Freeze Away

Speaking of away, I should acknowledge that I’ve been there recently. “Away,” I mean. I’ve been working a lot, traveling some, and both are, unfortunately, connected. While I don’t mind working so much, I do have issued with the “away” part, both because I am a nervous flier and because I really don’t like to be away from home very much.

Which I know is tremendously uncool.

Don’t get me wrong – I can enjoy travel. And I do think it’s essential to becoming a more informed, empathetic, well-rounded person. However, I have come to realize that I am happiest when at home, and every trip, no matter how productive or enlightening, is just a way station in the process to get back home again.

This last week’s travel was a work trip. To Reno. And apologies to anyone from Reno who enjoys and knows how to make the most out of their home, but personally, I do not wish to return to a land of cars, strip malls, gas station slot machines, dirt and rocks. Okay, fine, I know all about the diversity of high desert ecology and the wild mustang herds were pretty cool and I’m sure Lake Tahoe has something to offer, but overall? Reno, Nevada is Armpit USA and for once in my life, I was thrilled to board a plane out of there.

So. Sorry, Renoans. Or Renoites. You know what, I don’t really give a shit.

As happy as I was to get home, one of the downsides of this is realizing that there’s nothing left in the fridge after you’ve spent the past week eating in sub-par restaurants in a city where no one knows how to use Yelp properly (or, um, just has horrific taste). Sure, you could eat a bowl of cereal if the milk’s still good and there’s probably enough ingredients for grilled cheese, but when you’ve been away, you want a meal. A real one. Something to scoop and scrape from a bowl, something made with your own hands, something that’s warm and delicious and will hopefully reduce the weird and disgusting bloat you’ve acquired along with dry desert nosebleeds.

Enter the freezer meal. I recently/not-so-recently-because-I’m-a-lazy-writer-these-days wrote a post about cooking freezer meals for friends who just became parents for the first time. The idea was to set them up with ready-made foods that didn’t require a shopping trip plus and hour or more in the kitchen. Just take whatever out of the freezer in the morning, and heat the thawed product for dinner. Easy enough, especially when the only other thing your brain has room to contain is how to care for the newborn who now lives in your house.

Freezer meals are also great for non-parents after long workdays, kitchen creativity droughts, or spates of travel. They’re time-saving, economical, and in some cases, can feel like a great big hug from your Past Self when your Future Self is tired, dehydrated, and just can’t cope with another trip to the grocery store where they will wander, bewildered, through aisles of too much selection and not enough to actually eat.

So what to freeze? Casseroles. Soups. Biscuit, cookie, and scone dough. Sauces. Cuts of meat, packages of vegetables, and little bags of rice and grains to even out all of the fries you’ve been consuming lately. And when you’ve been eating like a garbage person for the past several days, that lovingly preserved and warmed bowl of chicken-parmesan-and-kale meatballs in a lemony broth of carrot, onion, celery and fennel served with a little bit of ditalini or orzo is like a gift for your body and brain.

And then, the next day, when you wake up and realize you’re an adult and can reasonably eat cookies for breakfast if you damn well please, you can preheat your oven to 350 and pop in those frozen balls of dark chocolate, cocoa nib, and earl grey cookies you practically invented (or just adapted from this recipe, which is, with a few tweaks of my own, about the best basic cookie dough recipe I’ve ever found).

These gifts to yourself, this benevolent foresight for when you are hungry, sick or tired, are the most satisfying “life hacks” you can experience. They will give you a reason to come home again, and to tackle the things that may have been neglected while you were away (seriously, boyfriends, is it so hard to do a load of dishes between the beer drinking and Tombstone pizza-eating?).

They may even give you the strength to sit down and write again. So get to freezing.

Fridge Soup

Recently, Clotilde over at Chocolate and Zucchini – perhaps the very first food blog I ever read, something like 10 years ago – wrote a post about what she calls “Clean the Fridge Soup.” The idea is to use up vegetables and other ingredients that have gone past their prime (no glazing them in expensive butter and serving them alongside a breathtakingly expensive roast to the Queen, guys) but have not completely turned to shit (duh).

I found the post during a rare Sunday food blog scan, and was delighted to see something so relevant, as I’d already planned a sort of Clean the Fridge Soup for myself this week.

fridge soup - menu pic

My Clean the Fridge Soup was planned around a bag of carrots I got in our CSA box three weeks ago. Yep. Three weeks ago. But carrots are hardy, okay, and if they’re stored properly, they’ll keep for ages. Even so, I was getting antsy with them just sitting on the bottom shelf and decided that I was going to have to do something about them.

Luckily, I had to make chicken stock. Let me be more specific: I had to get rid of the chicken carcasses in the freezer because my boyfriend was complaining about them. Is that better? He’s right, anyway, we’re tight on room and until we drop $300 on a chest freezer, I simply cannot cram any more bones in there when we so desperately need the room for Trader Joe’s Cookie Butter ice cream, which I will now refer to exclusively as “the love of my life.” Sorry, boyfriend.

So I planned a chicken stock Sunday, and because I am resourceful, I decided to use some of the finished stock (ahem, not put it back into the freezer) to make dinner the next night, which would also take care of the carrots I needed to use, and by “use” I mean “roast.” Which is really one of the top 5 secret ingredients of all great soups, if a technique can be an ingredient. Roast what you can, develop those deep flavors and caramelized surfaces, and then just puree the shit out of them later.

Also into the roasting pan went some red bell peppers and fennel, and eventually all of that went into a pot with some mirepoix, stock, tomato paste and warm spices like paprika and cayenne, and then everything got zizzed in my food processor (which I initially filled too high, resulting in a minor mess) and then went back into the pot and finished with a little bit of heavy cream (expensive, organic and local – another one of the top 5 secret ingredients).

So it was basically a grownup version of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, which is why it made infinite sense to serve it for dinner alongside grilled cheese sandwiches (spread mayo on the outside of the bread instead of butter, YOU’RE WELCOME EVERYONE). And why, upon finishing his portion, my boyfriend stood up and said “I could eat a MOUNTAIN of that.”

And, later this week, the dregs of it will become the base for a kind of cheater romesco sauce to drizzle over a bowl of chicken sausage, roasted broccoli, and brown rice. (A still shortcut-ish but slightly realer and, frankly, outstanding romesco sauce can be found here.)

Which is exactly what I’ll need in the week before Christmas, because as I implied earlier, if it’s not easy enough to make and comforting enough for me to fold my weepy old bones around a bowl of it and feel a tiny bit better about what I’m doing with my life, I am just not fucking interested.