When Sarah Wagner reaches into her freezer to thaw something for dinner, it's not just her own prep-ahead favorites she's choosing from; she's got the culinary expertise of her two friends Susanna Schweikert and Rhea Lee to choose from.
The three women started their own "supper club," and after each meeting they go home with enough meals to feed their families of four for almost two weeks.
Making meals ahead and freezing them is nothing new; housewives have been doing it for years. And nowadays, dinner-prep franchises have become popular, offering cocktails and snacks along with recipes and ingredients for you to assemble to stock your freezer with ready-to-defrost-and-cook dinners.
Of course, Sarah, Susanna, and Rhea must do all the shopping, preparation and cocktail mixing themselves, but for these tight-knit friends, that's all the fun. The trio met through their children almost 7 years ago, and now these families, each with two kids around ages 4 and 7, are inseparable. As Sarah jokes, "We're pretty close to opening a joint checking account."
Sarah came up with the idea of the supper club over a year ago after finding a Web site with the freeze-ahead plan for the home cook that included recipes, prep lists and reheating instructions.
The only problem? The site advocated a lone homemaker doing all the work herself.
She immediately thought of Susanna and Rhea.
"It wouldn't be fun to spend a whole Saturday doing it myself," Sarah explains. "If I could rope them into doing it, they could clean up!"
She's only half-joking. Each member of the club has her own strengths, and cleanup is not one of Sarah's ("I usually make Polk do my cleanup," she says of her husband.) Sarah always has great ideas, and Susanna and Rhea are the kind of friends who help her follow through.
For the supper club, Sarah hosts the cooking festivities at her Lafayette Hill home, which has a spacious kitchen and ample counter space. She also organizes everyone's recipes and shopping lists, but it's clearly Susanna who's in charge at the grocery store. "Susanna has the layout of every grocery store in the area memorized," whispers Sarah as Susanna whizzes through the aisles, crossing items off the list.
By 8 p.m. that evening, after Sarah's two children are tucked in bed, Justin Timberlake is bringing "Sexy Back" on the radio, the ginger lychee martinis are made, and the three friends are getting to work. All the ingredients are laid out on the dining room table - except the meat and fish, which are on the hood of Sarah's car in the garage. (It's a cold winter night).
Each woman usually brings three recipes and prepares enough of every dish for each of them to bring home a complete meal for four, though this time Susanna had trouble deciding, so brought four recipes instead. Her menu features "Seared Chicken with Sriracha Barbecue Dipping Sauce," "Asian Flank Steak," "Bourbon-glazed Salmon with Couscous," and "Steak with Mustard-Caper Sauce."
Rhea, who is Korean, always makes Korean barbecued beef and pork, which have become the group's favorite dishes.
"We all like Asian flavors," explains Susanna, who is half Chinese. Rhea grew up preparing the traditional dishes, so she doesn't need recipes, but she does bring a recipe for her third dish: "Moorish Lamb Kebabs with Asparagus Salad."
Sarah loves her slow cooker, and chooses appropriate recipes: "Soy Ginger Chicken over Rice," "Spicy Black Bean-Corn Casserole," and "Vegetable and Chickpea Curry over Couscous."
Once the actual cooking begins, the women's personalities emerge. Sarah throws handfuls of ginger into zip-lock bags: "Precise measurements," she grins.
Susanna, on the other hand, measures her ingredients precisely, carefully packing spices into a tablespoon.
Rhea and Susanna move swiftly in Sarah's kitchen, clearly knowing this kitchen as well their own. The three work comfortably as talk focuses mostly on their kids - Jazzy's nebulizer prescription, Ellie's move to a new classroom the next day - and invariably, Christina Aguilera's new baby.
Because everything is mixed in the bags in which the food is stored, there is little cleanup (which thrills Sarah no end). "There's not much cleanup when you cook it, either, because everything's in the bag," she says.
Sarah loves having a freezer stocked with meals. "I get a lot of satisfaction from cooking and putting it away," she explains as she displays a freezer in her garage stocked with flat zip-lock bags of meatloaf and other meals. ("The flatter you lay it, the quicker they thaw," she explains.)
As the night progresses, the women also extol the culinary benefits of the night's work.
"To find good recipes your family will eat that is not pasta is hard," she says. Having friends help with the search makes dinnertime much easier.
"The product turns out really well," says Susanna.
By midnight, the festive spirit has waned and everyone is tired. But the sight of Sarah's kitchen table overflowing with handy packaged meals perks everyone up as they divide their bounty. The end result is 12 meals for each family, at a total cost of $108 per family (a figure Sarah says is a little higher than usual). By comparison, Super Suppers, one of the supper-club chains that has 11 locations in Pennsylvania, charges $249 for 12 meals.
At 12:15 a.m., Sarah's freezer is packed, Susanna and Rhea have loaded their cars, and the kitchen is back to its gleaming, pre-supper club state (no thanks to Polk, who's gone to bed).
The women are all exhausted, but satisfied. Because the next day, when Ellie has guitar practice or Trip has swim lessons or Jazzy has art class; when Susanna's husband is away on business or Polk is teaching a night class; when Sarah and Susanna and Rhea can't even think about making dinner with two kids nipping at their heels, they won't have to think at all. They'll just have to pick a meal from the freezer.
For a recipe for Korean Beef Bulgoki go to http://go.philly.com/Bulgoki
Spicy Black Bean-Corn Casserole
Makes 8 servings
2 small cans diced green chiles
1 cup salsa
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 cans black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cans corn with red and green bell peppers, drained
2 10-ounce cans enchilada sauce
2 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend or cheddar cheese
1 16-ounce box cornbread mix
Sour cream for garnish
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
1. To prepare for freezer: In a gallon zip-lock bag, combine 1 can green chiles, salsa, scallions, cilantro, beans, corn, and enchilada sauce.
2. Squeeze out excess air and seal. Place sealed bag into another bag for safety.
3. Place cheese in a separate bag and add to larger bag. Label, date, and store in freezer until ready to serve.
4. When ready to serve: thaw prepared ingredients overnight in refrigerator. Pour the entire contents of the large bag into a slow cooker and cook on low for 4 hours.
5. Combine remaining can of chiles, eggs, and cornbread mix and mix well. Drop by spoonfuls into top of hot slow cooker, cover, and cook for 1 hour or until cornbread is done.
6. Sprinkle cheese over the top, cover, and cook until cheese is melted. Garnish with sour cream and fresh sliced cilantro.
- Adapted from Cooking Light Slow Cooker (Oxmoor House, 2006)
Per serving: 540 calories, 20 grams protein, 69 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, 86 milligrams cholesterol, 1,711 milligrams sodium, 800 grams dietary fiber
Soy Ginger Chicken
Makes 4 servings
4 bone-in chicken drumsticks, skin removed
4 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed
1/3 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 medium carrots, thinly sliced crosswise
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2/3 cup fresh chopped cilantro plus extra for garnish
2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into thin strips
5 scallions, thinly sliced on the bias, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon balsamic
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. To prepare for freezer: In gallon zip-lock bag, combine chicken, soy sauce, brown sugar, carrots, garlic, cilantro, ginger, scallions, vinegar, coriander, and pepper.
2. Squeeze out excess air and seal. Place sealed bag into another bag for safety. Label, date, and store in freezer until ready to serve.
3. When ready to serve: Thaw prepared ingredients overnight in refrigerator. Pour the entire contents of the large bag into a slow cooker and cook on low for 5 to 6 hours.
4. Just before serving, set slow cooker to high. In a large measuring cup combine cornstarch with 1 tablespoon water. Add 1 cup of cooking liquid and stir to combine. Pour mixture back into slow cooker, cover, and cook 2 minutes longer, or until sauce is thickened.
5. Garnish with cilantro and scallions and serve with white rice.
Per serving: 268 calories, 36 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, 141 milligrams cholesterol, 570 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber