Frozen assets: Give freezer a role in your meal-planning
By Susan Puckett, For the AJC
Troy Warren #foodie-all
How to revolutionize your cooking with the most underrated tool in your kitchen.
Well-known chefs are often asked to name their secret weapon in the kitchen: the tool they credit most with transforming the way they cook. The responses are inevitably revealing — whether it’s a state-of-the-art sous vide machine or the cast-iron skillet they inherited from Granny.
For Ashley Christensen, it’s her freezer. That’s an answer you might expect from a retired home ec teacher, but probably not from a James Beard award-winning chef. Yet she contends that the ability to maximize the potential of this everyday appliance saves time and money, preserves seasonal flavors and avoids waste both at her restaurants and the home she shares with Kaitlyn Goalen, her wife and business partner in the AC Restaurants hospitality group in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Goalen collaborated with Christensen on her first cookbook about her flagship restaurant, “Poole’s: Recipes and Stories From a Modern Diner.” During the recipe testing, they got adept at making “workhorse elements” of recipes that could be made ahead and frozen, such as certain sauces and doughs. That led them to build a game plan that could be customized for any kitchen situation, which they detail in their newly released second book: “It’s Always Freezer Season: How to Freeze Like a Chef With 100 Make-Ahead Recipes” (Ten Speed, $30).
“Our world exists on inventory and the most imaginative way to use it,” Christensen told me on a Zoom call with Goalen. To them, organizing and preplanning are part of the creativity and the fun.
Both come from families of avid cooks who knew the value of a well-stocked freezer. “Growing up on the coast, we did a lot of pier fishing and regularly fit whatever we caught into our full-size freezer in the garage,” Christensen said. “We also had two huge gardens and did pickling and fermenting and all kinds of putting things up. My dad was into making fresh pesto and had one of the original Cryovac machines.”
Goalen, a Dallas native, learned the art of make-ahead meals from her working mom, who also gave her the idea of freezing balls of raw cookie dough so they could be baked fresh, a few at a time, whenever the sweet tooth struck.
Today, they combine those early lessons with Christensen’s professional experience in maintaining their three home freezers — one in the kitchen for daily meals, and two in the garage for long-term storage and recipe testing. The book details how they manage their contents to avoid a “freezer black hole scenario,” the best materials for packaging, and the safest ways to thaw.
The recipes fall into the last two sections — one for the “freezer pantry” (a large batch of stove-top pulled pork, for instance, that can be reincarnated into Carnitas Tacos or Potato Pork Cakes), and the other for fully made dishes such as Deviled Crab Rigatoni and Zucchini-Poppyseed Bread.
As Goalen puts it, “It’s really just about making the most of what you’ve got using these easy and flexible techniques so you can truly feel the joy of cooking.”
Setting up a “freezer pantry” can save time and labor in the kitchen while producing bonuses to kick-start many other meal possibilities on a moment’s notice. I tried it out with Tomato and Greens Minestrone and its “subrecipes,” and also made room for a slushy big-batch cocktail.
It doesn’t take long to cook down a large batch of greens to stuff into multiple baggies that fit easily into your freezer. Simmer them in soup, layer them in lasagna, or serve them as a simple side dish with a squeeze of lemon juice or cider vinegar, or a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.
4 pounds braising greens (such as collards, kale, chard, or a mixture)
1/4 cup neutral vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
Carefully wash the greens by soaking in a cold water bath in your sink and rinsing them a few times with fresh water. (Greens tend to carry lots of sand and dirt, so be diligent in this step. Let all of the dirt and silt sink to the bottom of your sink.)
Separate the leaves from their stems by tearing or slicing off the leaves. Thinly slice the stems, discarding any woody ends. Cut the leaves into roughly 1 1/2-inch squares.
In a large stockpot or Dutch oven over medium heat, warm the vegetable oil. Add the stems and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute more.
Add the leaves in batches by the handful, stirring constantly and letting each addition wilt down a bit before adding more. Once all of the greens have been added, cover and let steam for 5 minutes.
Uncover and season generously with salt. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and stir to coat the greens. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally and adding the remaining olive oil 1 tablespoon at a time, waiting for the greens to absorb the oil before adding the next tablespoon.
By the time you’ve added the entire 1/2 cup olive oil, the greens — both the leaves and the stems — should be wilted and tender. If you’re eating the greens immediately, serve hot. Otherwise, let cool to room temperature for storage. Makes about 4 cups.
TO FREEZE: Chill the greens in the refrigerator, then divide into 2-cup portions. Transfer to quart-size zip-lock plastic bags or vacuum pouches, label and date, and freeze for up to 4 months.
TO THAW: Use the pull and thaw method (freezer to fridge, allowing 2 days if possible to ensure thorough thawing) or the cold-water method (in a bowl or plugged sink, under a slow trickle for about 20-30 minutes).
TO REHEAT: Place the greens in a skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring until steaming and hot. Alternatively, reheat the greens in a microwave on medium power (5 out of 10 on our microwave’s settings).
Per serving: Per 1/2 cup: 185 calories (percent of calories from fat, 76), 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 20 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 105 milligrams sodium.
All recipes adapted from “It’s Always Freezer Season.” Copyright @ 2021 by Ashley Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen (Ten Speed Press, $30).
Tomato and Greens Minestrone
Pre-made Braised Greens and Parm Stock add layers of flavor and an unexpected velvety richness to this immensely satisfying soup. I doubled the greens and beans to make it a hearty main meal that needed only crusty bread and a simple salad to complete.
Tomato and Greens Minestrone
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 large garlic cloves, pressed through a garlic press
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes with their juice
8 cups Parm Stock (recipe follows), freshly made or thawed
2 rosemary sprigs
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1 cup Braised Greens, freshly made or thawed (recipe follows)
1 (13-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Freshly ground black pepper
Shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for garnish
In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy pot over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 to 7 minutes, until softened. Add the salt and the tomatoes and their juice and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the stock and rosemary, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Stir in the mustard, greens, and beans and simmer for 10 minutes to meld the flavors.
When ready to serve, ladle into bowls, garnish with black pepper and a drizzle of oil and a scattering of shaved Parmigiano. Serves 10 to 12.
TO FREEZE: If the stock and greens weren’t previously frozen, you can freeze the soup before garnishing. Let the soup cool to room temperature, then portion into quart-size lidded containers or vacuum pouches and refrigerate until chilled. Label and date and freeze for up to 3 months.
TO THAW: Use the pull and thaw method (freezer to fridge, allowing 2 days if possible to ensure thorough thawing) or the cold-water method (in a bowl or plugged sink, under a slow trickle for about 20-30 minutes). Reheat in a saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat.
Per serving: Per serving, based on 10: 166 calories (percent of calories from fat, 55), 5 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams fiber, 11 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 1 milligram cholesterol, 1,065 milligrams sodium.
Chefs who keep their restaurant kitchens stocked with Parmesan are accustomed to saving the flavor-packed rinds to add umami to broths. Ashley Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen recommend freezing rinds as you go. Once you’ve accumulated a couple of pounds, simmer them into a stock that can be used as a vegetarian base for all kinds of soups, sauces and more.
2 pounds Parmigiano-Reggiano rinds
8 quarts water
In a large stockpot over medium heat, combine the Parmesan rinds and water and bring to a vigorous simmer. Simmer for 90 minutes, until the liquid is reduced by half.
Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a heatproof container and discard the solids. Let cool completely. Makes 16 cups.
TO FREEZE: Divide into 2- or 4-cup portions in lidded plastic or glass containers, label and date, and freeze for up to 4 months.
TO THAW: Use the pull and thaw method (freezer to fridge, ideally for 2 days) or the cold-water method (in a bowl or plugged sink, under a slow trickle for about 20-30 minutes).
Per serving: Per cup: 11 calories (percent of calories from fat, 60), 1 gram protein, trace carbohydrates, no fiber, 1 gram total fat (trace saturated fat), 2 milligram cholesterol, 64 milligrams sodium.
Ashley Christensen and Kaitlyn Goalen employ their freezer in numerous ways for instant cocktail parties. They like to pair this drink with salty potato chips and olives.
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups water, divided
1 cup bourbon
1 cup Campari
1 cup sweet vermouth
2 cups fresh orange juice, strained
To make a simple syrup, in a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and 1 cup of the water and heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the remaining 1 cup water. Let cool to room temperature.
In a large pitcher or other container, combine the diluted simple syrup, the bourbon, Campari, vermouth, and orange juice and stir well. Pour the mixture into a large, shallow baking dish; the liquid should be no more than 1 inch deep. (A 9-by-13-inch baking dish works well.)
Carefully transfer the baking dish to the freezer and freeze the mixture for about 4 hours, until it is mostly solid, scraping the surface of the mixture every hour or so with the tines of a fork to create a granita-like consistency.
Spoon into cups and serve with a spoon and straw. Makes about 8 cocktails.
Per serving: Per cocktail: 201 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 25 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 7 milligrams sodium.
Tips for freezing (Adapted from “It’s Freezer Season”)
1. For best flavor, use ingredients at peak freshness in all dishes to be frozen, and freeze immediately after cooking and cooling. Freezing halts the decaying process — it won’t reverse it.
2. Blanch raw produce (including herbs for pesto) briefly in boiling water, then shock in an ice-water bath first to kill enzymes that turn fruits and vegetables brown and decrease nutrients and shelf life.
3. Catalog your contents: Label everything with the name of the dish and the date. Also helpful: suggested expiration date, reheating instructions, and yield/quantity. Expiration dates vary but anything after a year should be tossed. Even though it may be safe to eat, the flavors will be muted and texture deteriorated.
4. Make sure your freezer is set at 0 degrees or below. If it’s having trouble staying cold enough, you may need to defrost it, clean the filters and fan, have it serviced, or a combination.
5. Biggest no-no: Never put hot food into the freezer or the refrigerator. Not waiting for it to cool could result in bacteria growth in the dish and raise the temperature of everything inside it. Foods should not be held for more than a few hours between 40 and 145 degrees. Hot food should be cooled completely, ideally to 40 degrees, before transferring it to the freezer.
6. Rather than freeze all in one container, divide into quantities according to how you plan to use them and how many you plan to serve, so you pull only what you need for the next use.
7. “Formative freezing” is a helpful technique for single portions, such as biscuits, meatballs or individual slices of pie. Freeze them on a flat surface like a baking sheet until solid, then transfer the hardened portions to a baggie or other container.
8. Air exposure is the enemy of frozen food, so proper packaging is critical. Vacuum-sealed packaging is ideal. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, plastic and glass can work well. Glass is odor- and stain-resistant and oven-safe; plastic is lightweight and cheap. Zip-lock plastic bags (the extra-durable kind labeled for freezer use) are hard to beat for convenience.
9. Choose containers that are the right size for your portions. Food should fill the vessel completely to avoid excess air exposure, which can lead to freezer burn. Too small and they could spill when thawing or reheating.
10. Wrapping in plastic wrap rather than foil creates a better seal. The key is doing a complete 360-degree wrap over and under the dish, as if wrapping a present, so that the plastic adheres to itself and not the dish.