Despite my outward 30-something appearance, deep inside my chest beats the heart of an old Jewish grandmother. I want to make my friends sweaters when it's getting cold, or throw them parades when they've mastered some feat. But mostly, I want to feed them. Especially when they need a little help.
Over the past few years, I've brought dozens of meals to friends who are nursing new babies or broken bones. And I've learned a few things about how to help when it comes to feeding people in need — specifically, that an extra meal or two for the freezer can be the best gift of all.
A fresh hot meal is a thing of beauty when you're having a tough go of things, and can literally bring tears to people's eyes. But a full freezer — that's money in the bank. It's the security of knowing that you'll be taken care of in the future, that you don't have to figure out how to manage everything by the time your friends give up the daily check-in. It's an amazing gift to those having a rough patch — heck, it's even a great gift to yourself when you know that busier times are ahead. You've got to do it right, though.
As with any gift, it's best to check in and make sure you know what would be appreciated. Life events and personal tastes are all different — some nursing mothers avoid onions or spices, while others happily crave a good chili burrito. Post-surgical friends might crave mac-and-cheese for a taste of comfort, or they may prefer lean meats and fiber to rebuild muscle and help things move along. A quick query lets you know how best to help.
The freezer also has its own set of limitations. Dairy sauces can break, flavors become muted, and ice crystals tear through vegetable cell walls, leaving your thawed meals a soggy mess. However, the right recipes can easily work within these restrictions.
Soups are always an easy win — no worries about consistency suffering when it's already a liquidy mass. And smooth simmer sauces — complex Indian curries, tangy North African olive-studded tomato purees or Spanish bread-thickened picadas — can easily be thawed to turn any assortment of fresh vegetables and protein into an insta-meal.
The all-in-one casserole is an easy freezer offering — and especially appreciated if you can add some healthy interest. Tucking an assortment of greens (and oranges and purples) into a frozen meal helps friends get the nutrition they need, even when they don't have the time to fuss with their own produce.
Going for mac-n-cheese? Replace a portion of the noodles with broccoli or cauliflower to give an all-in-one balanced meal. (Vegetables can be simmered with the noodles for the final minute of cooking, or, for a richer flavor, roasted until lightly caramelized and then stirred into the casserole.) Zucchini, corn and spinach easily round out a tray of enchiladas, and quiches can be just as much chard as custard.
Unfortunately, for many cooks, soups and casseroles translate to heavy flavors. But they don't have to. Perk up offerings with punches of lemon and fresh herbs (the freezer will tame things a bit, but you'll still get some of the fresh taste), or look to cuisines that feature big, unexpected flavors. Sometimes life events put us off our appetites (even when we know we need to keep up our strength), and it's nice to have food that keeps you reaching for the next bite.
Packaging and labeling are key — it can be hard to remember what's in that tucked-away freezer bag even in the best of times, let alone when you're reeling from a big life change. Wrap meals in the appropriate foil or freezer bags so that your friends don't have to, and clearly label them with what's inside. Even if it seems fairly self-evident, including thawing, reheating and serving instructions on the package can be hugely appreciated.
Of course, as with almost any event involving shared meals, it's about so much more than the food. A freezer full of nicely packaged, healthy meals lets your friends know that they'll be able to have the dinners they need. It also reminds them that they have a community out there willing to care for them and feed them, no matter what they might be hungry for.
Recipe: Indian Dal With Spinach
This spinach-filled lentil dish is low fat, high protein and just plain delicious. I like to deliver frozen quarts of dal with frozen packages of flatbread (Indian naan is best, but pita works in a pinch), for a complete ready-to-go dish.
Makes 3 quarts cooked dal
3 cups dried red lentils
2 teaspoons turmeric
6 cloves garlic, minced
2-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
2 small onions, diced
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coriander
1 1/2 tablespoons coarse salt
2 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons high-heat oil, such as grapeseed, canola or coconut
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional)*
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 dozen fresh curry leaves**
1 small bunch cilantro, washed and roughly chopped
2 bunches spinach, washed and chopped
Juice of 2 limes
In a large pot, place lentils and turmeric along with 2 quarts of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat until it's a healthy simmer. Partially cover and simmer 45 minutes, until the dal is cooked and beginning to break down.
Add garlic, ginger, onions, cayenne, coriander, salt, sugar and tomatoes. Simmer until dal has broken down further to form a smooth puree — this will take about 20 minutes, but it doesn't hurt to cook longer. Add more water if needed to keep things soupy (or, conversely, remove lid if too thin and needs to evaporate).
When dal is done to your liking, in a small saucepan with a lid, heat oil over high heat. Add mustard, fenugreek and cumin seeds and curry leaves, cover and cook until seeds pop. Dump seeds, leaves and oil into dal and stir to combine. Add cilantro, spinach and lime juice, stir and cook for a few minutes to wilt spinach and blend flavors. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
Allow to cool, then package into freezer containers. To serve, thaw overnight in refrigerator if you remember, or just cook directly on stovetop or microwave until thawed and heated through. Serve with rice or naan, along with a dollop of plain yogurt if desired.
* Available at Indian markets or well-stocked natural markets
** Available at Indian or Asian grocery markets, either in the produce section or freezer (if using frozen, use 3 dozen)
This spinach pie is a nice alternative to the usual casserole. It's creamy with cottage cheese and feta, but snappy with fresh dill and a mountain of healthy spinach (the egg and starch help bind any excess liquid given off by the fresh vegetables). I often double this recipe, to have one to share and one to keep.
Makes one 9-inch-by-13-inch casserole dish
2 cups cottage cheese
3/4 pound feta cheese (I favor creamy feta, such as French or Israeli)
1 small bunch fresh dill, chopped (a scant 1/4 cup)
1/4 red or yellow onion, or 1/2 bunch scallion, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large egg
2 bunches spinach (1, if it's large), washed, dried and roughly chopped (including stems is fine)
2 tablespoons cracked-grain hot cereal (farina, cream of rice, etc.)
1/2 package phyllo dough, thawed
Olive oil, as needed (about 1/3 cup)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together cottage cheese, feta, dill and onion. Season to taste with salt and pepper (you want it somewhat strongly seasoned, since it'll be mixed with the spinach, but be careful as the feta will add a lot of salt). Mix in the egg.
Add spinach, by handfuls, until the mixture is somewhat well-distributed (it may seem like a mountain of spinach, but it will cook down).
Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish with olive oil. Open package of phyllo, making sure to keep any unused portion covered with a dishtowel so it doesn't dry out. In the casserole dish, lay down 2 sheets then drizzle with olive oil. Spread the oil out evenly over the sheet, using a pastry brush, wadded-up bit of waxed paper or whatever you have. Repeat the process until you have 5 to 6 sheets down.
Lightly sprinkle the farina (or its equivalent) over the top sheet (this will absorb excess liquid given off by the spinach, and prevent it from leaving bottom phyllo soggy). Spread spinach-cheese mixture over top. Lay down another 5 to 6 sheets phyllo on top, oiling between every 2 layers. Oil the top layer, and cut a few vents through to the filling, to allow it to bubble up.
Bake until top is lightly browned and filling is bubbling, about 45 minutes.
If serving right away, remove from oven and let cool slightly.
For freezer, let tray cool then transfer to the refrigerator until totally chilled and firmed up (you can leave it overnight). Cut into serving-sized squares and package in freezer containers, foil or freezer bags. To reheat, transfer from freezer to a single layer on a sheet pan and reheat in standard or toaster oven at 350 degrees until bubbling and heated through. You can also reheat in microwave until warmed — the phyllo won't be as crisp, but it'll still be delicious.
Recipe: Thai-Marinated Skewers
The hot-sour-salty-sweet balance of Southeast Asian flavors is a welcome antidote to usual freezer fare (especially in warmer months). By including a little package of dipping sauce (and, if you want, a bag of sticky rice for the pantry), you provide all that's needed for a perfect Thai meal. This recipe makes a large portion of skewers, so you can grill some now, and leave some for future meals. To make sure your skewers fit in the freezer bags, you'll need either large bags or small skewers. And make sure the ends of the skewers don't poke through the bags — wrap the points in foil if needed.
Makes 4 meals for 4 people
4 pounds chicken, pork or mock meat (cut into bite-sized cubes), or shrimp (either peeled or slit down the back)
Stems from 1 bunch cilantro (if they have roots attached, wash and scrape and include them as well), roughly chopped
8 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 cup fish sauce
Juice of 5 limes
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons red pepper flakes, according to taste
2 shallots, halved and thinly sliced
1 handful cilantro, finely chopped
For the marinade, in a blender, mix all ingredients and blitz until pureed (in traditional Thai cooking, you would pound the ingredients in a mortar and pestle, but I find that the blender makes a less-authentic-yet-easy substitute). Thread the meat onto the skewers, then place a meal's worth of skewers in a freezer bag, and pour in enough marinade to coat. Squeeze out excess air, seal and freeze. If you'd like to make some to enjoy that night, place in the refrigerator to marinate for at least an hour, then cook until done using guidelines below.
Mix together all the dipping sauce ingredients and taste to adjust seasonings as needed. Divide into 4 small containers and freeze.
To serve, thaw meat and dipping sauce overnight in refrigerator. Heat a grill or preheat oven to 450 degrees. Cook until done, about 10 to 15 minutes on the grill and 15 to 20 minutes in oven, basting midway through with any remaining marinade. Serve with dipping sauce and sticky rice, if desired.
Recipe: Spanish Simmer Sauce
This recipe is adapted from the "burned garlic sauce" in Paula Wolfert's amazing cookbook The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (John Wiley and Sons 2003). Using a trick from Catalan cooking, it uses well-caramelized (not, in fact, burned) garlic as the basis of a rich sauce that is thickened with similarly browned almonds and bread, then sparked with a splash of tomato and sherry-enriched stock. Wolfert features this sauce as the base of a dish of monkfish and clams, but I've given it to friends who have used it for a landing pad for almost everything: potatoes, chicken thighs, green beans, cod, chickpeas, cauliflower, and any combination of the above.
Makes 4 pints
1/2 cup olive oil, divided
1/3 cup almonds
4 thick slices leftover bread
Cloves from 4 heads garlic (about 40 cloves), peeled and thickly sliced (this is a fine time to seek out pre-peeled garlic cloves)
4 fresh tomatoes, grated, or 2/3 cup tomato puree
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 handful parsley, chopped
2 quarts stock (chicken, seafood or vegetable)
In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat 1/4 cup oil over a medium heat. Add almonds, stirring often, until they darken and become fragrant, about 3 minutes. Remove and transfer to a blender. Add bread and fry a few minutes on each side until it also becomes golden. Remove and add to the almonds. Add remaining oil (to replace what the bread has soaked up), add garlic and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until garlic slices have uniformly browned to a deep chestnut, 15 to 20 minutes, lowering heat as needed to ensure this happens evenly. Transfer garlic to blender.
Raise heat back to medium and add tomato to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tomato reduces and oil separates and it begins to scorch, about 15 minutes.
While tomato is cooking down, add sherry and parsley to blender with toasted almonds, bread and garlic. Puree, adding a large splash of water if needed, until reduced to a smooth puree. Set aside.
When tomato has cooked down, add stock and ground almond-bread-garlic mixture. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat until just high enough to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture thickens and the flavors blend, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool, then divide into pint containers for freezing.
To serve, thaw sauce (overnight in the refrigerator if you remember, or quickly on the stovetop if you don't), and simmer with whatever ingredients you desire (fish, chicken, vegetables, etc.). Serve with bread, rice or couscous for sopping up the delicious sauce.
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