Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Freezer, My Friend

When my husband and I first married, we lived in a small studio apartment with a tiny kitchen and a minuscule refrigerator. It was a 6 cubic foot model that fit under the counter and held hardly enough food for the day's dinner. It was so small that the egg holder on the door didn't even hold a dozen eggs and the ice cube tray in the freezer made special miniature ice cubes (guess the full size cubes would have overwhelmed the tiny ice box!). Entertaining guests was a challenge, to say the least. The party menu was determined solely by what I could find in my local supermarket the day before the dinner party, as I had no way to store food long enough to plan ahead. Forget about taking advantage of supermarket sales! After a few months of dealing with grocery shopping on the way home from work nearly every day, we decided to invest in a small deep freezer.

What a change! Suddenly we could plan meals days, weeks, even months ahead of time! I could purchase meats and other staples in bulk when the prices were low instead of being at the mercy of the supermarket each week. Just as importantly, I found I could make large batches of freezable foods and have quick dinners any day of the week. What a luxury! And we were no longer resigned to eating leftovers from a dinner party each and every day until they were gone or they spoiled...we could eat what we felt like and freeze the rest in portions to be consumed later, when they had become novel again! Additionally, I found my freezer to be a good weight control tool, as when a dinner party leaves me with a ton of irresistible desserts. I know if I spend the next week gorging myself, I will be laden with guilt and probably 5 extra pounds by Friday. However, by portioning the desserts into individual servings (a task best approached when not hungry!) I can happily enjoy the goodies over several weeks thus appeasing both my frugal and healthy sides.

I quickly began to find and test recipes for the freezer.....large pots of soup, (chicken, turkey, split pea, fagiole, stracciatelli, lentil, vegetable), big batches of chili (con carne and vegetarian), large quantities of tomato sauce (the Italian cook's secret weapon for unexpected guests), even beef bourguignon and stews. Along the way, alas, I also learned about foods that DON'T freeze well, those that change texture, lose taste, or flat out get yucky when frozen.

Here's what I've figured out. Most soups freeze well, provided they are broth based (like chicken or turkey soups--though I always leave the pasta, noodles, or rice to be cooked and added just before serving); I have had less success with milk or cream based soups (like potato soup or cream of mushroom). Most meats that are slow cooked in lots of liquid freeze well (like braised dishes and stews); meats that are dry roasted, broiled, or BBQ usually don't. Most cookies, breads and unfrosted cakes come out of the freezer tasting like they've never been frozen; however, cookies or cakes that have fillings or frostings are better eaten fresh. Cheeses change texture when frozen, becoming dry and crumbly. However, cheeses that are grated and frozen to be melted in recipes (like cheddar cheese for Mac & Cheese or pepper jack for quesadillas) work just fine. Pastas sometimes get pasty when frozen (though I have occasionally had lasagna survive the freezer unscathed when I was absolutely desperate). The most important thing is to wrap food well, in several layers of foil and plastic so all the air is pressed out (try using a clean straw to suck the air out of plastic bags before sealing). And label everything! No matter how sure you are that you will remember what is in a package two months from now, trust me, you won't. It only takes one incident of almost putting what you thought was chicken stock and turned out to be clam broth into a gravy to teach you that!

This is also a good time to mention storage guidelines which can be found at This pdf file indicates a freezer as being 32 degrees. A deep freeze actually keeps food at zero degrees, so your storage times may be even longer. Either way, a refrigerator/freezer thermometer can be purchased for under $10 and  is always a good investment. Meanwhile, try this recipe for makes a large amount, so have some tonight, then freeze some for a night when you don't feel like cooking.

Serves: 8 to 10

Ingredients for meatballs:
1-1/2 lbs. chicken breast, ground
2 Tbs. grated Romano cheese
3 eggs
3/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup parsley, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 to 1 cup cold water

Ingredients for soup:
16 cups chicken stock
6 to 8 cloves garlic, minced
2 (10 oz.) pkgs. frozen chopped spinach
1-1/2 lbs. any small pasta like alphabets, orzo or acini di pepe

Combine all meatball ingredients in mixer bowl with flat beater or in a large bowl using your clean hands. Meat mixture should be somewhat soft, but still hold its shape when formed into balls. Using wet hands, form small meatballs on cookie sheet. Broil 4 to 6 inches from broiler element until well browned. Turn the meatballs over and brown the second side.

Bring the chicken stock and the minced garlic to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Lower heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes. Add meatballs and simmer for an additional 15 or 20 minutes. Add the spinach and simmer just until the spinach is defrosted and hot. Boil the noodles in a separate pot of boiling salted water, drain and stir into the soup just before serving. Serve with Romano cheese.

Notes & Pointers:
This is a very large recipe, so I usually freeze half of the meatballs just after I broil them. Then I use only half the stock, garlic, spinach and noodles with each half of the meatballs. Alternatively, if you prefer, you can freeze the meatballs after cooking them in the broth with the garlic and spinach. Either way cook the pasta on the day you serve.

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