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Life seems to get busy for everyone in the fall. I’ve been asked by a number of fans for ways to get dinner on the table quickly. One of the best tools in a busy life is your freezer. Making double of any labor-intensive dish (such as lasagna) and freezing half is a great way to cut down time in the kitchen. Another huge timesaver is partially prepping your meat before it goes into the freezer, making cooking day a much easier affair. A few minutes spent strategically upfront can turn ingredients you buy at the grocery store into menus-waiting-to-happen. Stare at a frozen hunk of ground beef and no ideas jump out at you, but imagine some barbecue meatballs that can be on the table in about a half hour (of passive cooking), and suddenly your mind can fill in the blanks: I’ll put them on a whole-wheat bun and add something crunchy like coleslaw.
My challenge today is to take on the monster ground beef package. I’ll share exactly how I partially prep a value pack of ground beef into six menu ideas in less than 30 minutes (not including shopping). These 30 minutes will save you a few hours up the road. Ready?
I will prep:
• Italian Meatballs (for a pasta night)
• Barbecue Meatballs (for hearty barbecue sandwiches)
• Warm-Spiced Meatballs (to serve in pitas with yogurt sauce)
I’ll brown up three 1-lb. portions of plain ground beef for:
• An easy taco night
• A simple chili
• Sloppy joes
Ingredients you’ll need for prep:
• 5-lb. package of ground beef
• Fresh garlic
• Fresh gingerroot
• Italian dressing
• Barbecue sauce
• Grated Parmesan cheese
• Ground cumin
• Ground cinnamon
• Salt and pepper
Prep Day (30 minutes)
Set a large saute pan on the stove on medium-high heat. Set out three medium-sized bowls on the counter.
Divide your meat in half and toss one of the halves into the saute pan. Let it brown, stirring occasionally, while you prep the meatballs. Divide the remaining half of the meat into three equal portions (the package will give us six equal meal portions, each just shy of a pound, which is my bonus budget way of getting an extra meal out of a 5-lb. package of meat).
For the meatballs, start with the common core ingredients (egg, garlic and breadcrumbs) and add different flavors to create different meatballs. Break an egg into each bowl, press in one or two garlic cloves and beat. Add in three different flavor profiles:
Bowl 1: 1/4 cup Italian dressing and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Bowl 2: 1/4 cup barbecue sauce
Bowl 3: 1/4 cup ketchup, 1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1/3 teaspoon cinnamon
Place a portion of the raw meat in each bowl on top of the egg mixture. Add 1/2 cup breadcrumbs and mix the meat until just until combined. (Have you been keeping an eye on your ground beef browning? It may need a stir!)
Use a tablespoon to scoop out balls, then roll the meat with wet hands into 20 meatballs (about 1 inch each) for each bowl. Place the meatballs in a single layer in a large resealable plastic freezer bag (one bag per flavor), and make sure to label them. Lay the bags gently in the freezer (avoid smooshing the meatballs so they freeze relatively individually, shape intact). (You can freeze the meatball on a baking sheet first for a half hour before placing them in the bag, but on busy days, I can’t afford to be a purist.)
Check the browning beef; once it’s done, remove it from the heat, season lightly with salt and pepper, drain off the excess fat and set aside to cool a few minutes. When it’s cool enough to handle, divide the meat into three quart-size freezer bags and label them: chili, tacos, sloppy joes. (Yes, it’s just beef, but I like direction.) Done.
Your freezer is stocked, so next week I’ll tell you what to do with it all. Just kidding.
Cooking Day (minimal active prep time)
All meatballs: Pop a bag of meatballs in the refrigerator to thaw either the night before or the morning of cooking. Or if it’s 5pm, just pull the bag out of the freezer and let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes while the oven preheats. Cook at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes (5 minutes more if still partially frozen).
• Italian Meatballs: Add to pasta and purchased red sauce.
• Barbecue Meatballs: Place on whole-wheat rolls and top with a dab of barbecue sauce, cheese and purchased coleslaw.
• Warm-Spiced Meatballs: Tuck into pita bread with sliced cucumber and drizzle with plain Greek yogurt mixed with lemon juice, minced garlic and cilantro.
The browned ground beef can be used straight from frozen (easy!). Use one portion per recipe:
• Taco Night: Heat with 1/2 cup prepared salsa in saucepan for 15 minutes. Serve with tortillas and toppings.
• Sloppy Joes: Heat with 3 tablespoons each ketchup and barbecue sauce and 1 tablespoon yellow mustard. Serve on a bun with sliced pickles and tomatoes.
• Slow-Cooker Chili: Layer into the slow cooker a chopped onion, 3 cloves minced garlic, two 14-oz. cans diced tomatoes, one 8-oz. can tomato sauce, 1 can drained kidney beans, the beef, 2 tablespoons chili powder, 3/4 teaspoon ground cumin, 1/2 cup red wine. Cover and cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or on low for 6 to 8 hours
I hope these ideas are helpful. I’d love to hear your favorite ground-beef go-to quick meals in the comments below.