There is a treasure chest in your kitchen—the freezer compartment of your refrigerator.
February is the month designated to celebrate the many ways we all benefit from frozen
garden produce, fresh cut meats or home-made or purchased cooked items. There are three main reasons for frozen food—enjoying things out of season, portion control on home cooked frozen items and pre-making festive party foods and desserts in small quantities for the drop –in visitor or impromptu celebrations. The mantra, “ Fresh is best, but frozen comes next!” has kept my family in good eats for the last forty years. Yes, canned foods, home preserves, pickled foods and dried foods are good (even delicious!) and have their place, but for basic good eating I go for fresh or frozen.
The American Frozen Food Institute (http://www.affi.org/) in McLean ,VA calls frozen food, “the way fresh stays fresh.” Emma Gregory, RD, American Frozen Food Institute says, “Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at their peak ripeness and then quickly flash-frozen, which studies confirm helps locks in key vitamins and minerals. For example, an analysis of the nutrient content of a variety of frozen produce found that frozen items contain an equivalent or greater value of riboflavin, vitamin C, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, fiber, and phenolics, when compared to fresh items.” (Note: Phenolics are compounds in plants that may have antioxidant properties.)
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Purchasing vegetables and fruits and other items that are not processed but that are frozen right away is probably one of the best uses of frozen food. During summer and fall harvest, I often purchase twice what I need from the Farmer’s Market and freeze the portion I don’t immediately use for winter cooking. But at all times of year, I feel comfortable purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables since that flash freezing Gregory speaks of guarantees good taste and good nutrition.
When putting my own fresh items into the freezer, I also look at prince, purchasing that double amount when the item is cheaper. In some cases, however, notably bell peppers, the item might d not be crisp when defrosted. Freezing does change the texture. Therefore, frozen peppers become a staple for sausage and peppers, stews, and even stuffed peppers, but not as salad topping. The same is true to some degree for delicate berries.
It is good to check on guidelines from the Affi or the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service (http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/food_safety/preservation/hgic3063.html) to see if the item should be steamed or blanched before freezing to cut down on bacteria and stop food degrading enzymes from acting. Others simply need to be cut or processed in certain ways before putting them in the freezer. I try to use BPA-free containers. The one veggie/fruit item I refuse to freeze fresh is the tomato—only once it is cooked into sauce or soup will I store its delightful flavors in my freezer.
When it comes to cooked foods, most of the differences between commercially frozen items and your own are the same ones that you would find in restaurant-prepared versus home-made foods. Home cooking is generally lower in sodium.
Another advantage of home cooking is that you can freeze the dish into the portion sizes you want. In other words, go ahead and make lasagna, and then freeze it into single portions if you live alone, or to just the number of portions as there are members of your family. Freezing into portions that leave no chance of taking “seconds” can also be a great help if you are trying to cut back. The good AFFI folks have a lot of information on their website as well. The Extension service also has some health-protecting guidelines for freezing home prepared foods as well. (http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/food_safety/preservation/hgic3065.html)
One of my favorite uses for the freezer is to make large amounts of “appetizer items” that we love even when we are not having a large party. I freeze the items into smaller containers to have them ready when someone drops by or when we feel festive and want to enjoy a snack. My sister in law, Carm Tyler, a fabulous cook, makes her famous caponata , a Sicilian eggplant appetizer in a large amount and then freezes it in smaller containers. We recently benefitted from her efforts on our last visit to her in Florida. She says she likes to freeze the caponata because, “It stays well and tastes like it has been freshly made when you thaw it to serve.”
However, no matter how quickly you have frozen the food from your garden or the market or your stovetop, it will eventually degrade. Keep a record of what you put into that treasure chest and be sure to mark the date that you put it into “cold storage” on the container so you can track how long it is in there. Commercially packaged goods usually have a use by date on them. Put them into the freezer as soon as you get home from the store and make a note of that date. Usually 8 months for vegetables is a maximum., Home frozen goods –not as long since the processing is not generally as uniform in killing germs. Eight months would be a maximum for them, according to most experts. A good url to reference for how long to keep home-frozen meats, poultry, fish, and leftovers is https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html.
Of course if there is a power outage, all bets are off and then it becomes a rush to get out the grill as soon as the weather allows and cook as much as you can. Such outages , on the up side are an excuse to invite the neighbors over to share the wealth from your treasure chest and get to know one another by the light of candles, flashlights, and the occasional firepit glow. While a full freezer (https://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/poweroutage.html) will keep food cold and safe for 48 hours, a partially full one is less reliable and certain foods, if they thaw at all will need to be discarded.
It will be several months yet before the Farmer’s Markets in our area open up, but if you have planned wisely, the flavors of summer are as near as your freezer—fill it up! To give you a head start on appetizers, my sister-in-law has agreed to share her Caponata (an Italian eggplant appetizer) will all of you.
Carm Tyler’s Caponata
2 medium eggplants, pared every other strip (so it will look like a purple and white zebra)
1 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, sliced
1 ¼ cups canned diced tomatoes, drained
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper
2 ounces capers, drained
Black and green olives, sliced
Cut eggplants in small cubes,
Fry in oil until soft and brown. Remove and drain.
In the same oil, fry onions until golden.
Put onions and eggplant in bowl.
Add tomatoes. Mash slightly to break up big pieces.
Add sugar, vinegar, salt, pepper, capers, olives.
Simmer in a sauce pan for 20 minutes.
(Note: Carm freezes at least one container right away.)