Listen to Austin 360 Radio

When your freezer breaks, stop swearing and start cooking

Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A steaming bowl of beef and sausage chili takes the chill off on a cold winter day.

This most definitely was not the way I envisioned kicking off 2021 in the kitchen.

On the first Monday in the new year, I noticed my toes felt kind of wet when I stumbled to the fridge to fetch milk for my morning coffee. Glancing down, I immediately got a sick feeling. Water was drip, drip, dripping out of the bottom of the freezer into a puddle on my wood floor.

I yanked the drawer open to discover that nearly everything inside had started to thaw. Clearly broken, the freezer was a disaster of epic proportions.

As a food writer, I always have countless ingredients on hand that can be whipped up into something tasty on a moment's notice. When the pandemic curtailed my daily trips to the grocery store in 2020, my fridge and freezer got fuller still.

According to the FDA, when frozen food gets above 40 degrees for more than two hours, it enters the "danger zone" where bacteria can rapidly multiply and lead to foodborne illnesses like salmonella and listeria. A food can only be cooked or refrozen if it still contains ice crystals or registers below 40 degrees.

Expletives flew as I pulled bags, Tupperware containers and foil-wrapped packages out of the freezer and threw them onto the counter to assess the damage.

Along with several zip-close bags of garden vegetables, the wreckage included half-used boxes of phyllo and puff pastry dough, several rounds of homemade pie dough, plastic containers of leftover chicken curry and homemade tomato sauce, and raspberries I'd picked by hand in September.

Then there was the meat — so much meat — including at least four different kinds of sausage. All I could see through my tears was dollar signs, especially because the floorboards under the fridge were starting to warp.

What do you do when your freezer breaks and you've suddenly got a ton of half-frozen food on your hands? After you stop swearing and determine what's salvageable, you start cooking.

Fresh cod is poached in lemon-scented water and then flaked so it can be formed into cakes bound with eggs, sauteed veggies, Old Bay seasoning and crushed Ritz crackers.

The USDA website states that a full freezer can hold for two days because the food will act like a big block of ice. Lucky for me, my freezer not only was packed but the digital thermometer still read 40 degrees. Many items in this cold depository of tasty leftovers and yet-to-be-cooked frozen ingredients — especially those in the bottom layer — were mostly still frozen.

While I was able to stuff a few items into a second freezer in the basement, an embarrassing (and heartbreaking) amount of food ended up either in a garbage bag or in the compost. (Actually, two bags because the first one got too heavy.) If it felt even a little mushy, or I couldn't remember what it was or when it got there, I followed the USDA's advice of "When in Doubt, Throw It Out!"

Then, after calling my plumber and scanning Home Depot's website for the best sale on refrigerator/freezers, I put on my thinking cap and came up with a few easy recipes. Because truth be told, I didn't really feel much like cooking.

A half-dozen hamburgers and a couple of links of sweet Italian sausage went into a Dutch oven with a bag of frozen homegrown plum tomatoes, diced peppers and onion, chili powder and a bottle of leftover holiday beer to create a batch of chili. A package of bacon, meanwhile, got fried and then was tossed with shredded cheese, green onion and spices to make a filling for flaky puff pastry pinwheels.

Finally, a pound of cod I had planned on frying in beer batter for Baja-style tacos went instead into a simmering bath of lemon-scented water. Once poached, the delicate flakes were folded into a creamy mix of mayo, Dijon mustard, spices and Ritz cracker crumbs and then divided into fat patties. After being chilled in the fridge, they were fried and placed on a bed of lightly dressed salad greens. Talk about an elegant, if unexpected, supper!

Quick and super-easy, these cheese and bacon pinwheels are made with puff pastry dough.

It was quite a day. I'd been meaning to clean out my freezer for months, maybe years, so I will finally start the year fresh and hopefully more organized.

There was also a pair of airline-size bottles of Bombay gin, under a bag of kaffir lime leaves, in the bowels of my freezer. Now if there wasn't still a pandemic raging, I'd invite you over for a martini.

Beef and Sausage Chili

I added ground beef, sweet Italian sausage and a half-gallon bag of homegrown plum tomatoes, which I thawed and crushed, from my broken freezer to the chili along with a variety of chili powders and a bit of cider vinegar for extra tang.

— Gretchen McKay

2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil

1 large sweet or yellow onion, diced

2 bell peppers, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound ground beef

3 sweet or hot Italian sausage, casings removed

3 to 4 tablespoons chili powder, or to taste

1 tablespoon cumin, or to taste

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon oregano

Dash or two of cider vinegar

12 ounces of beef broth or beer

3 1/2 cups crushed plum tomatoes

Shredded Mexican-blend or cheddar cheese, minced green onion and pickled jalapeno slices, for serving

Add the oil to a large Dutch oven or soup pot and place it over medium-high heat. Heat to a sizzle. Add the onion and peppers and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring occasionally until vegetables are soft and onion is translucent. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds, until fragrant.

Add the ground beef and sausage to the pot, breaking the meat apart with a wooden spoon. Cook for 6 or 7 minutes until the meat is browned, stirring occasionally.

Add the chili powder, cumin, a generous pinch of salt, a good grind of pepper and oregano. Stir until well combined.

Add vinegar, broth or beer, crushed tomatoes and stir well. Bring the chili to a low boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer the chili, uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste, and add additional chili powder, cumin or salt if needed. Cook for at least another 30 minutes.

Serve hot in bowls, topped with grated cheese, minced onion and pickled jalapeno. Serves 8.

— Gretchen McKay

Cod Cakes

Cod is a bit pricey, and so no way was I going to allow it to go to waste in the dastardly Broken Freezer Event of 2021. I poached the fillets in lemon-infused water and then mixed them with mayo, Dijon mustard, spices and buttery Ritz cracker crumbs.

The cod cake could be packed into a sandwich, but the delicate patty is so full of flavor so why lose it in bread? Serve it with a lightly dressed green salad instead.

— Gretchen McKay

4 peppercorns

1 lemon, cut into eighths

1 pound cod fillets or other white flaky fish

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 ribs celery, trimmed, peeled and diced

1 medium-size yellow onion, peeled and diced

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 heaping tablespoon mayonnaise, homemade or store-bought

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

2 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning, Lawry's Seasoned Salt or 1 teaspoon paprika and 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

3/4 "sleeve" crushed Ritz crackers (about 1 cup)

1/4 cup neutral oil, like canola

Fill a shallow, wide pan with high sides with about an inch of water and set it over high heat.

Add the peppercorns and 1 section of the lemon to the water and allow it to come to a bare simmer. Place the fish into this poaching liquid and cook, barely simmering, until the flesh has just begun to whiten all the way through, approximately 6 to 8 minutes. Using a wide spatula, carefully remove the fish from the water and set aside to cool.

Empty the pan, and return it to the stove over medium-high heat. Add the butter, and allow it to melt, swirling it around the pan. When the butter foams, add the celery, onions and garlic and sauté, stirring often, until the vegetables soften and the onions turn translucent. Then transfer them to a large bowl.

In a small bowl, mix together the mayonnaise, mustard, eggs, salt, pepper and seasoning salt (or paprika and hot pepper flakes). Add mixture to the bowl with the sautéed vegetables. Add crushed crackers and stir to combine.

Flake the cooked fish into the binding sauce carefully, keeping the flakes as whole as you can manage, then gather them into small balls, and form them into patties, 4 to 6 for a main course, 6 to 8 for an appetizer. Place them on a sheet pan or platter, cover loosely with plastic wrap and transfer them to the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to set.

Set a large sauté pan over high heat and add to it the neutral oil. When the oil is shimmering, remove the fish cakes from the refrigerator, and carefully sauté the patties until they are golden brown, approximately 4 to 5 minutes a side. Work in batches if necessary. (A small smear of mayonnaise on the exterior of the patties will give them a crisp crust.) Serve them alone or with greens dressed in a lemony vinaigrette, with the remaining wedges of lemon. Serves 6.

— Adapted from NYT.com

Cheese and Bacon Pinwheels

These tasty appetizers come together in a flash, and you can use whatever grated cheese you have in your fridge. I added crumbled bacon, but you could also use diced ham or pepperoni, chopped sun-dried tomatoes or any other tasty nibble you want to use up.

— Gretchen McKay

1/2 package puff pastry sheets

1 egg

1 tablespoon water

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

4 slices cooked bacon, crumbled

3 green onions, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Pinch of salt

Thaw pastry sheet at room temperature, about 30 minutes or until it is easy to handle.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking pan with parchment paper.

Stir egg and water together in small bowl to create a wash. In another bowl, mix together cheeses, bacon crumbles, green onion, garlic powder and salt.

Unfold the pastry sheet onto a lightly floured surface and lightly roll with rolling pin to remove any creases. Brush egg mixture on top of dough, and then spread the cheese mixture evenly over the top of dough.

Starting at the short end, roll up dough like a jelly roll. Cut into 16 slices. Lay slices flat on the prepared baking sheet, and brush with egg mixture.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

— Adapted from Pepperidgefarm.com