Use your freezer for last-minute meal options


With all of the below-freezing weather on the mainland Midwest and East Coast, if we lived there, we could box up some meals to freeze on the back porch until spring. But, I’d rather have a warm sunny lanai than an electricity-free porch freezer. It is a reminder, though, that our actual freezer is a valuable helper for storing convenient, last-minute meal options as well as for buying certain foods in bulk, which can be more economical.

Here are a few of my favorite ways to fill the freezer with foods that can save the day when I don’t have time to cook. The type of container you use can make a difference. Generally, anything that will keep out air and seal in moisture will work. Before you freeze any cooked foods, make sure they cool quickly, so bacteria can’t grow. You can put your container of warm food into an ice bath in your sink and stir it a few times to help it cool. If it’s a large batch, divide it into smaller containers to cool faster.

Freezer stuffed peppers

These are frozen individually, so you can prepare only as many as needed. Recipe from “Make Now, Serve Later” by Better Homes &Gardens; makes 6 servings.

6 large green peppers

1 pound ground pork

1/2 cup chopped onion

Salt and pepper

16-ounce can tomatoes, cut up

1/2 cup long grain rice

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup finely chopped celery

1/2 teaspoon instant chicken bouillon granules

1/4 teaspoon dried basil, crushed

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Cut and discard tops, membranes and seeds from peppers. Cook peppers in boiling salted water for 5 minutes; drain. Place peppers in a 12-by-7.5-by-2-inch baking dish. In a skillet, cook pork and onion until meat is browned and onion is tender; drain off excess fat. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in undrained tomatoes, uncooked rice, water, celery, bouillon, basil and thyme. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Spoon meat mixture into peppers; cool to room temperature. Cover each pepper with moisture-proof wrap, seal, label and freeze.

Tomato base

This thick and zesty tomato sauce can be the base for everything from pasta sauce to soups to casseroles. It is much healthier than jar sauce. Recipe from the “Fix &Freeze Cookbook” by Better Homes &Gardens; makes enough for three recipes.

3 tablespoons cooking oil

1 1/2 cups chopped onion

1 1/2 cups chopped celery

1 cup shredded carrot

2 cloves garlic, minced

Two 15-ounce cans tomato sauce

Three 6-ounce cans tomato paste

In a large saucepan, heat oil; cook onion, celery, carrot and garlic in hot oil until onion is tender but not brown. Stir in tomato sauce and tomato paste. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat; cool. Spoon into three 2 1/2- to 3-cup freezer containers. Seal, label and freeze. Each batch will make 4 to 6 servings, depending on use.

Sausage-noodle casserole

Here’s a hearty entree idea for using a portion of your frozen tomato base from the above recipe; makes enough casserole for 6 servings.

1 portion frozen tomato base

1 cup water

1 pound bulk Italian sausage

2 ounces medium noodles

10-ounce package frozen peas

1 1/2 cups shredded American cheese

1 teaspoon chili powder (more or less to taste)

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon butter

3/4 cup soft bread crumbs

In a large saucepan, combine tomato base and water. Cover and cook over medium high heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until thawed, stirring occasionally. Cook meat until brown; drain off fat. Cook noodles according to package directions; drain. Stir noodles, meat, peas, cheese, chili powder and pepper into mixture in saucepan. Transfer to a 2-quart casserole. Melt butter; toss with breadcrumbs. Sprinkle crumb mixture over casserole. Bake, uncovered, in preheated 375 F oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until heated through. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Hot chocolate mousse

This simple, six-ingredient chocolate mousse can bake while you eat dinner. It will have the texture of a dense, dark chocolate souffle without all the fuss. Recipe from “Bake and Freeze Chocolate Desserts” by Elinor Klivans; makes 6 servings.

6 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 large eggs, separated

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

You will need six 6-ounce ramekins that are safe to use from freezer to oven. Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof container; place it over, but not touching, a saucepan of barely simmering water. Stir chocolate and butter together until chocolate melts and mixture is smooth. Transfer to a large bowl to cool slightly. Put egg whites and cream of tartar in the clean large bowl of an electric mixer. With clean dry beaters, beat eggs until foamy and cream of tartar is dissolved. Increase speed to medium high; beat just until soft peaks form. Slowly add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time. Use a large mixing spoon to mix egg yolks thoroughly into chocolate mixture. Stir in vanilla. Stir about a fourth of beaten egg whites into chocolate mixture. Use a rubber spatula to fold remaining egg whites into chocolate mixture. Pour a scant 1/2 cup of chocolate mixture into each of the ramekins, leaving at least a half inch of space at the top. To freeze, wrap each ramekin tightly with plastic wrap, then heavy aluminum foil. (The plastic wrap may disturb the top of the mousse in the freezer, but baking will restore a smooth surface.) Label with date and contents. Freeze up to a month. To bake: Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. Remove as many ramekins from freezer as you want to bake; unwrap them and place on a baking sheet or pie tin. Bake 25 minutes. Mousse will rise slightly above the rim of the ramekin as it bakes. Cool mousse 10 minutes before serving.