Frozen in the Summertime
Turn Your Freezer Into a Pantry With Carefully-Chosen Frozen Foods.
Like most of you, I am not tolerant of artificial ingredients, additives, or fake foods (I'm talking about you, Cool Whip) and with rare exception, I believe we should eat fresh foods that are grown as close as possible to where we live. I'm being a bit defensive because here we are with our markets welcoming the bounty of summer fruits and vegetables and I'm writing about frozen foods.
All frozen foods aren't bad hold-overs from the sixties. In fact, a few are better than their fresh counterparts, even at the height of summer. Keeping a judicious selection of them on hand, year-round, can turn our small freezers into extensions of our city kitchen pantries, a resource that comes in very handy especially on those over-taxed days when we get home late or just can't get to the market.
For those of you who think I'm being sacrilegious, I will be glad to hear your protests. Until then, here's my list of my favorite frozen foods. I've got another list for canned goods but we'll do that another time.
- Peas: Unless you have access to a local farmer and can buy peas that were picked yesterday (and then you eat them today), frozen peas are almost always better than fresh. The reason has to do with the amount of sugar and starch in peas. Every day that passes between picking and eating the peas, more sugar turns into starch, making them tougher and losing flavor. But frozen peas have been flash frozen right after being picked (some producers claim it's the same day), keeping them still sweet and tender and flavorful. There's also the work factor: it can take shelling 2 pounds of pea pods to produce a cup of peas. Frozen peas come in regular size plus those tiny, sweet baby peas, and are packaged in small boxes as well as big plastic bags that let you use just what you need, keeping the rest frozen. Look for ones that have no added butter or sauce. Here's another tip: when cooking with frozen peas, you don't have to defrost them. Just add them to your stew or risi bisi or other recipe. They'll immediately defrost and warm to the temperature with the other ingredients.
- Baby Onions: If any of you have ever made boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin, or another recipe that called for peeled and blanched baby onions, you will remember how tedious it was to prep those onions, a task that may have taken as long as all the other ingredients combined. Plus I find that by the time I get a tiny onion perfectly peeled, I've probably reduced it in size by half. Then I discovered them frozen and I haven't trimmed a baby onion since. Look for ones without any sauce or other added ingredients. Just plain. These are usually sold in a plastic bag whereas the ones in boxes are likely to be in a butter or cream sauce. Only use these if the onions are going to be cooked, not left raw, because the texture does change from the freezing. But for cooking, buy a bag and you can use what you need and put the rest back into your freezer, carefully closed tight to prevent freezer burn. If you are an onion lover, these little jewels can also be a sweet addition to a simple dinner. Just defrost a handful at room temperature, dry with a paper towel, and then brown in a fry pan with a little butter or extra virgin olive oil. Add a pinch of sea salt and add along side a pan seared steak. Bliss.
- Spinach: There is no substitute for fresh spinach when the spinach is the main event. But sometimes a recipe calls for a portion of spinach as a way to add color, flavor or nutrition. For example, a spinach-based pesto to spoon into a minestrone soup. In a case like this, consider using frozen spinach instead of fresh. Here's why: anyone who has ever cooked spinach knows that it can take a huge volume of fresh leaves to produce a modest volume of cooked. If you need a cup of plain cooked spinach, a box of frozen (again, look for one with no added ingredients or sauces), left to defrost and then squeezed dry, will quickly get you what you need. Otherwise you'll need to buy, trim, and wash (and wash again) 3 or so pounds of fresh which will cook down to about the same quantity in a 10 oz. box. The frozen will also cost you a fraction of what the fresh would cost.
- Puff Pastry: If you've taken pastry classes or if baking is something you love to do, you may have made puff pastry. It is hugely time-consuming and requires both skill and patience. It also takes a cool work surface, like a slab of chilled marble, and lots and lots of butter. If this is something you want to do, if you have the time, if you know what you're doing, and if you have the right work environment in which to make puff pastry from scratch, I strongly urge you to do so because the flavor is exceptional. But for most of us, we want the delectable final result without the hours of effort it takes to get there. The good news is that raw puff pastry dough is easily available in most grocery freezer cases. Look for sheets, not the little pre-shaped cups, for most recipes. The dough is remarkably easy to work with even if you are a baking novice. Pepperidge Farms is the easiest to find brand and it's very good. But if you have the time, look for Dufour, a superior frozen puff pastry made in a bakery on lower Ninth Avenue, the quality is superb and worth the search. Dufour is sold in our better markets, including Fairway and Whole Foods.
- Cavatelli: Cavatelli is a small shell-shaped pasta that is traditionally made with ricotta cheese in the dough. It resembles gnocchi in appearance but it is more firm, more al dente, than gnocchi which usually is more soft and doughy. While cavatelli can be found in some pasta stores sold fresh (and is best when cooked that day), more often it is sold frozen, which takes absolutely nothing away from its flavor or texture. Frozen cavatelli is not difficult to find; I usually buy mine at a neighborhood Associated Supermarket, not a place known for a special selection of anything. I love cavatelli cooked barely tender -- always less time than the directions say -- so that the shell shape stays firm and holds a pocket of sauce. Because the pasta itself has cheese in it, it is perfect with a simple tomato sauce, or my favorite, a sauce of melted sheep cheese and served alongside a braised lamb shoulder (we've added a link to this recipe).
- Artichoke Hearts: The first person who figured out how to cut, trim and eat an artichoke was either very adventuresome or very hungry. Fresh artichokes are one of the greatest pleasures to cook and eat, but wow, are they a lot of work. They are also seasonal, making them unavailable for two-thirds of the year -- unless we buy them frozen. Look for boxes or bags of artichoke hearts that come plain, with no added ingredients or sauce, except perhaps salt or citric acid. Defrost the hearts and place in a colander so as to drain out any water that may have accumulated. If they still seem damp, just take a paper towel and give each a gentle squeeze. Then use them in your favorite recipe, such as roasted red snapper with artichokes and cherry tomatoes, or shredded in a tomato sauce for pasta, or in an artichoke dip.
What else do I love frozen? Little bags of pignoli nuts that can be otherwise quick to spoil, strawberry sorbet, containers of Citarella's broccoli rabe ravioli, and bottles of my husband's favorite Limoncello. Treat your freezer like a pantry and give some frozen foods a chance. Don't worry. The food police will never know.