Saturday, September 14, 2013

More Freezing Techniques for More Real Food!!

I don't know about you but I've been pretty busy around here. Always seems this way at the beginning of the school year. Getting the kids set up, starting back into routines, new activities & friends-- getting the house back together after the tornado of summer -- putting away outgrown toys and clothes (not something to be done unless all little people are out of the house!!) and lastly-- trying to get all the abundance of summer and fall produce into long term storage.

One of my all time favorite household tools that makes my life easier in this busy time is the freezer! I know I've spent what seems like an excessive amount of time extolling the virtues of the freezer, but when you are committed to eating real food, it is an absolute necessity! Even though I've talked about some of these in past posts, I'd like to kind of get everything combined into one entry here. Hopefully these techniques will help you  1) save time  2) save money and 3) eat better.

Let's begin with materials.  Its not necessary to go out an buy a vacuum sealer or any fancy gadgets. The main items I use are found in most kitchens: a small size baking sheet (you know the one that doesn't even really hold a dozen cookies but comes in the set anyways?), some wax paper and an ice-cream scoop (the old-fashioned kind with the lever that blops out the scoop) and a supersized box of high-quality zipper freezer bags.

Saving Time: My Favorite Convenience Foods
(note: I almost never cook for the freezer, I just make extra when I'm already making stuff!)

1) Pasta:  Cook your pasta as directed on the package. Drain thoroughly. Cool and pour into gallon ziptop bag. Gently press out excess air and zip closed. Lay baggie flat on its size on the baking sheet and freeze overnight. The next day, whack the bag on your counter gently until the pasta separates into its pieces. This works best with piece-y types of pasta-- penne, macaroni, wheels, bow-ties, etc.

To use: Scoop out desired amount of pasta into a microwave safe bowl. Cover with water. Microwave single servings for approx. 3 min. Drain water, top with pasta sauce, butter/parmesan or pesto!  This is a great way to get your kids off of that blue box junk and takes the same amount of time!

2) Mashed potatoes: Prepare potatoes as you would normally. Allow to cool completely. Use your ice-cream scoop to dish out approx. 1/2 cup servings onto wax paper lined baking sheet. Freeze uncovered overnight. Put frozen potato blops into gallon ziptop bag, press out air, seal and return to freezer.

To use: 1 scoop is a pretty good sized serving for a kid, an adult will probably want 2. Put scoops into a microwave safe bowl or plate and cook for approx. 1-2 minutes. You may need to add butter or milk if they have dried a little but wait until they are completely heated to decide. You can get surprised at how the texture changes when the temperature does. Pair this with a quick seared piece of chicken or fish and a salad and you've got dinner on the table in less than 15 minutes!!

NOTE: Any side dish with a scoopable texture will work well here-- I've had good success with cooled homemade refried beans, sweet potatoes, stuffing, as well as mac-n-cheese. Follow directions as above. If reheating something with cheese or a LOT of butter, you may want to reheat on low to prevent the sauce from separating.

3) Ready Meals: Double recipes when making casseroles and soups. My favorite freezer meals include Chicken Tortilla Soup, Taco-sagna and spaghetti. I just make as usual but increase the quantity. Then, I portion out the leftovers into either freezer safe containers or quart size baggies. My hubby, in particular, gets almost all of his work lunches this way. For him, I always put things into freezer/microwave safe containers. My favorite right now are by Pyrex. They are made of glass (so no yucky plastic!) and have a lid with a rubber seal. His food starts frozen but by the time he gets to lunch time, its pretty well defrosted and ready for the microwave. Since you can't safely take glass from the freezer to the oven/microwave, for at home leftovers, I'd use the baggies. Then, when I was reheating it, I'd be sure to put it in a microwave safe NON-PLASTIC container. You really don't want to be heating up your food in plastic-- this is when most of the chemical transfer occurs. I strictly stick to glass (I do have a LOT of vintage Pyrex and Corelle) or ceramic dishes for hot dishes or reheating.

4) Waffles, Pancakes and Muffins: These I know I've covered extensively. See assorted recipes here, here and here. I always make a double batch of these items.

To use: Waffles in particular are a popular weekday breakfast. Just like the ones from the store, you can take these straight from your freezer to the toaster. For pancakes, place in a single layer on a microwave safe plate. Microwave on high for 30 seconds, flip each pancake and cook for 20 additional seconds. Add time as needed. Muffins also take 30-45 seconds to defrost, depending on size. My oldest actually likes muffins for his mid-morning snack. So, I send his frozen (to prevent breakage!) and by the time he gets to first recess, its thawed and ready to go!

5) Precooked meats. When the hubby is grilling, I always have him throw a few extra on. This is especially good with chicken parts and burgers. If you have grilled chicken in the freezer, and some mashed potatoes or pasta, you can get a dinner together in less than 10 minutes (which should beat the time it takes to pick up food!). Simply wait for food to cool and bag.

Saving Money: Things You Can Buy in Bulk and Freeze!

1) Any Bread Item: If you've found a bread, bun, bagel, pita, etc. that you like and its on sale BUY it! Bread items freeze beautifully! You can also, of course, freeze any homemade baked items! In general, I've found that these things will last a good 6 months or so without any noticeable freezer burn.

To use: If you are toasting, any of these items can go straight from the freezer to the toaster. If you want it defrosted right away, you only need 10-15 sec. in the microwave. Be sure to flip your slices after heating or you may end up with dry spots. The easiest (and most effective way) is to just put the package on the counter at room temperature for a few hours. This works especially well for loaves of bread.

2) Butter: I did not know until about a year ago that you could freeze butter! Now that I am trying to use pastured butter, which tends to be expensive, whenever its on sale, I buy as much as I can carry. Last time I ended up with 8 or 9 pounds. The check out clerk might look at you funny but it can definitely be worth it! Leave the butter in its wrapper and cardboard box. Stack 4 or 5 boxes in a gallon ziptop bag (just to prevent odor transfer and drying) and seal. This should last 6-12 months.

To use: Put the whole box of butter in your fridge overnight and by morning it will be ready to go. It should be completely indistinguishable from fresh. I have never been able to notice a difference in taste, texture or color!

3) Meat:  Of course we all know about this. My only advice here is to portion when you get home. It doesn't do you any good to have 3 lbs of ground grass fed beef if its all in one frozen brick. Separate it into useful units-- do you use it by the pound or 1/2 pound? Would patties be better? A little bit of work when you get home from the market (or the day after) will save you a lot of hassle (and probably wasted meat) when its in a convenient and ready to use portion.

To use: I will probably incite the ire of food safety personnel somewhere but for quick defrosting, I prefer the water method. I know you are supposed to defrost overnight in the fridge ideally but realistically, I might not decide what I feel like eating or cooking that night for dinner until an hour before. And if you've ever tried to defrost meat in the microwave, you know what a losing job that is-- all you are likely to end up with is cooked edges and a frozen center. So, for the water method, I take the meat in question and LEAVE it in its freezer baggie. I submerge it in a big pot or sink full of water (usually room temp/luke warm) for about a 1/2 hour. For chicken breasts and fish, this is usually sufficient. Big chunks of ground beef might take slightly longer.

Eating Better!

To get a variety of fruits and veggies, you can freeze at the peak of the season. This lets you buy at the best prices, get the best quality and often has higher nutritional values of canned or shipped out of season produce. Here are a few of my favorite techniques.

1) Fruit: Wash fruit and drain or pat dry. Prepare the fruit as you'd like to eat it- I usually leave berries whole, pit & peel peaches and plums, peel and halve bananas for example. Spread an even layer on a wax paper lined baking tray. Freeze overnight. Transfer to ziptop bag, remove excess air and seal.

To use: Fruit that has been frozen will have had all water/juice burst the cells. This means that this fruit isn't really suitable for out-of-hand eating. But it is great in cereals (hot or cold!); swirled into yogurt for a nice parfait; mixed into baked goods-- muffins, pancakes, waffles, breads; smoothies (you're just going to blend it up anyways!); jam/preserve making; desserts-- pies, tarts, etc. and you can make fruit leather as well.

2) Corn-- Cook first-- anyway you choose but I have to say I'm partial to grilling! After it cools, use a sharp knife to CAREFULLY cut the kernels off the cob. Put in a baggie and freeze!

3) Broccoli/ cauliflower: cut florets off stem, bag and freeze. I often get a better price buying bagged raw broccoli and freezing it over buying bagged frozen broccoli.

4) Fresh Herbs: rinse, pat dry and prepare as you would normally (de-stem, etc). Lightly macerate in food processor or blender with a SMALL amount of water or olive oil. Something like basil that I know will be going into an Italian sauce I'd use olive oil. Something like cilantro I might use water. You only want enough to keep it from getting pasty. Then fill up an ice cube tray with your mix. Freeze overnight. Pop out cubes and store in baggie.

5) Prepared sauces: A great way to save a lot of seasonal produce is to turn them into the sauce you use the most. Around this time of year, I'm making large batches of pesto-- freezing it in 1/2 cup portions. I also just got finished making about 2 gallons (not exaggerating!) of salsa! For that, I'm treating it like a soup. Pouring it into the gallon baggie, laying it flat and freezing overnight. When we want it, I'll defrost the bag in the fridge and pour it into a jar or container for use. This saves me having to buy a lot of expensive jars or containers AND it saves space by lying flat in the freezer!  Tomorrow I have a big ol' load of apples that I'll be turning into applesauce and doing the exact same thing.

Bag #1, there are 4 others stacked on top!

I'm sure there are more ideas out there and I'd love to hear about them. If you have a great idea to add to our freezer prep list , please let us know in the comments below!

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