The only things we had in the freezer when I was growing up were ice cubes and ice cream, period. My mother never froze anything. She went to the market on a daily basis, everything was bought fresh, nothing came out of a can (unless it was tomato paste) and always prepared a great meal. We hardly had any leftovers, and if we did, it came back at you the next day in the form of another great meal!
I grew up thinking that freezing food—or, heaven forbid, buying frozen food—was a sin because of the high level of disapproval from my grandmother and mother. I guess it was because my Italian-born mother always maintained the European custom (still does) of purchasing food fresh the same day and bringing it home to make dinner. Of course, we were living in Cleveland while I was growing up and she didn't have the luxury of having those wonderful little family markets at almost every corner like they do in Italy and France—the ones you stop at while walking home from work to pick up freshly baked breads, meat, fish and fresh vegetables that still smell like the earth. That didn't stop her—she drove to the market every day to pick up fresh items for dinner. She was a stay-at-home mom in the '50s and was devoted to her family.
I'm a devoted mother too, but my freezer is full! I've learned to be an organized and realistic planner when it comes to feeding my family. My freezer has become my best friend! It started when I was pregnant with Alexandra, who is now 23. At that time, I was doing three television shows at once.
One was a live, one-hour show from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. called A.M. Los Angeles. The second I got off the air, I was whisked off by a golf cart at full throttle (only 10 mph) through the narrow corridors to another soundstage. There, I would do my second show, The Home Show!, from 10 a.m. until noon! After we got off the air, I would attend production meetings for the next day before I would be carted off to tape another show, Incredible Sunday!
I would get home by 5 p.m. and would literally want to pull my hair out (must have been the hormones) because I had two kids demanding attention, homework to help with, backpacks to check, a table to set, dinner to prepare, bath time, bedtime, arguments at bedtime because no one wanted to sleep, my husband needing attention and reading material to get through for the next day. And then it was time to set the clock for 5:30 a.m. so I could make the kids their lunches.
I needed a way to alleviate some of the stress from what we as woman are amazing at: multitasking! While making dinner every night, I started to get into the habit of doubling whatever I was preparing for the evening meal. I took half of it and froze it. I started freezing foods on the weekends and built up quite a stash for myself so on the evenings when I needed a meal, I pulled one right out of the freezer, made a salad and had dinner on the table in no time! What a lifesaver!
All my kids are out of the house now, with the exception of my youngest, Arianna, who is in college. She loves to bring her friends home; there's always a lot of them, and they're always hungry! The first thing Ari does is head to the kitchen and open up the freezer door to see what's up!
Now with the holidays upon us, it's even more convenient to have freezable meals already made. The holiday season is always stressful. I don't care who you are, there's always "one more thing" that has to be done.
I'm trying to stay on top of my job, my home and all my children ( there are seven of them and four grandkids). I'm planning the gift shopping— by the way, the traffic is starting to get hellish already and is down to a crawl near the mall. I literally carry a big sign with me in my car that I stick out my window every time someone honks at me impatiently (like I can move). It says, "Be nice!"
Then there are the grandkids' Christmas/Hanukkah celebrations at their schools (I thought I was done with that), the dinner parties, Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Day dinner and pack to leave on the 26th for a week for our family holiday! Who has time to cook?
Don't let food stand at room temperature longer than 30 minutes before freezing. You can also cool food to refrigerator temperatures before bagging or placing it in a container for your freezer.
Use "freezer" bags, not "storage" bags, because they're thicker and will keep foods fresher. I like to use these because I can stack them and they take up less room in the freezer. These are great for stuffing, sauces, stews and soup. If I'm freezing soup, I use two bags in case there is a leak, that way I have a safety net. (Get my recipe for Hearty Vegetable Minestrone.)
Use plastic containers with a moisture-proof seal. Covers should fit tightly. If not, you can reinforce by using freezer tape designed to stick at freezing temperatures.
If using glass jars, use rubber-necked wide-mouth, thick glass jars made for freezing and canning. Do not fill to the brim—leave a 1.5-inch space from the top to allow for expansion while freezing. Expansion from the freezing of the contents could cause the jars to break, so it's important not to fill to the top.
Label your containers with the date and what it is!
After taking frozen dishes out of the freezer, let them thaw in the refrigerator 24 hours before using.
Do not thaw perishable foods at room temperature. If foods are left at room temperature too long, bacteria may grow that can cause food-borne illnesses.
Do not thaw cooked foods by running hot water over them. You can, however, fill a large pan or your kitchen sink with tap water and place the frozen food in it to help speed up the defrosting time. Make sure the container is not breakable and is well sealed and moisture-proof.
Reheat previously cooked food to an internal temperature of 165°. Use a food thermometer to check the temperature.
You can refreeze unused portions of cooked food that has been frozen and thawed.
Do not keep frozen food stored longer than two or three months.
In case you forget to defrost overnight, the best way to cook frozen dishes right from the freezer is to place them in a cold oven covered with foil and turn the oven to 325°. Remember to check the internal temperature with a food thermometer. The dish needs to be at 165° for the insides to be hot.
Bake the thawed food at the original temperature called for in the recipe. Most likely you will have to bake longer. Just make sure to keep the food thermometer at hand. You do not want to overbake.
Almost all dishes freeze up nicely with the exception of eggs and salads!
I hope some of my suggestions help you with your freezeable meals!
"Sending big bowls of love (thawed)," Cristina
Printed from Oprah.com on Saturday, December 7, 2013