This is part two of a column series on preparing freezer meals, which I’m doing as I get ready to have a baby. Today, we’re covering casseroles — here’s a shopping list that will get you enough food to assemble eight 13-by-9-inch casserole dishes to freeze, which is 4 to 6 full meals per dish. Enjoy!
Also, there is now absolutely no more room in my freezer.
Tips for freezing
Leave a little moisture in sauces: When I make a red sauce, I usually simmer it until it’s pretty thick, but for a freezer casserole, I’ll cook it for less time, maybe 20 to 45 minutes instead of an hour and 45. When you’re reheating a 13-by-9-inch casserole that’s frozen solid, it’s probably going to take at least an hour to cook. The oven will dry it out a bit as it heats up, so you want to compensate for that.
Undercook your pasta: I’ve been making frozen pasta casseroles for a long time because they’re very simple; they were a lifeline for me as a young newsroom worker who was out and about for frequent 12-hour shifts. Keeping your pasta undercooked is a cardinal rule — cook it halfway, pre-al dente, a little stiff and toothsome. It will finish cooking as it reheats from frozen in the oven, and the moisture in your casserole will seep into it. If you cook, or overcook, pasta to start, you will end up with a soggy casserole.
Cook your meat: I am suspicious of freezing food that’s raw and ready to cook. There’s nothing inherently dangerous about this since your food is going to reach a high temperature and cook before you take it out of the oven, but freezing raw meat into a casserole means the meat is going to cook slowly, from frozen, inside a tray. This isn’t going to result in much meaty flavor — if you brown your meat first, or make pulled pork or chicken (which, due to its moisture content, freezes and reheats really well), you impart more flavor and also ensure everything will be fully cooked once it’s heated.
Reheat and eat: Loosely cover your casserole dish with foil and reheat in a 350-degree oven. The cooking time will vary — if you are reheating it from a frozen state it might take a full hour. If the casserole has been defrosted it could take 20 to 30 minutes. Just watch your casseroles as they reheat to make sure you don’t over cook them and dry them out in the process.
This will make you four 13-by-9-inch casserole pans of enchiladas, three with red sauce and one with salsa verde.
1 3- to 4-pound pork shoulder
4 large chicken breasts
2 to 3 cups broth
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cumin
4 to 5 garlic cloves, whole
1 yellow onion, cut into four chunks
Juice of one orange
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
24 burrito-size flour tortillas (or whatever tortillas you want to use; I find the flour ones reheat better)
3 cans red enchilada sauce
2 jars of salsa verde
2 pounds cheddar cheese, grated
First, cook the pork: Cut pork shoulder into several large chunks and add to Instant Pot or slow cooker. Brown pork first with olive oil to develop some flavor, then add garlic, onion, broth, garlic powder, paprika, salt, cumin and red pepper flakes. Cook on high pressure at 70 minutes (in your Instant Pot) or 5 to 8 hours in slow cooker. (You can also braise for 3 to 4 hours in the oven at 300 to 325 degrees, which will offer similar results.)
When pork is done, shred and remove any really soggy, large pieces of fat. Toss with 1/2 to 1/3 cup of enchilada sauce. While you’re assembling the pork pans, you can cook your chicken in the same braising liquid; 20 minutes in the Instant Pot will make your chicken breasts soft and easy to shred. Add around 1/2 teaspoon salt before you turn on the Instant Pot.
Ladle around 1/2 to 2/3 cup enchilada sauce in your casserole pan, then fill tortillas with shredded pork, roll them up, and fit them tightly in your pan. Top with lots more enchilada sauce and 1/4 of your grated cheese. Repeat with second pan.
I was averaging around 6 to 7 enchiladas per pan, and my pork shoulder made two 13-by-9-inch casseroles.
I then repeated this process with the chicken, shredding it, then dividing it in half, tossing half with red enchilada sauce and half with salsa verde. I then made one pan of red and one pan of green enchiladas, topped them with more sauce and cheese, and let cool 30 to 45 minutes before covering tightly with two layers of foil, labeling and freezing.
FREEZER PASTA CASSEROLES
Makes 4 casseroles
4 chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch chunks
4 heads broccoli, chopped
4 boxes dried pasta (your choice of shape)
1 32-ounce container of ricotta
2 pounds shredded mozzarella cheese
4 28-ounce cans of whole peeled tomatoes
2 cans tomato paste
10 cloves garlic, diced
2 small yellow onions, chopped
2 tablespoons dried basil
2 tablespoons dried oregano
Salt and pepper
First, make sauce: (Or cheat and buy sauce; I’m not gonna judge you.) Cook onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent with salt and pepper, then add two full cans of tomato paste and cook around 5 minutes, until paste darkens in color.
Add canned tomatoes, crushing up the whole peeled tomatoes as you add them to your pot (you can buy diced ones or puree, but I love the whole ones). Add basil and oregano and cook 20 to 40 minutes, until sauce thickens. Set aside.
Cook chicken: In a nonstick pan, brown chicken chunks with olive oil, salt, pepper, and more dried basil until fully cooked, 10 minutes or so (I had to do this in batches).
Boil pasta until just under al dente.
Assemble casseroles: Start with 1/2 to 2/3 cup sauce in the bottom of the pan, then add a layer of pasta, then chicken and broccoli, then more sauce and mozzarella and dollops of ricotta cheese. Top with more pasta, sauce and mozzarella. (You’re aiming to use a quarter of all your ingredients per casserole, so keep this in mind as you lob handfuls of cheese into pans.)
Let cool 45 minutes or so before covering with two layers of foil, labeling and freezing.