May 13, 2010

Mystery Dinners

I’ve always been a proponent of cooking larger-than-needed main courses and freezing the overage in single servings. That way, you always have something on hand in the freezer for last-minute contingencies. I even wrote an entire cookbook filled with recipes that adapt well to freezing and reheating (The Cook-Ahead Cookbook,Bristol/Nitty-Gritty, available through or direct from the publisher). The premise is that by freezing in single servings, you’re prepared for any contingency and any number: just the number of packages you need.

In the old days I had a gadget called a Seal-a-Meal, which I made good use of, freezing dinners in it, or sometimes leftover veggies or even soups. I’d label the plastic packets…except when I was in a hurry or forgot. “I’ll remember that this one’s goulash,” I’d say. But of course, I didn’t. And then we’d have Mystery Dinners: Heat a couple of unlabelled sealed packets, hope they were at least both main courses, make some kind of veggies and potatoes and hope that (1) the packet didn’t contain veggies or potatoes rather than meat and (2) the meat dish in the packet didn’t have its own veggies and/or potatoes in it and (3) whatever was in the packet would go reasonably well with the style of veggies and potatoes I was preparing.

Mystery Dinners were always an adventure…and occasionally a disaster.

But they reminded me of a time even further back, when I was a young single living on a next-to-nothing budget. As an economy move, I bought day-old bread, strange cuts of meat I had never even heard of  before, and “mystery cans,” whose labels had fallen off, which were priced most attractively. I would open one mystery can per night, see what the contents were, and then plan the rest of the meal around it. It was usually a veggie but occasionally potatoes or even some kind of meat.

I was doing fine with this money-saving method till one evening when I came home from work and opened a can of what proved to be succotash, a vegetable I hate, loathe, and despise. (Did I mention I can’t stand it?) I forced myself to eat it anyhow, not wanting to negate the savings.

The next night, I opened another mystery can. Succotash again. The third night I chickened out and forebore to dine on mystery cans. But the next night it was back to mystery cans…and more succotash.

I never bought another mystery can again.

Even now, I have the occasional mystery dinner when a label falls off a container of frozen homemade food. At least, though, I’m so well organized that I know from the container’s location in the freezer whether it’s a main dish or a side (or some homemade chicken stock).

And I know for sure that it damn well isn’t succotash!

~ ~ ~

Author of over 50 published books, including The Cook-Ahead Cookbook(Bristol/Nitty-Gritty) and many books on other subjects, Cynthia MacGregor is a full-time freelance writer/editor. She is available to write, edit, ghostwrite, and do public speaking. Her website is, and her email is [email protected]. She lives near West Palm Beach.

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