Thrift is in. Budgeting is cool. Cleaning out your freezer? That's still something you'd rather not do until you move or buy a new one.
For most people, including me, the freezer is the appliance version of the kitchen drawer full of the odds and ends you don't know what to do with but don't want to throw away. There's a lot of useful stuff — leftover pie dough, almonds and walnuts, half a brisket from a local farm — but it's in such a precarious jumble that I mostly pretend none of it's there.
It turns out the freezer is a pretty useful tool for saving money on food and coming up with better meals to show for it.
In "Can I Freeze It?" (William Morrow, 2007), Susie Theodorou offers up the freezer as a tool to transform planned leftovers into extra meals. Cook an extra chicken or a double batch of sauce and turn the excess into a different dish — twice the meals for almost the same amount of work.
To begin: Clean out and organize your freezer. Wipe down surfaces with a warm water-and-vinegar solution, but make sure that it's dry before turning the temperature down. Freezers function best when about three-quarters full, so add a couple of bags of ice if yours is suddenly empty.
Keep a roll of masking tape and a permanent marker tied to a magnet on the freezer. Use a notepad, a small dry-erase board or a printed list to keep track of what's in the freezer. This way you don't have to open the freezer door to assess what's inside.
The idea of freezing leftover ingredients and dishes is easy to grasp, but the real trick is knowing what to put in your freezer to ease future meal planning. Don't freeze small amounts of ingredients that you almost never use, because odds are they'll just take up space in your freezer until the next time it's cleaned out. Instead, plan to use the ingredient as soon as possible. Do freeze leftover stock, canned beans or tomatoes, cooked beans and grains, or whatever easily freezable items you consider staples but don't have an immediate plan to use. It's better to do a little extra defrosting than to constantly throw out moldy tomatoes or sour stock you forgot you had.
Freezer burn is not inevitable. The right storage containers and techniques will go a long way toward preventing it. The goal is to minimize exposure to air and moisture.
When possible, store items in reusable containers such as freezer-safe glass, ceramic or plastic. Make sure you know whether your containers can go straight from the freezer into the oven or microwave, or whether they need to defrost a little at room temperature first. (Pyrex, for example, needs to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before going into a hot oven, or it could break.)
Good-quality glass and ceramic containers often can be found at garage sales, outlet stores and online for reasonable prices.
For bread, fruits and vegetables, sauces and stews, keep freezer-safe plastic wrap, heavy-duty foil and freezer-safe resealable bags on hand. Create a flat space in your freezer that can fit a baking sheet for individually quick-freezing berries, sliced fruit, ravioli and more. Simply place the items you want to freeze on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, freeze for a few hours (until the items are hard to the touch) and then store in resealable bags.
Most vegetables benefit from blanching (immersing in boiling water for 30 seconds to a few minutes, then plunging into ice water to stop the cooking process) before freezing. You can also freeze fruit and vegetable purees, soups, sauces and stews in plastic bags. Freezing in smaller portions gives you more flexibility about how and when to use them.
Ready-for-the Grill Burgers and Sliders
8 slices cooked bacon, chopped fine
1 1/2 lbs. 90 percent lean ground beef
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
4 tsp. yellow mustard
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
Break the beef into small pieces in a bowl, then add the cooked bacon, cheese, mustard, Worcestershire, salt and pepper. Using your hands, lightly knead the mixture until combined. Divide the meat into 4 equal portions (for regular size burgers) or into 12 equal portions (for sliders), then form each into a loose ball and gently flatten into a 1-inch patty. Wrap in plastic wrap or foil and place in airtight plastic resealable bags to freeze.
Sliders can go straight onto the grill; burgers should be defrosted in the fridge for six to eight hours.
After grilling, place burgers on toasted rolls and garnish as desired.
Ranch All-in-One Burgers: Omit bacon, cheddar, mustard and Worcestershire. Add 2/3 cup crumbled blue cheese, 2 minced garlic cloves and 4 tsp. powdered ranch dressing mix (from a packet) to the burger mixture.
Tex-Mex All-in-One Burgers: Omit bacon, cheddar, mustard and Worcestershire, salt and pepper. Add 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese, 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, 4 tsp. minced canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce and 4 tsp. taco seasoning (from a packet) to the mixture.
Italian All-in-One Burgers: Omit bacon, cheddar, mustard and Worcestershire. Add 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil, 2 minced garlic cloves and 4 tsp. Dijon mustard to the mix.
Makes 4 burgers or 12 sliders (depending on how small you make them).
— Gretchen McKay
Bittersweet Chocolate-Bourbon Pops
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 1/2 oz. bittersweet chocolate (70 percent to 72 percent), chopped
2 Tbsp. Dutch processed cocoa powder
1/8 tsp. table salt
2 Tbsp. good-quality bourbon (such as Knob Creek)
Put the sugar, chocolate, cocoa powder, salt and 2 cups water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly.
Transfer to a 4-cup glass measure (or any container with a spout for easy pouring). Let cool at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Stir in the bourbon and divide the mixture among eight 3-ounce pop molds or wax-lined paper cups. Freeze until just set, about 3 hours.
Insert craft sticks and freeze until completely set, about 4 hours more. When ready to serve, unmold or peel off the paper cups. The pops can be frozen for up to 3 days. Makes 8 pops.
— From 'Fine Cooking,' No. 100, August/September issue
Jiaozi (Savory Boiled Dumplings)
Making your own dumpling wrappers is a great project, but for fast and easy dumplings, use store-bought wrappers. Once you've mastered filling these, try making and rolling your own wrappers.
— China Millman
75 store-bought wonton wrappers
Leek and pork filling
1 small leek
1/4 lb. (1/2 cup) ground pork (or ground lamb)
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. roasted sesame oil
Carrot and pork filling
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut in half
1/4 pound (1/2 cup) ground pork (or ground lamb)
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. soy sauce
/2 tsp. roasted sesame oil
Soy-vinegar dipping sauce
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Jinjiang (black rice) vinegar or rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. fine ginger shreds
For the leek filling, trim off the tough root end of the leek and the tough ends of the leaves. Cut lengthwise into quarters, then thinly slice. Wash in several changes of water, lifting out the leeks each time before disposing of the water to eliminate any grit.
Add the remaining filling ingredients to the leeks and stir with a fork, breaking up any lumps in the meat and blending the ingredients well. Set aside.
For the carrot filling, bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add the carrot and parboil for about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and refresh under cold water (save the cooking water to use in soup, if you like). Cut the carrot into small dice. Measure out 1/2 cup, and place in a medium bowl. Save carrot scraps for another use.
Add the remaining filling ingredients to the carrot and blend together with a fork. Set aside. The fillings can be prepared as long as 12 hours ahead and stored covered in the refrigerator.
To fill the dumplings, place a scant 1 1/2 tsp. of one of the fillings on a wrapper, fold the dough over to make a half-moon shape, and pinch the edges closed (if necessary, moisten one edge lightly before pinching). Set the shaped dumplings on a baking sheet lined with wax or parchment paper and dusted with flour. Freeze for one to two hours (until hard to the touch), then store in freezer-safe resealable bags.
To cook, bring a stockpot of water to a vigorous boil. Toss in 10 dumplings and watch as the water comes back to a boil. They will take about 3 minutes to cook through. Serve hot with bowls of dipping sauce on the side. Makes 64 dumplings, 32 each with each filling.
— Adapted from 'Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China' by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan, 2008)
2 Tbsp. oil
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup hot water
1 beef bouillon cube
16 oz. tomato sauce
1-2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cumin
1/2 cup cold water
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
Heat oil over low heat in large saucepan. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add water, bouillon cube, tomato sauce, chili powder, sugar, salt and cumin and simmer for 10 minutes. Add more chili powder to taste. In separate bowl, add cornstarch to cold water and stir well. Slowly add to enchilada sauce, and stir until well mixed. Makes about 2 cups of sauce.
— Gretchen McKay