As the heat of summer sets in, we start focusing on our freezers. We open the door and linger a few seconds longer than necessary. Not great for energy consumption, true, but it has led to contemplation about the best way to use this essential kitchen asset.
Your freezer is a true friend for reducing food costs. Space is limited, so make it count. Clear out those freezer-burned buns and the ice-cream cartons with only one spoonful remaining. Replace these with normally expensive foods that you bought at a rock-bottom sale price.
Basically, freeze protein.
Meat, seafood and cheese send the cash register into overdrive, and supermarkets frequently offer "super-sales" or "buy one, get one" deals on frozen shrimp, shredded cheese and family-sized packages of ground beef and chicken. To benefit from these bargains, you need to stock up and store the bounty.
A couple of hints:
• Set the freezer temperature to 0 F for optimum storage.
• Freeze your cheese. Unopened packages of already-shredded cheeses, crumbled feta and crumbled blue cheese freeze best. Bang the frozen bag on the countertop, and you can easily scoop out portions. Frozen cheese holds for months, but we've noticed mold developing in the refrigerator surprisingly fast. Shredded cheese thaws quickly, and there's no discernible difference when cooking.
• Repackage meat into manageable portions and wrap securely. Preferably use plastic first and then foil to seal out air to prevent freezer burn. Alternately, we often wrap in foil first and then slip the packages into zipper-top freezer bags.
• Date and label all packages. Think you'll remember? You probably won't.
• Organize shelves by types of food for easier retrieval.
• Keep a list of what's frozen for efficient menu planning.
• Defrost safely leave overnight in the refrigerator, or unwrap and use the microwave's thaw function.
Menu suggestion: Shrimp and Grits
Start to finish: 25 minutes
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) reduced-sodium, fat-free chicken broth, divided use
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup half-and-half
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided use
3 slices already-cooked bacon (see Cook's note)
3/4 cup quick (not instant) grits
2 tablespoons butter
1 small onion (for about 1/2 cup finely chopped) (see Cook's note)
2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 pound already-peeled medium raw shrimp, defrosted if frozen (see Cook's note)
Juice from 1/2 lemon
Hot pepper sauce, a few drops to taste, optional
Cook's note: Already-peeled shrimp are usually readily available frozen, but if you can't find them, look for the "easy peel," which come deveined with the shell split. Or regular unpeeled works, too. Just be sure to peel the shrimp before starting the recipe.
We like to buy already-cooked bacon, available alongside raw bacon in the meat case. Or you can microwave your own before starting the recipe.
Three to four green onions can be substituted for the small onion.
If you have leftover grits, they can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to four days. Microwave to reheat, stirring in additional water a couple of tablespoons at a time as necessary to reach the desired consistency.
Pour 1/2 cup chicken broth into a 1-cup measure and set aside. Pour the remaining broth into a 4-quart saucepan along with the water, half-and-half and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover the pot and begin bringing it to a boil over high heat. While the broth mixture comes to a boil, crisp the bacon in the microwave according to the package directions. Remove from the microwave and set aside.
When the broth mixture boils, reduce the heat to medium, and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, slowly add the grits to the pot. Stir well. Reduce the heat to low (or just enough heat to maintain a steady, low boil). Cover the pot and cook, lifting the lid to stir frequently, until the grits have thickened, about 10 minutes. Be sure to stir the pot well, scraping up any grits that stick to the bottom.
While the grits cook, begin melting the butter in a 12-inch skillet over low heat. Peel and finely chop the onion. Add the onion and the garlic to the skillet, and raise the heat to medium. Cook, stirring from time to time. Pour the flour and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt into a 1/2-gallon zipper-top plastic bag. Add the peeled shrimp, and toss the bag to lightly coat the shrimp with flour mixture. Add the shrimp to the skillet, and cook, stirring as necessary, until pink and just cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes. (Remember to stir the grits!)
Add the reserved 1/2 cup chicken broth to the skillet and stir, scraping up any brown bits. Reduce the heat to medium-low. When the mixture has thickened slightly, about 1 minute, remove the skillet from the heat. Add the lemon juice and stir well. Season with a few drops of hot pepper sauce to taste, if desired.
The grits should be the consistency of warm pudding. If they are too thick, stir in additional water, a tablespoon at a time, until you get the desired consistency. Remove them from the heat, and add the cheese, stirring until it melts. Taste and add more salt, if necessary and, if desired, a bit more cheese (and water to thin as necessary). To serve, crumble the bacon slices to make bacon bits. Spoon the grits into the middle of four dinner plates. Spoon the shrimp mixture over the grits. Sprinkle some bacon bits on top to garnish. Serve at once.
Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross are co-authors of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap.Fast.Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact them at Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Or visit the Desperation Dinners Web site at www.desperationdinners.com. © United Feature Syndicate Inc.