozen for up to a month and defrosted during the day. Pie dough can be made and rolled out in the morning, then used in the evening. I like to add sauteed onions and mushrooms to quiche; they, too, can be cooked and refrigerated in the morning or the night before to speed up the process.

Since cooking dried beans can be time-consuming, it’s worth cooking a large batch and freezing some. You can also shorten the process a bit with this method: Cover the dried beans with water, bring to a boil and cook for two minutes. Remove from heat and soak for an hour, then drain, discarding water. Cover beans with fresh water, bring to a boil, and cook until soft. Don’t forget to add salt. When you have pre-cooked beans, it’s a fairly short step to soup, chili, taco salad or burritos.

Home-canned tomato sauce is time-consuming, but it’s satisfying during the winter months to produce a homemade meal of spaghetti in minutes.

I usually spend some time during the fall making roasted tomato soup and freezing it for winter. Frozen corn also makes turning out a pot of satisfying corn chowder relatively quick.

Other quick dinners include eggs and toast, or pancakes.

For breakfasts, I like to occasionally make and freeze a batch of waffles to reheat in the toaster. Leftover pancakes sometimes get the same treatment. Even oatmeal can be made ahead and reheated on the stovetop, adding more water, and leftover quiche makes a great breakfast.

Cooking most of the household meals from scratch in spite of a busy schedule can seem overwhelming, even to those of us who like cooking. But using some coping strategies to divide the work into manageable chunks helps enormously.

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