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Freezer to the rescue

Freezer meals are a super time-saver — and can often save the day
Photo by Sarah LemonHomemade pesto ready for the freezer.
Photo by Sarah LemonHomemade minestrone is an ideal recipe for the freezer. Or make it with previously cooked and frozen beans and whole grains, such as farro.

When the going gets tough, the hardy cook gets a meal from the freezer.

Not just any meal: a dish that’s nutritious, easy to eat and inspires interest in food when energy for cooking has flagged. One prerequisite is a recipe that freezes well.

In small quantities — the excess from some of my household’s daily meals — I’d amassed over several months a considerable freezer stash. I had no specific plan, just years of experience managing life’s minor mishaps and general busyness to know I’d be grateful for these items sooner or later.

Make that sooner rather than later. A horrendous head cold — fortunately confirmed negative for the coronavirus — plagued me for about four days last month. But family meals must still be served, and when the sinus headache eased, I was surprisingly more ravenous than I’d felt in a long time.

Some leftovers sustained us the first night, but once those were gone, previously frozen turkey chili and ready-to-cook meatballs stepped in to save dinner. And the reception to these dishes — icy storage aside — is invariably warm. My 6- and 8-year-old sons raved that “chili is so good,” and there’s never less than flattering words for my homemade meatballs.

My family can count on cooking as the indicator that I’m feeling like myself again. As soon as my symptoms had waned, and some of my energy returned, I was back in the kitchen to replenish what we’d used. Plus, after almost a week of neglect, the refrigerator’s produce drawers needed some serious attention to salvage their contents.

A head of broccoli on its last legs furnished the inspiration for cream of broccoli soup. We ate portions for lunch, leaving a full quart for the freezer. Meanwhile, the Instant Pot was cranking out batches of steamed farro and adzuki beans, some of each for the freezer, some to bulk up the evening’s minestrone.

Managing my fridge’s contents would have kept me plenty busy if we hadn’t gotten our weekly CSA share the first evening I felt better. Suddenly, I had several pounds of apples and peaches, chard, jalapenos and zucchini to contend with. And I’d just used up a friend’s garden zucchini in the minestrone.

Happily, fruit freezes beautifully with hardly any effort beyond washing, slicing and packaging into zip-close bags. Ditto goes for peppers. If I can’t find a use for all those jalapenos, I’ll likely roast them under the oven broiler until blackened and consign them to freezer bags. I don’t even bother to peel peppers before freezing because I’ve found they peel so much more easily, after freezing and thawing, than they do right out of the oven. Then I’ll mine those chiles over the coming year for batches of turkey chili. It’s such a satisfying cycle.

Sliced and blanched zucchini, despite my best efforts, is not enjoyable on my palate after freezing. So I first turn it into something I want to eat. Zucchini bread and muffins — well wrapped — both freeze well. So does “zucchini hummus,” a recipe I’ve published in previous columns. Or the surplus squash piggybacks into the freezer inside veggie lasagna or stuffed shells, two recipes that I lean upon heavily in summer to disguise zucchini for my kids’ consumption.

A freezer, of course, isn’t foolproof. There are some items, namely emulsified fats, that don’t withstand such low temperatures intact. That’s why I always freeze the “base” for a cream soup without the dairy. Thaw it out and add the milk, half-and-half or cream on the stovetop.

But take solid fat, like butter, and you’ve got a freezer staple. That’s why I buy pounds of butter when it’s deeply discounted, with little thought for when I’ll use it. In eight months for holiday baking, maybe?

In addition to soups, butter and meat, these items freeze with particular success. I regularly keep the following on hand or stock the freezer when I spot them on sale:

Breads and other baked goods. When I see a bargain-price pack of cake or muffins, I pop them in the freezer for the moment when I’ll be caught short on time but need something for guests, or my kids’ activities.

Similarly, waffles and crepes freeze well for fast breakfasts without the mess of mixing up batter.

Preshredded cheese, as well as soft cheese, as long as you expect some change in texture. But stir previously frozen goat cheese into pasta, and you’ll never notice.

Pesto. Freezing it keeps the flavor of summer on your plate all year.

Cooked rice and cooked beans, if packaged in a quart-sized freezer bag, will thaw in a sink of water in about 15 minutes.

Any leftovers cooked in some kind of sauce, including dishes like lasagna and enchiladas — make an extra pan and put it in the freezer

Roasted or sautéed eggplant for blending into baba ghanoush or stirring, thawed into Indian-style curry dishes and stews.

Peeled, seeded and diced winter squash doesn’t need to be blanched before freezing.

Minestrone with Parsley Pistou (or Basil Pesto)

3/4 cup olive oil, divided

1 medium onion, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces (about 2 cups)

1 carrot, peeled and diced

2 ribs celery, diced

6 peeled and minced garlic cloves, divided

2 large tomatoes, cored, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (may substitute a 14.5-ounce can peeled or crushed tomatoes)

1 bay leaf

2 (2-inch) pieces Parmigiano-Reggiano rind

2-1/4 teaspoons salt, divided

3/8 teaspoon white pepper, divided

1/2 cup shelled nuts (optional)

3 ounces Parmesan cheese (optional)

2 cups parsley or basil leaves

1 yellow summer squash, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 2 cups; may substitute an equal amount of Japanese eggplant)

1 zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

2 cups green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/2 cup tube pasta (such as ditalini or tubetti), cooked according to package directions, for about 8 minutes and drained

In a large pot over medium high, heat 1/4 cup of the oil. Add the onion, and reduce heat to medium. Saute onion, stirring frequently, until it softens and starts to turn golden, but not brown, for about 5 minutes. Stir in the carrot and celery and continue to saute until they have softened slightly, for about 5 more minutes. Stir in 2 cloves of the minced garlic during last minute of sauteing.

Add the tomatoes and 6 cups water. Stir in the bay leaf, cheese rinds, 2 teaspoons of the salt and 1/4 teaspoon of the pepper. Bring soup to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and then cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

While soup is cooking, prepare pistou or pesto. For pesto, in bowl of a food processor, finely chop the 1/2 cup nuts; scrape out into a medium bowl. Without cleaning processor, finely chop the Parmesan cheese; scrape into bowl with nuts. Without cleaning processor, add the basil leaves, along with remaining minced garlic cloves. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. With motor running, drizzle in remaining olive oil until emulsified. Stir mixture into bowl with nuts and cheese. (Pesto freezes well; if desired, portion some into 4-ounce glass canning jars, top with lids and store in freezer.)

For pistou, use bowl of food processor to finely chop parsley and remaining minced garlic cloves. Add remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. With motor running, drizzle in remaining olive oil until emulsified. Set aside.

To soup pot, add the eggplant or squash, the zucchini and green beans; continue to simmer until beans are just cooked, for about 5 minutes. Remove bay leaf and Parmesan rinds from soup, and stir in the cooked pasta. Ladle soup into large, flat bowls. Spoon a dollop of pistou or pesto onto each serving. Serve immediately or freeze in pints, quarts or half-gallon portions, depending on your household size.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Turkey Chipotle Chili

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound lean ground turkey

3/4 teaspoon salt, preferably kosher

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon chile powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground coriander

1 medium carrot, peeled and diced (may substitute zucchini or peeled winter squash in season)

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes

2 canned chipotle peppers, diced, plus sauce (or two roasted and peeled fresh or previously frozen jalapenos)

2 bay leaves

2 (14.5-ounce) cans pinto or black beans (or 1 of each), rinsed and drained (or 2 cups previously cooked and frozen beans, thawed)

1/4 cup sour cream, for garnish (optional)

Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish (optional)

Peeled, pitted and sliced, ripe avocado, for garnish (optional)

Grated cheddar or jack cheese, for garnish (optional)

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Cook the turkey with the salt, pepper, chile powder, cumin and coriander, stirring, until slightly colored, for 5 to 10 minutes. Avoid browning turkey too deeply, which dries it out.

Add the carrot or winter squash, the onion and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until carrot softens, for 3 to 5 minutes. If using zucchini, add near the end of cooking time.

Stir in the tomatoes, chipotle peppers, bay leaves and 2 cups water; bring to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer; cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Add the zucchini, if using, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the beans; cook for 2 minutes. Remove bay leaves.

Divide chili among 6 bowls. Top each with 1 tablespoon of the sour cream and garnish with some of the cilantro, avocado and cheese, if desired, before serving. Or freeze in pints, quarts or half-gallon portions, depending on your household size.

Makes 6 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.