Inhabiting the Parental Kitchen
I wrote this post back a few years ago, when we still lived in New York, and the parents were still doing pretty well by themselves, on the whole… but appreciated a little help.
This was a marathon – it was more than two years before I came back down again, after all, though Rich did visit and make some of the same recipes. But I hope the concept will help others who can only visit parents or other loved ones every month or few, and want to help out!
If you think I’ve been a bit quiet this week, you’re right… I didn’t want to post before, but we’ve been away.
Rich’s mother celebrated her 90th birthday on Friday! Clearly that deserves celebration, so we went down to North Carolina to stay with his parents for nearly a week. They are originally from New York City, too, but moved a few years ago, as his brother lives there, and they could be ten minutes away from him (instead of over an hour from us) which has been helpful… So we visited with them, and with the brother’s family, and a good time was had by all.
Tomorrow, in What I Ate Wednesday I’ll talk about our own planning for the trip… Today, though, I want to discuss applying the Inhabited Kitchen way of cooking for someone else.
The parents live in their own house, and have been taking care of themselves. They are, though, at a stage in life when even a minor illness can rock you back on your heels for a few weeks. And, well, energy levels are dropping… But I have found a way to cook with little energy (because I had to… They were in much better shape than I was, a few years ago!) And I know how easy it is to pull a good and interesting meal together with a freezer full of previously cooked ingredients.
So, essentially, our gift to them was a freezer full of cooked ingredients.
They’re already using quite a few available resources. They get rotisserie chickens, for instance – which are a wonderful option. Frozen cooked shrimp. Frozen dinners. Sauces in jars. So I’m just looking to add options… Also, they’re doing well for breakfast and lunch – it’s just dinner that is starting to be challenging (especially as they tire at the end of the day) – so I didn’t worry about those meals.
First, we went to the supermarket. I was looking just for pork chops – but the store had a reasonable pork loin, so I said OK and just got the whole thing. Lots of ground meat, also – both beef and turkey. And a chuck roast for pot roast. And just a little chicken breast – since they have other options for chicken.
Then I got two bags of onion, a stalk of celery, a cabbage, and a bag of carrots. I also got cans and cans of tomatoes and cream of mushroom, celery, and chicken soup. When I’m cooking, I use my roux cubes to make a fresh sauce – but that’s a further step, a further complication that they don’t need – easier is best, here. I didn’t get any pasta sauce, because they already had a few jars of a brand they prefer from another store – I know they’ll get more of that. They always have packaged broth on hand, too. I’m encouraging them to use more frozen, rather than fresh, vegetables, both because they don’t need to do the prep and so that they can have more variety, instead of worrying about finishing something while it is still good. They enjoy a good salad, so I’m not concerned about them getting enough good fresh vegetables – though, for similar reasons, I am pointing them to precut salad veggies.
First, the day I shopped, I cut up the loin, so it would be manageable… One third in one piece as a roast, one third sliced in chops, one third cut in bit sized pieces. And I wrapped them and put them in the refrigerator… and cooked the pot roast in tomato puree (something between a pot roast and a Swiss Steak.) We all ate some of that for dinner that night, and I cut up and packaged the rest. I froze the meat in slices, and the sauce separately, in several small bowls, so that the beefy tomato sauce could itself be used in other dishes. And we ate it with quinoa (which they already had…) so I cooked a big batch of that, to have leftovers. I reserved 2 cups of that, and froze the rest.
The next day was the birthday itself – no cooking! A lovely dinner out…
Then I buckled down… A heat wave was starting, and I did want to bake some things, but only turn the oven on once… I chopped onions, and sauteed a pan full of them. I took some out and used them in a batch of Quinoa Meat Loaf, and let the rest cool. Then I started a new batch of onions in one pan, and added celery and carrots to make Mirepoix.
I took the largest fry pan and lightly browned the chops, reserving them as they cooked. I added water to the last batch, and simmered them… I had been thinking of just browning them, but at the suggestion of their Occupational Therapist, who came by while I was doing prep, I cooked them just enough so that they didn’t have to worry about cooking the pork through, and could just microwave a chop on a hot day. As the chops cooked, I put them aside to cool, and returned the first batch to the pan. When it was cooked, I put them all aside to cool, poured what was now a mild pork stock into a bowl, and washed the pan. Now I repeated the process with the bite sized pieces… browned them in batches, then added the reserved pork stock, and simmered them lightly. Put them aside to cool…
I butterflied the pork roast, so it would cook faster (did I mention the heat wave?) and baked it and the mini meat loaves for half an hour, while I packaged the cooked pork and mirepoix. I forgot to cook the rice I’d planned… but mashed a sweet potato… (and froze the leftovers.) The meatloaf was a hit – which is good, since they have 16 more mini-loaves in a giant zip bag in the freezer… It reheats so well.
Then I posted to Facebook that I had made a mess… But Rich cleaned it all up!
The next day, I cooked another batch of onions, and another of mirepoix. They had a box of mushrooms in the fridge, so I asked if I might cook them, too, and did a batch of them with onions. And I browned a couple of pounds of ground meat – beef and turkey mixed – and cut a couple of chicken breasts up into bite sized pieces, and sauteed and simmered them as I had the pork, the day before. Again, I had bowls all over the kitchen of cooling food… more mess…
And I cooked a big batch of rice, and cooled and packaged it. That and the quinoa are almost an afterthought – they’ve been cooking quinoa (which cooks quickly) and had leftover rice from the occasional Chinese takeout (another very good resource) but I thought that having some as a fallback would be helpful. They also buy packaged polenta, which is so much easier to deal with than a big pot of boiling water for pasta! and other quick cooking grains – but you know how often I use precooked rice – I thought they would like the convenience, too.
I deliberately did not season anything, so they can season it all themselves to their own taste. When they feel up to it, some cooked meat, some mirepoix, some broth, whatever herbs or spices they like from their well stocked supply, cook some fresh broccoli (or use frozen,) cook some quinoa… Lovely. But if they are tired, some cooked meat, some cream of mushroom soup, some frozen vegetables, some precooked rice – and it’s a good nutritious meal that took almost no effort. This also cuts down on the number of pots and pans they use – and then need to wash… which itself helps.
Everything was packaged in zip freezer bags, and labeled with a permanent marker. None of the bags are filled, so they all have flat thin amounts of food, so that the parents should be able to break off the amounts they need. The one issue with these bags is that they slide badly if stacked – but their freezer has very deep shelves on the door, so I arranged the bags standing up in them – which will also make them easier to see and read. If I didn’t have those shelves, I would have stood them up in a box of some sort.
So. If I didn’t live 500 miles away, I would not choose to do this marathon – but it does show what can be done even in a weekend, if needed. If I lived in the area, I’d make one batch of something every week or two… and then I could make more variety. I might make a batch of seasoned meat, for example – cumin and peppers for chili, basil, oregano and garlic for pasta sauce. I might make a batch of the Cajun Holy Trinity of onion, green pepper and celery, or sofrito – every Hispanic cuisine seems to have its own version… Rich’s mother loves cilantro, so she’d like a variation using that!
And so, this can be varied to the tastes of any recipient. It would help someone who cooks but is losing energy. I used to do food sampling in a grocery store, though, and talked to many older men who were widowed – and had never learned to cook… The moment of bereavement, in your 80s, is not a good time to learn a new skill… This can be a good way to help Mom or Grandpa – not doing as well as they used to, but not needing the full Meals on Wheels level of assistance – get reliably good food.
And, of course, we can just do it for ourselves. This is essentially taking the Once a Month Cooking approach to the basic Inhabited Kitchen concepts – which may make a lot of sense for some people in Transition from Takeout… Spend a weekend prepping ingredients, rather than complete meals, so that then they can be combined to taste as needed. I’ve never liked the marathon approach, but it clearly works well for many people, so – if this makes it easier for you, go for it! In the long run, I spent much less time and effort than if I’d cooked all of this in single meal amounts… and there would be no reason to have to do it all at one time, at home – you could just spend a few hours every few weekends and really give yourself a nice cushion.