A lot of grocery sales are going on this time of year, and it’s a good idea to stock up on basics to make holiday prep easier. Things like flour, sugar, canned pumpkin, and other pantry staples will keep well until the holidays. You will be less stressed if you have most of your ingredients waiting for you when you’re ready to cook and bake.
Take stock of what you have, and see if your spices, baking powder, and baking soda are still fresh. All of these last about a year, so if you aren’t sure when you last purchased them it is probably time to restock. I write the date purchased on the containers in a sharpie when I buy them to make this easy. Spices lose their flavor and color over time, which makes our food taste bland. Baking soda and baking powder lose their ability to lift our baked goods after a year. We want our cakes, cookies, and muffins to be light and moist!
Pop your flour and sugar into plastic bags or other containers so they stay fresh, I keep my extra flour in the freezer to make sure those little bugs don’t get into it.
Stocking up (sorry!) and getting some of the prep out of the way early leaves us more time to enjoy the season. When I have an afternoon at home, I like to make a big pot of homemade stock to have on hand for holiday and simple meals. A big package of chicken wings or legs are economical and make a great stock. Throw in an onion cut in quarters, a couple of carrots and celery stalks, and let it all simmer for an hour or two. Let it cool in the pot before straining for a deeper flavor. Portion and save it in small freezer bags or containers – it will thaw much quicker if it is in a small package.
It may seem like this is a big pain when we can all buy chicken stock at the grocery store, but give it a try. Your house will smell great, and even the simplest soup you make with the stock will taste wonderful. Heat up a few cups of homemade stock, add a package of tortellini and a bag of baby spinach and you have a wonderful soup in 15 minutes. Or add some small frozen meatballs instead of the tortellini for Italian wedding soup. Top with some grated parmesan and everyone will think you’re a genius. Other soup ideas are here and here.
Another good thing to pick up is some good bread. Bread freezes well, just double wrap it. You can pop it into a 400-degree oven to reheat and your whole house will smell great. So after a long day heat some stock on the stove for a simple soup, put some bread in the oven, and you have a delicious, warming meal in less time than picking up pizza.
Cut your leftover bread into 1-inch cubes and freeze those. You can toss them with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic then bake (anywhere between 350 and 425 degrees, keep an eye on them) for wonderful croutons. The cubes are also great to pull out to make a quick stuffing or throw into the food processor for quick bread crumbs. Any vegetable is better topped with some bread crumbs that have been sautéed until browned and crisp with olive oil and a little garlic. The kids might actually eat those veggies!
Keep your parmesan rinds and leek tops for great vegetable stock. Take those hard rinds from parmesan cheese, give them a scrub, and toss into a pot of water. You will need about 5-6 good rinds for a rich pot of stock. If you have leek tops, add those too. Simmer until the stock tastes rich and flavorful, then let cool in the pot. Save just like the chicken stock (label them so you know what is what in the freezer). Your stock will still be delicious and the vegetarians in your group will be grateful.
Making a couple of pots of stock makes me feel productive even if the rest of the day was spent reading a book. Having a freezer stocked with really good things means I spend a lot less money on takeout food and gain less weight over the holidays. Plus we eat much tastier food. Not bad for an afternoon spent tending to a few simmering pots! This weekend will be a stock-making weekend for me, and I hope you’ll try it too.