The Summer Freezer
Last week I discovered my freezer was completely full. I had tried to add a container of leftover tomato sauce and it wouldn't fit. It wasn't a big container, but one of those little plastic tubs that you get at Citarella's when you ask for the smallest portion of olives. No matter. There was no room.
I started maneuvering things around, adjusting the little plastic bags that held long-forgotten things like Parmesan rinds for some future pot of minestrone, or nubs of ginger, or 2 tablespoons of panko. I re-stacked containers of leaf lard, purchased at Flying Pigs Farm at Union Square that I've been hoarding since early winter to make pastry for summer pies. I wedged in two packages of fat and pale chicken drumsticks from an Amish farm; I can only ever find them at Zabar's and so I always buy extra. There were loose sticks of unsalted butter that invariably spill out as I pull my freezer open, tossing them back in place just before the freezer door is slammed shut. And a precious quart-sized bag of vegetable stock made by a friend.
The rest of the freezer was taken up by boxes of Borgatti's cheese ravioli which I stock up on when making the journey to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, a bag of cornmeal that I use infrequently enough that it will spoil if I don't freeze it, four boxes of frozen artichokes and spinach, a small bag of pine nuts, a quart of tomato artichoke soup, two quarts of chicken stock, half a rack of baby back pork ribs, two pounds of tiny Maine shrimp bought when they were fresh and $2.00 a pound, a pint of dark chocolate sorbet, two chill packs kept frozen for either transporting food or comforting an injury, one pound each of ground pork and lamb, a liter of vodka, frozen blueberries to use with yogurt when fresh blueberries reach $5.00 a half-pint, and two bags of cranberries stashed last November for when I have a summertime craving for cranberry sauce. And right in front so that I'm taunted by it every time I opened the freezer is a box of Trader Joe's Chicken Shu Mai that my husband bought when shopping with a friend who insisted that it was fabulous; I am confident it is not.
I still couldn't make room for my pint of tomato sauce which was confounding because just last week I had removed duck legs purchased a couple of months ago at Esposito's. Or so I thought they were duck legs: I foolishly hadn't labeled the bags believing I'd remember what they were. But once defrosted I discovered I instead had six duck legs and three chicken legs, another sign that my freezer was out of control. I gave up and relinquished the tomato sauce to the refrigerator.
Freezer As Pantry
Our freezers are an essential part of any city kitchen pantry. A well-stocked and decently managed freezer, refrigerator, and cabinet can together make all the difference between an easily made meal and calling for take-out. But it's just as easy to lose track of what we've stashed in our pantries as it is to forget about the extra tubes of toothpaste bought at Costco and stored in the one drawer you rarely open. You don't notice what you have and then after weeks or even months, something pulls your attention and you ask, "where did this come from?" But we're busy with what our days bring us and who has time to micro-manage our freezers?
Still, everything in my freezer cost either time or money or both, and I hate to waste either. Reorganizing a freezer takes some care and speed because you need to keep it open while taking inventory. But unless you've got a huge stand-alone freezer -- most of us don't -- this isn't such a major task. So I made a list of what I had and revised some upcoming meals so to use things up, like those wonderful Borgatti ricotta cheese ravioli which were getting old and what's the point of freezing a special food if by the time you eat it, the freezing has taken its toll.
I was also reminded to make better use of the roll of 1/2-inch masking tape and black Sharpie I keep in the flatware drawer to label things. Frozen food doesn't keep forever and I can't recall every item's expiration date. Or as I learned, that once frozen, both duck and chicken legs look exactly the same.
Doing my freezer inventory last week was good timing because I need to make room for the arrival of summer produce. If I cook with an ingredient, especially one that has a short season, like garlic scapes or sorrel, I'll freeze the finished dish, such as garlic scape pesto or sorrel soup. If I want to keep the food on its own, I prefer to can it, as I plan to do, canning sour cherries later this month and New Jersey tomatoes in August.
But this year for the first time I also plan to make freezer jam using sweet local strawberries and depending on the crop, local peaches or apricots.
If you love local berries but the big production and the equipment of canning intimidates you, or if you have more freezer than shelf space, making and freezing jam is an easy alternative.
Most recipes and methods for making jam include pectin, a jelling agent that's made primarily from apples and other fruits (although not all pectins are the same, some being more natural than others); pectin can be purchased wherever canning supplies are sold, including Ball's online store which in my experience is far less expensive than any sources in New York. Their website is FreshPreservingStore.com.
You can make berry jam without adding pectin but you'll need to cook the fruit and sugar long enough so that the juices come together into a syrup that thickens naturally; you'll know it's cooked if you dribble some of the syrup onto a frozen plate and it jells.
We've added a link to an excellent explanation from NPR for how to make freezer jam, including three recipes.
If you're a novice food preservationist, you can take a baby step and make two pints of fresh jam. Buy a quart of local strawberries, hull and half them, add about 1/2 cup of sugar and a teaspoon of fresh lemon juice, and simmer in a saucepan over medium heat until thickened, about 20 minutes or until a spoonful of its liquid thickens when dribbled onto a frozen plate. Find two pint-sized glass jars that have covers, wash them well and rinse with very hot water. When the berries have finished cooking, let them cool for a few minutes off the heat and then transfer to the clean glass jars. Cover each and refrigerate where it will keep for a week or two.
Enjoy your strawberry jam with a bowl of yogurt, spread it on an English muffin, or spoon it onto French toast on which you've dabbed a little cream cheese. The jars will be empty before you know it and next time you'll make twice as much, sharing some of it and saving the rest in the freezer for a distant winter's day when it will taste like summer.
A final summer project I have planned is to make and can tomato juice with the goal of making the best bloody Mary ever. I've begun experimenting with my own Worcestershire sauce and recently bought a bottle of celery bitters and a sampler of artisanal salts from The Meadow, salt and bitters-expert Mark Bitterman's specialty store. Details to come, after the New Jersey tomatoes start arriving at my local farmer's market.