Flash in the Pan 

Don't let the freezer burn

Freezers are good when they're full of good food. But they're expensive and wasteful when full of empty space. That's because cold air escapes every time a freezer is opened, allowing warm air to sneak in. That warm air must be cooled. If the freezer is packed with food rather than air, there won't be as much room for warm air to invade. Whatever warmth does slip in from outside will be cooled by the various frozen solids in the freezer, thus lightening the load on the freezer's motor and lengthening its life.

I mention this now because many freezers are at their emptiest in summertime—especially the active freezers of home preservers, locavores and all other species of hands-on foodie.

A well-managed freezer gets eaten through every year. There's no point in letting food get old in there. A freezer slows the rate of decay, sometimes impressively, but won't stop it. Stay aware of what's in your freezer. Keep it clean. Keep it organized. Eat through it every year so it's nearly empty by summer, which conveniently is when produce starts piling up in quantities worth freezing.

So it's worth remembering, as we roll in the clover patches of summertime, that precious opportunities to chip away at freezer void are quickly passing us by, like summer itself.

While the autumn harvest can produce an overwhelming rush of food, the bounty of summer presents itself at a tempo that's easier to stay on top of. You can put away spinach one week, followed by peas and strawberries the next, then perhaps cherries after that. These can be layered in the empty freezer at a leisurely pace.

It's worth learning the basics of blanching and freezing food. The freezer is a gentle home-economics teacher that will never kill you, like canned goods might. The worst that can happen in the freezer is that something tastes bad or is discolored or mushy.

I recently made a big purchase of whole wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, which my local supermarket was able to order for me at a scandalous price. I bought three fish and cut them into fat steaks, which I vacuum sealed and froze.

I highly recommend a vacuum sealer. It's a bit of an investment, but it can streamline your freezing operation and, most importantly, allow you to freeze food in durable, airtight packaging.

With the right skills and equipment, you can become a well-rounded opportunivore, ready for action at a moment's notice. Maybe there's good basil at a good price at the farmers' market and you want to stash some pesto into the freezer. Maybe there's a head of broccoli in your fridge that you won't be getting to soon. Before that broccoli gets soft, take it apart into florets, then blanch and freeze them. Once you get the hang of it, freezing can be an easy side project that you can bang out while cooking dinner.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

My flaming red chunks of vacuum-sealed salmon, meanwhile, are doing a great job helping the freezer run more efficiently this summer. And they're so pretty to look at I almost hate to eat them. But I owe it to that salmon—some of the cleanest and sweetest fish I've tasted—to eat it while it's awesome. It will be gone by the new year.

Some freezers are filled with produce personally wrested from the earth or wrestled from the bush, but even if you aren't the hunting or homesteading type, there are other roads to a full freezer, from the roadside stand to green-thumb neighbors to the farmers' market to the local grocery. Strike wherever you find good quality at a good price. If your friends offer zucchini, grate and freeze it for winter zucchini bread. If there's a sale on cherries, buy a box. If there's an unpicked fruit tree in your neighborhood, ask the owners for permission to pick it.

Making freezer jam is one option with fruit. Jam is typically found in the pantry, not the freezer, and there's nothing wrong with canning jam for room-temperature storage. But since fruit and berries are ripe when the freezer is at its emptiest, I freeze them. It's less hassle than canning and doesn't heat up the kitchen.

Freezer jams are some of the tastiest there are, because you can get away with undercooking the fruit. But even freezer jam is kind of a pain, and I've got an easier way to get high-quality fruit into the freezer quickly, by making a simple sauce.

This sauce can be made with almost any fruit. Lately, I've been using apricots, cherries, gooseberries and strawberries for the sauce, because they're available.

Fruit sauce

Clean your fruit in a big tub of water. Put it in a heavy-bottomed pot with a few inches of water and cook the mixture on medium heat. When it's a soft bubbling mess, turn it off and let it cool. Then run it through a food mill or baby food maker, which removes the pits and purees the flesh and skin.

Pour the puree into whatever you want to freeze it in. I use clean glass jars and fill them about 80 percent full to leave room for expansion, as the sauce is mostly water, which expands when it freezes.

These jars of sauce don't just keep the freezer cold all summer, they keep humans cool, too. In the heat of summer, my family can go through a pint jar a day, mixing the thawed contents with water—sometimes bubbly water—and ice. Or, we'll eat it half-thawed, as a kind of almost sherbet.

If you anticipate that it will be awhile before your freezer is full, you could put some jugs of water (partially filled) in there to save energy. Or fill the freezer with Hungry-Man salisbury steak dinners—you know you want to.

And those of you who are truly feeling the freezer love, those for whom the freezer is an integral part of your annual culinary rhythm, don't let summer get away without freezing your share of tasty souvenirs.

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