Wednesday, May 22, 2013

what we learned in our first year of freezing

We bought a deep freezer last fall. We intended to buy a small chest freezer and put up a few vegetable dishes and sauces for the winter. Naturally, that meant we ended up buying a massive upright model and freezing 80 pounds of tomatoes.

We threw ourselves into freezing. (Canning, while quaint and more energy-efficient, still seems a little too intense for us. Also, botulism.) We made three kinds of soup. We made six kinds of tomato sauce. We made pesto. We froze ratatouille. We experimented with salsa. We oven-roasted tomatoes, a multi-, multi-hour project that heated up our kitchen in the middle of sunny September. We dragged the table into the living room so we could spend the afternoon watching movies while peeling and seeding tomatoes. We were Into It. We were Hardcore. And, like I said, we wound up with 80 lbs. of processed tomatoes in our freezer.

Here's what we learned.

1. Don't put all your frozen eggs in one basket.

Two years ago, Derrick and I fell in love with an heirloom tomato soup recipe. It is truly a stunning soup, brimming with fresh tomato flavor and finished with a swirl of heavy cream. It's gorgeous. It's the perfect wintertime way to celebrate our favorite vegetable (yes, vegetable, science be damned). Last year, we put up a single tub of it in the freezer; we thawed it on our very last spell of cold weather. Readers, one sip of that soup and we were back in August. It was magical. It was like time travel. It also felt a little like cheating, to taste ripe heirlooms when there was still frost on the trees.

It was like summer in a tupperware. And when you live in New England, why the hell wouldn't you want summer in a tupperware? We dreamed of it sustaining us through the long winter, sipping tomato soup while the snow softly fell outside and the fire roared and we wore flannel or sang Christmas songs.

 So we froze two shoeboxes worth of tightly packed quart-size bags filled with tomato soup. And we ate about...6 bags' worth.

 Here's the thing: No one person can eat that much tomato soup. No one person can eat that much of any kind of soup. It's SOUP. Not crack.

 Looking back, I think we were at a loss of what to do with our tomatoes after we bought them. We had a recipe that worked. So we cooked the crap out of that recipe. And we suffered the consequences.

2. Pasta sauce is your friend. Make more of it.

 Neither of us particularly like taking in soup to work. Both of us love taking pasta to work. It's quick. It's easy. It's office-friendly. But we're running low on pasta sauces from the freezer, and lemme tell you, when it's 8:00 on a Sunday and you realize you have nothing to eat for the next week, you are not going to whip up a pot of marinara. Freezer sauces, bless them, are ready in as much time as it takes to turn on some hot water and stick a flat bag under the faucet 'til it thaws. Boom. Homemade lunch. Done. Let's go watch Game of Thrones. 

3. If pasta sauce is your friend, pesto is your red-hot lover. 

If you think you go crazy over soup, you will completely underestimate the power of the scent of basil in the middle of March. You will lose your mind. Plus? Pesto? Just as convenient as freezer pasta sauce, but infinitely more versatile. Put it on pasta! Put it on a sandwich! On couscous! In a wrap! Bean salad! Lentil salad! Pasta salad! Potato salad! Your dog! YOUR FACE!

Too far. Sorry. I just get really worked up about pesto.

Which is why I need to make a heck of a lot more of it this year.

4. Experiment with lunch-friendly food. In small batches.

Last year we put up eighty gallons of soup and one batch of ratatouille. We just thawed the ratatouille two weeks ago for a quick weekday lunch, and it was wonderful. It was a treat: the summer produce isn't in yet, but we were eating basil and tomatoes and summer squash. I'd like to have a lot more summer-fresh, lunch-friendly things and a wide variety of them. That way, next year I'll know what hit the spot, what failed, and what I want a whole lot more of.

5. Don't freeze eggplant (or find a way to do it right).

 Freezer eggplant is spongy and squishy. Enough said. If you have any tips, let me know. Likewise, I haven't had success freezing peppers unless you're using them as a base. Squishy limp peppers = sad.

6. Plan ahead. 

I'd usually end up buying more produce than we needed (with the intent to freeze) and then need to spend hours finding recipes on the internet before I could, y'know, actually make something with it. This year, I'd like to go the market with a list of what we need for freezer-friendly recipes: no waste, no scrambling.

7. Label with dates. 

Follow the rule: First in, first out. Your non-freezer-burnt taste buds will thank you.

9. Oven-dry your tomatoes like they're going out of style.

Yes, oven-dried tomatoes can be a pain (they take several hours on a low, low oven). But these buggers are little godsends: throw them in salads (especially grain salads), in pasta, on pizza, in sauces, or just eat them plain. They have all the convenience of canned or sun-dried, but with better, fresher flavor. Smaller tomatoes work best, and cherry tomatoes taste wonderful, are relatively quick to roast, and are conveniently bite-sized (no prep work needed).

10. Freeze for spring, not for winter. 

To be honest, I didn't feel the need to thaw tomato soup or eat corn in the middle of winter. I was happily munching away on winter foods: long braises, roasted meats, legumes, grains, and as many potatoes as I could fit into my body. But as soon as temperatures rise above 50 degrees I am ready for fresh produce, dammit. Seeing the trees bloom makes me want to eat every green thing in sight. Even the poisonous ones. Especially the poisonous ones.

Having fresh foods in the spring keeps me sane (and saves me the trouble of memorizing the Poison Control Hotline). Yes, there are still a few weeks 'til the farmer's markets open. Yes, even though there are flowers popping up and buds bursting from the trees and you want nothing more than to bury your face in a giant bowl of lettuce, there are no (edible) greens in sight. Comfort yourself with dried tomatoes and frozen vegetable-stuffed ravioli. The time for cuddling bunches of arugula and pea shoots will come. Until then, there's pesto in the freezer. 

Do you freeze or can? What have you learned? Share the love!