RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Beans and whole grains, even organic versions, are among the cheapest foods you can buy. They're also the healthiest. But who has time (or can remember) to soak a pot of beans overnight and then boil them on the stove for two hours? And who wants to get up an hour earlier in the morning to let a nice pot of steel-cut oats cook for 45 minutes?
Nobody, particularly not me! The solution? Your freezer. That oft-forgotten, ignored space sitting atop your refrigerator is a great resource for preserving and storing everything from cooked dried beans and oatmeal to waffles and piecrusts, making your life easier and your meals healthier. And because all those foods (or their basic ingredients) can be purchased in bulk, you'll save a bundle on organic foods, and cut down on plastic packaging, to boot. According to the "Bulk Is Green" Council, you can save anywhere from 30 to 96 percent on bulk versions of packaged foods.
Make big batches of the following foods on a Sunday afternoon, or make extra whenever you're cooking them for a meal, and freeze them for easy weeknight dinners:
• Brown rice and other whole grains like pearled barley, wheat berries, and farro. Freeze cooked grains (and all your staples, for that matter) in ½-cup portions; smaller portions thaw faster than larger ones, and single portions allow you to prepare food for the number of people on hand. I use a measuring cup to scoop them onto a lined cookie sheet, and put the sheet into the freezer overnight to freeze. When frozen, transfer the portions into a large freezer bag or other freezer-friendly food-storage container. Tossing cooked grains with a little oil while they're warm prevents them from sticking together. When it comes time to reheat them, just toss them into a saucepan with a little water or into a skillet a little additional butter or oil.
• Dried beans. I freeze cooked dried beans loose by draining any remaining liquid, spreading the beans on a lined cookie sheet, freezing them overnight, and dumping the frozen beans into a freezer container or bag. I can then take out a handful to add to a salad or measure out as much as I need for a recipe.
• Stocks. Whipping up a pot of homemade stock is a little time consuming, but do it on a weekend afternoon, and then freeze it, and you have an amazing way to add quick flavor and a nutritional boost to quick homemade meals (or just freeze leftover stock from the large carton you bought but didn't use up). You can even use your frozen stock instead of water when you reheat your frozen grains. The most convenient way to freeze stock is by pouring it into a stainless steel ice cube tray. Once frozen, pop the cubes into a container or freezer bag.
• Soups. Go easy on yourself. Whenever you're making one pot of soup, make two, and freeze the second. Portion it out into one- and two-cup freezer-safe wide-mouth canning jars, leaving lots of head space so your jars won't crack.
• Pasta. Sure, it only takes 10 minutes to boil water and cook pasta, but cooking a single serving or two at a time isn't energy efficient. And frozen cooked pasta takes only two minutes to put on the table hot! Toss cooked pasta in a little olive oil or butter so it won't stick together, and freeze in single-serving portions. Coil servings of spaghetti on a lined cookie sheet to freeze, and freeze smaller types loose (a silicone muffin pan or set of muffin cups works well). Drop frozen pasta into hot tap water to thaw, then drain and serve.