Too busy to cook? Try a make-ahead meal

Spinach lasagna with chicken sausage is a great meal to make ahead of time. BY JACK CLEMONS
October 28, 2013

With the recent drop in temperatures, we’ve been craving comfort food. Unfortunately, that concept usually translates into “food that takes a very long time to make,” which can be a challenge when you’re juggling so many demands on your time. One solution is to find an hour or so and fill it with cooking comfort foods you can freeze. Then, when you have one of your busy days, dinner just needs to be reheated.

One of Jack’s favorite dinners is pork and sauerkraut. Sounds simple enough, but you’ll need to bake those chops for at least two hours to transform super-lean pork from tough to tender. An approach that’s worked for me is to layer the chops over sliced apples and onions, pile on the sauerkraut, cover the pan with foil, bake the dish for the requisite hours and then freeze it.

What happens in the oven is different from what happens stovetop (my previous approach). In a skillet, the chops cook quickly and become dried out, despite the moisture from the apples and sauerkraut. This is because much of the juice escapes or puddles in the pan. In the oven, the tight seal of aluminum foil traps the moisture that melts the meat into fork-tenderness.

Soup is another comfort food that can take a long time to reach the peak of flavor, and therefore a good candidate for freezing to create a future meal. The recipe below for split pea barley soup can be simmered in a slow cooker for several hours and then transferred into storage containers for freezing. One thing to be aware of: the soup will thicken considerably during its time in the freezer. When you reheat it, you may need to add some additional broth to reach the correct consistency.

The lasagna in the photo is a quintessential comfort food - layers of cheese, sausage, spinach and sauce packed between sheets of pasta. Some people will advise freezing the lasagna before you bake it. I would have great difficulty resisting the temptation to cook it first (so we can eat some immediately) and then get around to freezing it.

Lasagna leftovers need special handling. If you simply cover what remains in the pan and throw it in the freezer, you’ll create dry edges and a soggy center when you try to reheat the whole thing. A better approach is to let the pan cool after dinner and store the lasagna in your fridge overnight. As it chills, it will solidify and become much easier to cut than when fresh from the oven.

Cut the leftovers into individual servings. Wrap each one tightly in plastic, place each one in a zip-top bag and then into the freezer. When you’re ready to eat the frozen pieces, let them first come to room temperature (or defrost overnight in the refrigerator) then microwave for about 5 minutes. The time in the microwave will vary, based on the size and thickness of each piece; keeping it wrapped in plastic during the heating will prevent moisture loss.

With a few strategies for stocking the freezer in advance, you’ll be able to serve comfort food without investing hours at mealtime. Now it’s time to go thaw out some lasagna.

Split Pea Barley Soup

5 C broth
1 t garlic powder
1/2 t salt
1/2 t black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 C dry split green peas
1/2 C medium pearl barley (not quick-cooking)
2 C chopped ham
3/4 C sliced carrots
3/4 C diced onion
1/2 C chopped celery

In a medium bowl whisk together the broth and spices; set aside. In a 4-quart slow cooker, layer peas, barley, ham, carrots, onion and celery; do not mix. Pour in the seasoned broth; do not mix. Cover and cook until the peas reach a creamy, soft texture: set on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours. Remove the bay leaf, stir well and adjust seasonings.

Pork Chop Bake

1 peeled and sliced apple
1 sliced onion
4 bone-in pork loin chops
1/4 t pepper
1/4 t sage or savory
8-oz package sauerkraut

Preheat the oven to 325F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Cover the bottom of the pan with apple and onion slices in an even layer. Season the pork chops generously on both sides with pepper. Place the pork chops in a single layer on top of the apples and onions. Sprinkle with sage or savory. Tightly seal the pan with foil; bake for three hours.


1 T olive oil
1 lb Italian sausage
1 T butter
1 chopped onion
4 C fresh spinach
2 eggs
15-oz ricotta cheese
1/2 C Parmesan cheese
1 T parsley
2 C shredded mozzarella
1 28-oz can tomato puree
2 t basil
2 t oregano
1 t marjoram
1 T parsley
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
12 no-boil lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium high. Cut sausage into thin slices and sauté in oil until lightly browned; drain any fat and set aside.

In the same skillet, melt the butter and add onion. Cook, stirring often, until onion starts to soften. Add spinach, cover and reduce heat to very low. Cook until wilted, about 2 minutes. Remove cover and cook until moisture evaporates; set aside. Break eggs into a mixing bowl; whisk until smooth. Stir in ricotta, Parmesan and parsley; whisk until combined; set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together tomato puree and spices. Spread 1 1/2 C of sauce in a thin layer on the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Cover with 4 lasagna noodles. Spread half of the ricotta mixture on the noodles. Scatter half the sausage slices over the cheese. Cover with one-third of the remaining sauce; sprinkle with 1/2 C of shredded mozzarella. Cover with 4 lasagna noodles, followed by remaining ricotta cheese mixture, remaining sausage and the spinach. Spread with half of the remaining sauce; sprinkle with 1/2 C of shredded mozzarella. Cover with 4 lasagna noodles, the remaining sauce and 1 C shredded mozzarella. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 10 minutes. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

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