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A New Kind of Dinner Party

We live in a society that craves connection. Look no further than the popularity of social networking sites that allow us to connect instantly, all the time, from wherever we are.

Networking (before there was networking) was at once upon a time done around the kitchen table as women gathered to make peiroghi or ravioli to stock their fridges – enough to feed their families for weeks – and catch up on the who and what. (Nowadays we meet at Starbucks or get the news about friends having their babies when it’s posted on Facebook.) These days it often makes sense to do what our grandmothers did and gather in our own kitchens, rather than in expensive restaurants and coffee shops.

Hosting a “freezer party” has become popular for moms-to-be, but it’s a great way to spend time with family and friends, whether or not there’s a new arrival on the way. Spending a weekend afternoon chopping, sauteing and drinking wine with friends and at the end of it bringing home enough to stash in the freezer for a couple weeks’ worth of dinners and/or lunches is the ultimate in social multitasking. At parties, everyone ends up in the kitchen anyway.

The rules of engagement:

- don’t invite too many people – the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” came about for a reason – under 6 works best, depending of course on the size of your kitchen.

- have everyone bring their own containers. Aluminum take-out containers are available at dollar stores in packages of 2 or 3 for a dollar; they are freezer-to-oven safe and will ensure all your Tupperware doesn’t end up in the freezer.

- plan what you’re going to make beforehand – let everyone choose one or two recipes, and bring the primary ingredients to make it

- consider cooking methods – having a dish or two simmering on the stovetop and others that don’t require heat (such as cookie dough – dessert counts too!) will evenly distribute workspace.

- have plenty of the basics – oil, salt and pepper, garlic – on hand.

When choosing recipes, ones that are fairly low-maintenance (in terms of prep) and are contained in one dish or pot (like stew) work the best. In terms of freezing, foods that have a high liquid content tend to freeze very well – the sauces act as a sort of insulation against freezer burn. So soups, stews, chilis and sauces are all excellent choices. So are most casseroles and lasagnas, or try freezing strips of chicken, beef or pork in marinade for quick and easy satay. The only foods to avoid – they tend to separate and become watery after freezing – are cooked potatoes and milk products.

Baked Penne with Sausage and Spinach

canola or olive oil, for cooking with
2 lean chicken and apple or Italian sausages, squeezed out of their casings
1 onion, chopped
3-5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 28 oz. (540 mL) can diced tomatoes (undrained)
1 can tomato paste
1/4 cup jarred pesto

3 cups penne, rigatoni or rotini pasta
1 10 oz. bag baby spinach leaves
1 ½ cups grated part-skim mozzarella
1/2 – 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large saucepan, heat a drizzle of oil over medium-high heat and cook the sausage, onion and garlic, breaking up the meat until the sausage is cooked through. Add the tomatoes and tomato paste and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Stir in the pesto and some salt and pepper.

Cook the pasta until al dente, drain it well and toss it with the spinach (coarsely tear the spinach up with your hands as you add it), mozzarella and about half the Parmesan cheese in a large bowl. Stir in the hot tomato sauce, which will slightly wilt the spinach. Divide among baking dishes or aluminum containers (it should be enough to fill one 9″x13″ pan) and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. (At this point the dish can be cooled completely, covered and frozen for up to 4 months. Bake from frozen.)

Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes (40 if frozen) until bubbly and golden. If you want to make it ahead, cool completely before covering and transferring to the freezer for up to 3 months, then bake it from frozen, adding about 15 extra minutes of baking time.

Serves 4-6.

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