April 16, 2014

Put it on Ice – Using Your Freezer to Save Money

Every house has one – the freezer that is attached to your fridge. The problem is most of us don’t use it to its full advantage. Check out the contents of your freezer. Most likely it contains a frozen pizza or two, some ice cubes, ice cream and maybe some mystery meat and leftovers you thought you’d reheat someday.

Well, Mark Bittman at the New York Times has some very helpful suggestions for putting your freezer to work for you.

In terms of reducing waste, the most important step you can take is to freeze things the moment you realize you’re not going to cook them in time. If you get a last-minute dinner invitation, you might freeze that fish you bought; if you take the kids strawberry picking, get the excess in there as quickly as you can; if you have a superharvest of vegetables (or a good score at the farmer’s market), blanch them and freeze them.

After all, few foods improve in the refrigerator. They don’t improve in your freezer, either, but they degrade more slowly, especially if you keep the temperature at 0 degrees or below. While you’re freezing, remember that your enemy is freezer burn, a freeze-drying on surfaces exposed to air that imparts unpleasant flavors and dry, fibrous textures. To help maintain quality, avoid freezer burn by double- or even triple-wrapping food, filling containers to the top and squeezing the air out of containers (zippered bags are good for this).

One more thing, easy to overlook and impossible to overrate: Label. It is incredible how much things grow to resemble another in the freezer. Use a permanent marker, write exactly what it is (“fish” or “stew” isn’t as helpful as “monkfish” or “lamb/veg stew”), and date it.

STORAGE

In addition to produce and meats, there are some less obvious ingredients whose life can be extended by freezing. Most of them can be used straight from the freezer: Fresh noodles; flours or meals; grains; nuts (which taste kind of good frozen); whole coffee beans (supposedly not as good after you freeze them, but most of us can’t tell the difference); banana leaves (nice for plating or wrapping, but they come in huge packages); and more, detailed below.

LEFTOVERS

Make extra of any dish, with leftovers in mind, then freeze in smaller portions that can be taken to work, sent to school or reheated for a solitary dinner. Freeze in individual containers, topping up with water, cooking liquid or oil to prevent freezer burn, or freeze in sturdy zippered bags, then squeeze out as much air as possible. Defrost in the fridge, in cold water, or in a microwave, or not at all — many items can be reheated straight from frozen. (Yes, I’m talking about homemade TV dinners.)

BEANS AND GRAINS

I’m tempted to say that you should never cook beans or grains without making more than you need. Freezing them (covered with water or cooking liquid, leaving room for expansion) works that well, and saves loads of time.

STOCK

For home cooks, the biggest problem with stock is having it around when you need it. So make as much as you can manage — three gallons, say. To save space, you can reduce the stock so that it’s extra concentrated, and reconstitute it with water to taste when you’re ready. Refrigerate and skim the fat, if you like, then freeze in containers of varying sizes, or in ice cube trays.

STOCK-MAKING MATERIAL

Scraps of poultry (most of the chicken parts we don’t eat are good for stock), meat (again, especially the less-used, bonier parts) or fish (heads and skeletons in particular), vegetable trimmings, bones and more. Keep separate bags for each, adding to them when you can. Remember, though, that stock is not garbage soup: Carrot and potato peels, cabbage cores, and the like can be used, but in moderation. Animal organs are best avoided (fish gills and guts must be removed, and offal in general makes bitter stock).

BREAD, BREAD DOUGH, BREAD CRUMBS

Freeze dough in well-wrapped balls; defrost until it regains springiness. (It will never rise quite as high as unfrozen dough, but it works nearly perfectly for pizza or focaccia, and well enough for other uses.) Good crusty bread, wrapped in aluminum foil, can turn lighter dishes into meals — just defrost in the foil at 350 degrees or so for 10 minutes, then crisp up, unwrapped, at slightly higher temperatures. (I’m talking about crusty bread; sliced bread can be defrosted on the counter or in a toaster.) And stale bread can be made into crumbs in a blender or food processor, stored in a container, and added to at will.

PASTRY AND PASTRY DOUGH

Most cake and cookies freeze pretty well, carefully wrapped. Or make a frozen log of “refrigerator” cookies to slice and bake later. Same with biscuits: make a whole batch or double batch of biscuit batter, bake just enough for dinner, and freeze the rest.

TOMATOES AND TOMATO SAUCE

Tomato sauce is best frozen in zippered bags with the air squeezed out. If you have ripe tomatoes, core, quarter, and throw them in a bag; as they thaw the skins will slip off, a bonus. (The frozen chunks separate easily so you can just break off a couple for soups, stews, salsas, sauces and so on.) You can also freeze unused portions of canned tomatoes, preferably in their juice.

BACON

Or pancetta, prosciutto, smoked ham hocks, prosciutto bones, etc. Wrap tightly in plastic and cut off pieces as you need them. (Or cut before freezing — you might need a butcher to do this in the case of big bones.)

FRESH HERBS

If you have extra herbs, your four best options are: Make pesto by puréeing the herb with oil and whatever other seasonings you like; make “pesto,” a purée of herb and water, with or without other seasonings; make compound butter; chop herbs, and freeze in ice cube trays covered with water.

FISH

When I’m in a good fish market I buy too much and later wonder what I was thinking. Fortunately, squid, shrimp and the meat of lobster, clams and mussels all freeze well. Even fillets, steaks, and cleaned whole fish — wrapped carefully in plastic — will keep most of their quality in the freezer for a couple of weeks, and there’s no reason they should spend any longer there. Another note: If you’re buying fish that has been frozen to begin with, ask for still-frozen rather than thawed fish, then store it in the freezer or thaw in the refrigerator.

FRUIT

Easier than making jam: Freeze berries or stone-fruit halves spread out on trays, then bag or put into containers, so they don’t all freeze together in a block. Or cook down a bit and store in their juice. Or purée and freeze.

VEGETABLES

If you find yourself with too much corn, greens, carrots, peas or snow peas, broccoli, cauliflower, string beans, put them up. Blanch them for a minute before spreading them on a tray, the same way you freeze fruit. Tomatoes (as noted above) and bell peppers are the exception; they freeze well raw.

BANANAS

When my kids were young these were a staple. Peel and individually wrap overripe bananas in plastic; freeze. Use within a few weeks for banana bread or smoothies.

TORTILLAS

Wrap two corn tortillas at a time in wax paper, then in a plastic bag; freeze flat. When you’re ready, stick the wax paper packages right into the microwave for a minute to warm. The same technique works well for cooked waffles and pancakes. Where do you think General Mills got the idea?

EGG WHITES

If you make a lot of ice cream, custard, or other recipes that call for a lot of egg yolks, you will have extra whites. Freeze them in batches of two or three for making meringues, macaroons or angel food cake.

Parmesan rinds

Most cheese freezes well, but there’s not much reason to do it. Parmesan rinds, however, add a great deal to risotto and soups (and can be eaten; they’re delightfully chewy and a little rubbery). Freeze them in zippered bags.

CHICKEN OR DUCK LIVERS, FAT, ETC.

As noted above, they don’t make good stock, but they have other uses. Three livers or so and a small handful of fat makes a nice little batch of chopped liver, for example.

WINE

That last quarter of a bottle? Freeze it, then use it for cooking wine as needed. See stock for best methods.

CITRUS

If you have a surplus of citrus — perhaps someone sent you a case of oranges from Florida or you found lemons for a dollar a pound and went overboard — squeeze them. The juice freezes fairly well. Lemons, limes and oranges also can be frozen whole. When a recipe calls for juice, defrost what you need in the microwave.

BURRITOS

It’s a bit of a project, but you can mass-produce breakfast or other burritos, wrap them individually (first in wax paper, then in plastic), and microwave in a couple of minutes.

This burrito idea can be expanded to include any cooking you do, make a bit extra, or take those leftovers and turn them into one serving frozen meals for future lazy days. No more store brought frozen dinners for you – now you can have a favorite, homemade meal anytime, just look in the freezer.

Admit it – You Love Your Microwave

Microwaves are one of the great conveniences of life. They heat up our coffee and lunch at work, make popcorn for snacks and heat up leftovers for a quick dinner.  While most of us admit to using the microwave for these tasks, there are fewer who find they truly cook meals using them.

“Everyone says that all they use it for is defrosting, reheating and making popcorn,” Johanna Burkhard says at a recent Microwave Myth Debunking session put on by Panasonic at Toronto’s Calphalon Culinary Centre, “but when I tell them to write down everything they’ve put into it over a week, they surprise themselves.”

Burkhard should know. She wrote the book on it. Or rather, one of the books on microwave cooking, hers being 125 Best Microwave Oven Recipes. Other best-sellers include The Well-Filled Microwave Cookbook and Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka, regarded as the bible on the subject.

Your may find that you mostly melt chocolate or steam some broccoli in your microwave but Burkhard shows that you can whip up several fast and nutritious dishes, including perfectly cooked asparagus with Gorgonzola and pine nuts, Mediterranean chicken, and an especially tasty one-dish meal of spicy ginger salmon with steamed vegetables.

Go ahead, try it:

JOHANNA BURKHARD’S SPICY GINGER SALMON WITH STEAMED VEGETABLES – 3 tbsp (45mL) orange juice – 4 tsp (20mL) soy sauce – 1 tbsp (15mL) rice vinegar – 1 tbsp (15mL) packed brown sugar – 1 tsp (5mL) cornstarch – 2 tsp (10mL) minced fresh ginger – 1 small clove garlic, minced – ½ tsp (2mL) chili paste or to taste – 2 centre-cut salmon fillets (5 ozs/150g each), skin removed – 1 cup (250mL) thinly sliced mushrooms – 2 cups (500mL) shredded Swiss chard or spinach – ½ red bell pepper, cut into 2″ (5cm) thin strips – 1 green onion, finely sliced

1. In a glass measure, blend orange juice, soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar and cornstarch until smooth. Add ginger, garlic and chili paste. Microwave on high for 1 to 1½ minutes, stirring once, until sauce comes to a full boil and thickens. Sauce will be quite thick. 2. Place salmon in an 8″ (2L) glass baking dish, pour prepared sauce overtop, cover with microwave-safe plastic wrap and turn back one corner to vent. Microwave on medium (50% power) for 3½ to 5 minutes or until fish is just opaque.

3. Layer with mushrooms, Swiss chard, red pepper and green onion. Cover and cook at medium for 3 to 4 minutes or until Swiss chard is just wilted and pepper is tender-crisp.  (I suggest serving this with rice.) Makes 2 servings.