Tales from the deep

Freezer meals can be healthy and tasty too


When I was growing up in Co Antrim, we had two freezers. One was the icebox on top of the fridge, constantly bunged with frost, fish fingers, the odd, loose frozen pea and chocolate Easter eggs as, bizarrely, we children liked our chocolate very cold and snappy.

Across the farmyard, in the garage, was a big, deep, white, meat coffin, regularly filled by my father with whole sides of lamb or beef. At times, distressingly – but usually not enough to stop me eating it – it would be an animal which had grown up in the fields outside my bedroom window.

My mother would somehow know which bits of flesh corresponded to which dish to be cooked. From time to time she would bake half a dozen cakes or apple pies which would be lodged in corners of the freezer beside the meat. It was the freezer of Sunday lunches.

In contrast, the first family I stayed with as a child in France had two proper freezers, beside the door to the wine cellar, marvellously managed, full of boar and venison, frozen fruit and vegetables from the garden and neighbours’ gardens, soups and ice cream desserts – not just ice cream – ice cream desserts.

About twice every summer, a run was organised to the nearest big town where the best pâtissier made exquisite things with ice cream. It had to be a quick strike, as the drive home took more than half an hour. But then, all through summer, on Sundays and for dinner parties, one of these amazing creations – usually a beautifully moulded combination of three sorbets with a fruit coulis, or a raspberry meringue Vacherin (my favourite) – would be released from the freezer and arrive on the dining table.

Years later, living in the French countryside with four small children, my ample freezer, decadent in its own way, became a sort of temple dedicated to the French frozen food store, Picard, which, in a recent survey, it was found to be French consumers’ favourite supermarket brand.

Forget Santa’s Grotto, Picard is an all-year-round winter wonderland. In deceptively austere surroundings, the neon- lit rows of freezers conceal every stage of enablement a dish can have, from sensible, basic ingredients to beautifully packaged boxes of industrially produced, over-seasoned, microwave-in-a-minute sins.

For the sensible, creative, yet impatient cook, it is heaven. But for this greedy, curious and impatient eater it is often a disaster zone. Much of what is lurking in the sexily photographed little black boxes is gourmet crack. Much more sinister than a touch of horsemeat in the meatballs, it’s pretty much designed and produced following similar, addictive, guidelines that have many of us hooked on MacDos and KFCs – only here it comes with exotic names, beautiful presentation and luxurious ingredients. I am helpless before its truffle mash, gateau Opéra (no need to wait to defrost as it’s even better when slightly frozen), foie gras and fruit Moroccan pastilla and butter chicken curry. It is fabulous, in all its oversalted, palate-manipulating glory.

But despite my frequent swerves off the food police’s straight and narrow, Picard convenience does not make me cook less or less well. Take tomatoes, for example. Here they are sold in all the ways they know you will need them well before you do. Plain, peeled quarters, plain and puréed pulp, cooked “à l’italienne” for Bolognese sauce, in small cubes for mirepoix or adding to sauces – and all this before we arrive at tomato tatin, stuffed tomatoes, cream of tomato soup, tomato tartes.

The lesson to be learned here, I suppose, is be super forensic in your shopping. If you browse, you will fail. So mostly I try to shop in tempting Picard the way I imagine my sleek, skinny French girlfriends do.

I buy chopped onions, shallots, green vegetables, tomato sauce bases, lots of mushrooms and some fruits,great for last minute breakfast compotes and pancakes, cocktails and ice cream sundaes. I buy mangoes, raspberries, blueberries and pitted cherries – you can find all of these in Tesco.

Leaving Picard aside, and perhaps this is because of my childhood calf-eating trauma, I am not great at freezing raw meat, fish or chicken. It makes us eat too much of it and I find there always seems to be something oozing from it which needs to be drained, or dried. Besides, no matter how well I wrap things up, it always seems to lose its appeal after I’ve watched it defrost, flabbily, from a cadaver-like grey.

I prefer to cook a large amount and freeze family-size portions of a finished dish made with happy-looking, fresh ingredients.

As we to buy it fresh every day (sometimes twice), and it therefore dries out quickly, my freezer is also home to many stray, leftover baguettes and other bits of bread. They are very handy (when you have a decent blender) for making stuffing for roasts, crunchy mixes for salads and gratins, sweet toppings for ice cream, and croutons in soups. Likewise half lemons and limes, even squeezed, will not be thrown away, but ultimately find themselves under roast meats and fish in the oven.

My freezer is at once a 12-hour holding pen of my own personal, processed, greed-trip fuel, an extension of the ingredients in my kitchen cupboards and an overflow escape route for my cooking routine (inasmuch as there is one). It holds no promise of apocalypse survival or lure of a frozen kingdom full of delicious temptation. Sometimes it’s almost full, sometimes, in summer when fruit and vegetables are so good and abundant, it’s home only to ice cubes and sub-zero vodka for a convenient Martini.

Here are recipes you can rustle up with the help of your freezer: Raspberry Vacherin, and a quick cheat version, pictured here, plus a throw-it-together quinoa with peas, green beans, mangetout and garlicky pea hummus.

Domini Kemp returns next week

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