The idea of a “freezer pantry” is a natural in cold weather, when we have the time and inclination to hunker down and cook big batches of soups, stews, and other hearty dishes. But this time of year, aside from a complement of ice cubes, gelato, or ice cream and a bottle of vodka, the freezer can be woefully underutilized.
That’s a shame, given that for many of us, the window of seasonality for many local favorite foods is all too brief. Summer’s abundance can be as much of a curse as a blessing, after all, especially if you subscribe to a CSA. For the uninitiated, the acronym stands for “community-supported agriculture”—that is, the farmer-to-you programs that assure shareholders regular deliveries or pickups of whatever happens to be at the peak of ripeness.
I’ve spent my entire adult life covering various facets of food and sustainability issues, and although CSAs, which have been around for more than 25 years, may not be the sexiest copy, they’re one of the biggest success stories for small-scale farmers and consumers. I don’t think the term locavore could have been coined without them: These days, farmers have expanded beyond produce to include meat, poultry, cheeses, eggs, honey, preserved foods, breads, pastas, and flours made from regional non-commodity grains, and more. LocalHarvest has the most comprehensive directory of CSA farms, with more than 4,000 listed in a grassroots database.
Inspired by the CSA model Port Clyde Fresh Catch, in Tenants Harbor, Maine, which I wrote about in this column in 2012, was the country’s first community-supported fishery, and now there are numerous others, including Cape Ann Fresh Catch (Gloucester, Massachusetts), Sea Eagle Seafood Market (Beaufort, South Carolina), and Sitka Salmon Shares (Sitka, Alaska). To find a CSF near you, check out LocalCatch.
So this is all good, right? Well, of course it is—except, perhaps, when you are faced with an overload of ultra-fragile strawberries or raspberries. They’re bursting with ripeness—the aroma is enough to make you faint with desire—but you’re going away for the weekend or deep in the weeds at work. This is where the freezer and a little know-how will save the day, not to mention the berries and other perishables like fish, meats, and bread. A freezer full of all this delicious stuff not only prevents food waste but saves your hard-earned food dollars and makes putting healthy meals on the table a snap. And because frozen foods keep each other cold, tightly packing the freezer contributes to the overall energy efficiency of an appliance that runs 24-7.
I wrote about freezing fresh vegetables a couple of years ago, but it’s worth repeating that for the best flavor and texture, preventing moisture loss in frozen foods is key; otherwise, they can develop the frosty dried-out patches called freezer burn and the resulting off flavors. So use packaging specifically designed for freezing. Tried-and-true options include:
• Freezer-safe or freezer-to-oven-safe stackable glass containers (such as Ball canning jars marked as such, Pyrex, and Anchor Hocking).
• Freezer-safe zip-top bags—major brands such as Ziploc are made of polyethylene or polypropylene, which do not leach carcinogens or endocrine disruptors such as BPA. Fill them while food is still warm and let cool completely in the fridge before laying flat in the freezer. Once they’re frozen solid, you can turn them on end and line them up like books on a shelf. Vacuum packing is another option.
• Heavy-duty freezer paper and aluminum foil, which are ideal for dry, solid foods.
Here are some favorites that no summer freezer should be without.
How to freeze: Pick over and remove any bruised or damaged berries. Rinse the remainder and pat dry thoroughly. If freezing strawberries, remove their hulls. Spread in one layer on a rimmed baking sheet and put in freezer until frozen solid. Transfer to a container or bag.
How to thaw: Let thaw in the fridge, then use as a topping for yogurt or hot or cold cereals, or use in baked goods. Frozen berries can go straight into the blender for smoothies or shakes. Thawed berries won’t be as beautiful or as plump as they were when fresh, but they’ll still be absolutely delicious; come winter, when you’re desperate for a taste of summer, cook thawed berries into a compote and serve over ice cream.
Meat and Poultry
How to freeze: Discard any original plastic wrap or tray (those materials aren’t moisture- or vapor-resistant) and wrap tightly, first in freezer paper, then in foil. Place in a zip-top bag and press to remove as much air as possible. If freezing burgers, chops, fillets, or chicken parts, separate them with a double layer of waxed paper so they won’t stick together and you can remove and thaw just what you need.
How to thaw: To prevent the growth of pathogens, thaw in the refrigerator.
How to freeze: According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, freezing techniques differ based on whether you’re dealing with fat or lean fish, and you can read all about it here. The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension is a gold mine of information as well.
How to thaw: See above links.
How to freeze: Wrap in a double thickness of freezer paper, then wrap in heavy-duty foil or put in a freezer bag. If you make lots of sandwiches, preslice a loaf before freezing so you can pull out just what you need.
How to thaw: A one-pound loaf takes about three hours to thaw at room temperature.
And last, a few tips:
• A roll of masking, painter’s, or freezer tape and a Sharpie in a kitchen drawer make it easy to ID and date the foods you’re freezing.
• Just as you would in your regular pantry, keep a handle on your inventory by putting the newest items in the back and rotating older items to the front.
• When adding new containers to the freezer, leave a few inches of space around them; they’ll freeze faster that way. Once frozen, you can pack them together more tightly.
• Freezing doesn’t kill pathogens in food; it simply stops them from multiplying. The rule of thumb when it comes to freezer food safety is if you can easily scoop your ice cream, your freezer is probably too warm to prevent any pathogens from multiplying. So check the temperature of your freezer: It should be 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
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