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Tips for quick meals from the freezer

Even in summer months, I try to keep my freezer well stocked so that a fair proportion of evening meals can be pulled together with little fuss and practically no mess.

It’s not fine French cuisine, but it’s practical and good in its own right.

My overall premise is simple: Cook a lot when there’s time so you can cook a little when there’s none. Also, if we are forced to do without electricity for a while, a thoughtfully stocked freezer can contribute meals that just need a finishing touch over hot coals or gas flame.

In order to keep menu variety high, the frozen offerings must be able to be taken in a number of directions. For instance, a quart-sized bag of frozen, browned and seasoned ground meat (chicken, turkey or beef) can be used in a number of entrees, from tortilla roll-ups and stuffed peppers to tostadas and taco salads.

Ditto for grilled and frozen boneless/skinless chicken breasts: Serve them whole (as is or on a bun), or sliced/chopped for an array of offerings from salads and pita bread fillings to tortilla roll-ups, tostadas and pasta toppings.

I like to cut a variety of fresh veggies, including mushrooms, onions, local tomatoes, garlic, green beans, squash and eggplant, into like-sizes, brush with a bit of olive oil or marinade and place them in a roasting pan over medium-hot coals. When they’ve taken on a massive amount of flavor and color from the process, I cool them and pack them into quart-sized freezer bags. They thaw relatively quickly and are delicious in the above-mentioned tortilla roll-ups and pita bread, or on top of noodles and rice.

Homemade pesto gets frozen in ice-cube trays, and the ¼-cup dollops are packed in zip-close freezer bags for those pasta meals.

On particularly festive nights — or movie nights — I grab a bag of Asian-style stir-fry base (recipe follows), and while it’s thawing in a pot of warm water, I prep some seasonal vegetables and fresh (or freshly thawed) shrimp and cook some yakisoba noodles. When it’s time to eat, everything gets one last pass in the hot wok and is combined into an incredibly tasty noodle dish.

Every now and then, a classic meat loaf hits the spot. I mix up several batches and shape them into loaves before wrapping and freezing. If possible, I transfer the loaves from freezer to refrigerator a day ahead of baking so they can thaw more gracefully.

Roasted Summer Tomatoes

Makes about 2½ cups smooth sauce, 4 cups chunky sauce.

Roasting fresh tomatoes until they're soft on the inside and beautifully browned on the outside concentrates their flavor. They come out of the oven gloriously golden and wrinkled and are wonderful gems to have on hand in the refrigerator and freezer for simple sauces and stocks. I usually puree them into a velvety sauce right after roasting, but you can freeze them in their chunky state and decide what to do with them later in the year.

About 2 pounds tomatoes, cored and halved, quartered, or cut into 1-inch cubes (to measure 4 cups)

1 large Walla Walla Sweet onion, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

½ cup coarsely chopped basil

8 or 10 cloves of garlic, peeled

About ¼ cup olive oil

About ½ teaspoon salt

About ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the tomatoes as desired. If using cherry tomatoes, remove the stems and halve each one. Place the tomatoes in a large roasting pan, jelly-roll pan or any baking sheet with sides. Add the onion, basil and garlic. You can crowd the vegetables together, but don't go beyond a single layer. Drizzle on a bit of olive oil, and then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Roast at 375 to 450 degrees (the hotter the oven, the shorter the roasting time) until the tomatoes are turning a deep golden brown on their skins. Depending on your oven temperature, this will take anywhere from 20 to 90 minutes. When done, they will have collapsed and look quite wrinkled.

Alternatively, consider roasting the vegetables over indirect heat on your grill, with the lid on. I have a wood pellet-fed grill (it’s called a Traeger and is built in Mount Angel), which provides a wonderful smoke flavor to the vegetables.

Remove the roasting pan from the oven or grill and let the vegetables cool. With a metal spatula or wide, flat-sided wooden spatula, stir and scrape the cooled tomatoes to dissolve all of the cooked-on bits of food.

For a chunky freezer sauce: After roasting, let the mixture cool a while so it’s not too hot to handle, then pluck all of the skin off the tomato flesh (it comes off easily). Place it in a blender or food processor along with a healthy glug of the liquid from the roasting pan. Blend on high until the skin is a puree. Stir this mixture back into the vegetables before refrigerating or freezing.

For a smoother freezer sauce: Working in batches, place the roasted tomato mixture and its juices in a blender or food processor and blend on high until it is the desired consistency. By blending, you are chopping up the skin from the tomato so you don’t have to worry about it.

To freeze: ladle the sauce into freezer containers or resealable plastic freezer bags, leaving about 1-inch head space. Let cool completely, then close and freeze.

Jan’s China Blue Special Noodles Stir-Fry Base for the Freezer

Most Chinese restaurants have a “house” noodle dish that partners chunks of stir-fried chicken, shrimp, pork, bok choy and seasonal vegetables. For years, our favorite was China Blue Special Noodles. I started making my own version a while back. But starting from scratch is time-consuming, so now I chop and stir-fry a big batch of the freezer-friendly ingredients (the chicken, pork, onions and seasonings) and pack it into individual containers. When we need a “special noodle” hit, all we have to add are some seasonal veggies, fresh or thawed shrimp, and the noodles.

¾ cup Kikkoman Tempura Sauce

½ cup chili-garlic sauce

¼ cup Chinese-style black bean garlic sauce

4 pounds of boneless/skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and cut into ½- to 1-inch chunks

3 to 4 tablespoons Canola oil

About 2 medium yellow onions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks to measure 2 cups

1 pound Chinese-style barbecue pork (see note below), thinly sliced

Fresh seasonal vegetables and noodles (see “Final Preparations”)

Prepare the sauce by combining the Tempura sauce, chili-garlic sauce and the black bean garlic sauce. You will have 1½ cups. Measure ½ cup of the sauce. Pour the remaining 1 cup of sauce into a jar or container, cover and store in the refrigerator. It will keep for months and will be used in the final preparation of your noodle dish.

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet or wok, heat about 1 to 2 tablespoons of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add the chicken in batches, stir-frying each batch until the chicken pieces are thoroughly cooked and nicely browned. Remove each batch with a slotted spoon to a bowl and set aside.

Return the pan to the burner, add a bit more oil, and when it has heated, add the onion and continue stir-frying until it has softened and begun to turn golden. Add the barbecue pork slices to the pan and keep stir-frying until the pork is browned.

Add the cooked chicken back to the pan, along with the ½ cup of prepared sauce. Keep stir-frying until the ingredients have been well coated with the sauce and the sauce has begun to caramelize around the ingredients. Remove the pan from the burner and scrape the contents into a wide, shallow baking dish to cool.

This amount of stir-fry base translates into about 16 servings. So figure out how much you want in each freezer container. For a family of four average eaters, figure on 4 quart-sized bags.

Note on barbecue pork: This is the classic Chinese-style pork (with the bright pink/red exterior) usually sold in 1 pound packages, either in the deli or meat department.

Final preparations: When ready to serve, thaw a container of the stir-fry base. Heat a wok or heavy-bottomed skillet over a medium-high burner. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil to the wok. Add about ¼ pound of small to medium-sized shrimp (peeled and deveined) and stir-fry just until they begin to turn pink. Add about 1½ cups of sugar snap peas (or snow peas or green beans), 1 diced bell pepper, and 2 green onions cut into 1-inch pieces. Stir-fry for about 30 seconds, then add about 2 tablespoons of the reserved tempura chili-sauce mixture. Stir-fry another 30 seconds, then add the thawed stir-fry base and continue cooking until the mixture is heated through. Add some cooked and drained yakisoba noodles, and up to 2 tablespoons additional tempura chili-sauce mixture. Makes 4 generous servings.

— Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.