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Tips for safe big-batch cooking

According to the 2019 Old Farmer’s Almanac, there are still plenty of very chilly nights in our future this winter. At least through February.

Call me quirky, but I love it when the thermometer dips down into the 20s or 30s overnight. This is when my world of big-batch cooking really takes off, because my back deck, which already sports a modest outdoor kitchen for year-around cooking, turns into a walk-in refrigerator.

I’ve always loved the concept of a room-sized fridge. Left-over turkey? The entire carcass goes directly to the walk-in until you can hack it into manageable parts for soup. Gallon crocks of homemade pickles? Straight into the walk-in. Giant batches of homemade stock, spaghetti sauce and chili? In they go, oversized pots and all, to cool their heels until I’ve carved out a convenient moment to redistribute the mixtures into freezer containers.

So during recent cold spells, I’ve enjoyed a taste of what it’s like to be the beneficiary of such an addition to the household floor plan. I started with 2 gallons of homemade spaghetti sauce, timed to finish cooking in the late afternoon when the day’s high of 39 began its inevitable plunge. I poured the batch into a wider container (to encourage a faster cooling time), which enabled me to leave the sauce out overnight in a subfreezing environment.

Next, I loaded up the same big stock pot with whole chickens, along with a generous layering of vegetable trimmings — celery, onions, chunked up heads of fresh garlic and fresh herbs — and enough water and wine to cover the birds. Another simmer session until the chickens were cooked, and then, instead of fretting over how to shoehorn the poultry and broth into my kitchen refrigerator, I simply placed the birds and the flavorful broth in smaller covered pots, out of critter reach, and left them overnight on the deck to cool safely in the freezing night air.

The next day it was simply a matter of plucking the juicy and tender meat from the bones and packing it into smaller containers, providing more tasty options in my freezer cache for winter cooking, along with several containers of flavorful chicken broth.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until the next cold front. But big-batch cooking shouldn’t be attempted unless you’re willing to acknowledge the importance of temperature control. It’s one of the most critical aspects of food safety when dealing with large pots of blazing hot food.

You’ve heard the adage “Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot.” What that’s referring to is the food danger zone — that place between 41 and 140 degrees where pathogens grow most quickly in food. So when you remove a big batch of soup or chili or spaghetti sauce from the burner, your most important task is to get the food cooled quickly enough so that it passes through that danger zone in 2 hours or less.

There are two easy methods for cooling down a large batch of food:

1. Increase the surface area of the food. To do so, transfer the food from a large, deep pot into wide, shallow roasting pans. Then cover each pan with a cloth or foil, and when the contents have cooled a bit, place them in the refrigerator (or outside in the freezing night air) to cool thoroughly and quickly.

2. Place the large, deep pot in an ice water bath. To do so, fill a clean sink with ice and water to make a slush. Place the pot in the center of the slush, making sure the icy water comes up as high as the contents inside the pot. Be sure to reload the water with more ice as it melts and stir the contents in the pot every once in a while so that the cooler outer edges of the food are incorporated toward the center.

In either case, it’s a good idea to insert a thermometer into the food so you can evaluate how quickly the food is cooling.

Here are a few of the recipes I like to cook in large quantities because they freeze well and taste wonderful.

Jan’s Spaghetti Sauce

Makes about 2 gallons of sauce.

5 pounds ground beef (it’s OK to use 85 percent lean, which has a bit more flavor than leaner beef)

2 pounds sweet Italian sausage

1/2 cup olive oil

3 medium-sized yellow onions, peeled and chopped

8 to 10 very large, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced (about 1/3 cup)

3 cups dry red wine (inexpensive, but drinkable)

4 quarts of canned diced tomatoes (about 10 15-ounce cans)

1 quart of canned tomato sauce (4 8-ounce cans)

1 pound fresh mushrooms, washed and sliced

1/3 cup dried Italian seasoning

1/3 cup dried basil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 to 3 teaspoons red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon cayenne

Hot pepper sauce to taste

Salt to taste

In a very large, heavy-bottomed stock pot (of about 3-gallon capacity), brown the ground beef over medium-high heat. Do this in batches and remove with a slotted spoon to make room for additional beef. Add the sausage and continue browning, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Drain off the fat, leaving a thin layer.

Add the olive oil, along with the onion and garlic, and saute until the onion is softened but not brown.

Return the ground beef and sausage to the pot. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up all the cooked-on bits of food. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, mushrooms, Italian seasoning, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, cayenne, and several glugs of hot pepper sauce. A little salt wouldn’t be a bad idea at this point either, although you will be adding more toward the end of the cooking.

Stir well, and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer, cover and continue cooking, stirring often to prevent scorching, for 45 minutes to 1-1/2 hours. The longer you cook it, the more flavorful it will be. Adjust seasonings. Cool as quickly as possible.

For freezer storage, pack into appropriate-sized freezer containers and freeze for up to 9 months (longer is OK, but quality will begin to suffer).

Almost Huli Huli Chicken

Makes 8 to 12 servings.

This isn’t a traditional Hawaiian Huli Huli chicken, but its texture and flavor is very close to a variation made in Corvallis at a popular eatery, Local Boyz Hawaiian Cafe. It’s delicious over rice or tucked into a bun.

3 tablespoons canola oil

4 pounds boneless/skinless chicken thighs, halved or quartered

2 pounds boneless/skinless chicken breast, cut into 1- or 2-inch chunks

2 medium yellow onions, chopped

1 quart chicken broth

1 quart pineapple juice

2/3 cup peeled and shredded fresh ginger

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup chili garlic sauce

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and saute until the pieces are browned on all sides. Add the onion and saute until softened, about 2 minutes.

Deglaze the pot with the chicken broth, stirring and scraping up all the cooked-on bits of food. Add the pineapple juice, fresh ginger, brown sugar, soy sauce and chili-garlic sauce.

Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover and simmer gently until the chicken is very tender, about 60 to 90 minutes.

Cool as quickly as possible. For freezer storage, pack into appropriate-sized freezer containers and freeze for up to 9 months (longer is OK, but quality will begin to suffer).

Southwest Shredded Beef

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Also known as “Jan’s Thermonuclear Sloppy Joes.” This is one of my favorite recipes for quantity-cooking. I love having batches of it tucked away in the freezer for impromptu meals. Served up steamy hot — either from a big ol’ pot for TV viewing, or from a Thermos during a day on the slopes or cross-country ski trail, this spicy beef warms body and soul. There’s also a wonderful Nacho Option at the end of the recipe that’s worth checking out.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3-1/2 to 4 pound boneless chuck roast, cut into 1-1/2 inch chunks

2 cups chopped yellow onion

6 or 7 cloves of fresh garlic, chopped

1 cup beer (preferably a heartier ale, such as an amber ale)

2 (14-1/2 ounce) cans diced tomatoes

2 (10-ounce) cans diced tomatoes and green chiles (I don’t usually recommend a brand, but Ro-Tel is the one you want in this case, if possible)

1 cup pickled jalapeno slices, chopped

1 (7-ounce) can diced green chiles

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

4 tablespoons cumin powder

2 tablespoons chile powder

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon salt

Heat olive oil over medium high heat in large heavy-bottomed oven proof pot or Dutch oven. Add just enough beef to cover the bottom of the pot, don’t crowd it or the meat will not brown properly. Brown the meat thoroughly on all sides. Remove with a slotted spoon and add another batch of beef, continuing to brown until all of the meat has been browned.

Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium heat until softened and golden, about 3 minutes.

Deglaze the pan with the beer, stirring up all of the cooked-on bits of meat and caramelized juices. Add the 2 cans of diced tomatoes, the can of diced tomatoes with green chiles, the pickled jalapenos, diced green chiles, cilantro, cumin and chile powder.

Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover with lid and bake in 325 degree oven for 2 to 3 hours, or until meat is very tender.

Using two forks, stir through the meat mixture, shredding/pulling at the chunks of beef to loosen up the pieces and create a sort of chunky-shredded mixture. At this point, if it seems too liquidy for what you plan to use it for, return to heat and simmer off some of the liquid.

Cool down as quickly as possible. For freezer storage, pack into appropriate-sized freezer containers and freeze for up to 9 months (longer is OK, but quality will begin to suffer).

Note on pickled jalapenos: There are two styles of pickled jalapeno slices. One style is quite fiery. The second style, made by Mezzetta, is labeled “Deli-sliced Tamed Jalapeno Peppers” and is somewhat more mild. I tend to use that style because you can always add more heat, but you can’t take it away once it’s been cooked into the sauce.

Nacho option: First, using two forks, shred apart the cooked and very tender chunks of meat, and set aside. Spread a cookie sheet or pizza pan with a healthy layer of good-quality tortilla chips. Sprinkle on a layer of shredded cheese and broil just until the cheese is bubbly. Now spoon on some of the shredded meat (with some of the sauce). Cover the meat with more shredded cheese and broil until the cheese is hot and golden. Remove from oven and add several big dollops of sour cream, some quacamole or diced avocado, chopped green onion, and maybe even some sliced olives or diced tomatoes.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Contact her at janrd@proaxis.com or see www.janrd.com.