If I’m going to be honest about life with a new baby, I have to confess what’s been my lifeline in the kitchen for the last six months: frozen vegetables.
Anyone who has raised children is likely snorting heartily at this “revelation,” but those of us who are a little too self-righteous about getting home-cooked food on the table every night usually find starting from the freezer section (rather than the farmers market) a tough pill to swallow. And yet, lately I’ve come to think that in many cases it’s actually better—in terms of both flavor and cost—to use frozen vegetables.
To make my case, let’s go back about 15 years to a day when I went to my grandmother’s house for a lesson in preparing spinach pizza. It’s one of her specialties—spinach and an imperceptible, but devilishly delicious, lacing of anchovy, rolled up into pizza dough and baked until it reaches a heavenly crispness. I worshiped—and still worship—at my grandmother’s altar, in awe of how she cooked everything from scratch, often from vegetables and herbs that she had pulled from her own garden, and served it on a tablecloth that she had crocheted while wearing an outfit that she had sewn herself. I imagined the first part of our lesson would be on how to procure the perfect fresh spinach, from a farmer in New Jersey whom she would have to phone a week in advance to ensure the leaves were picked and sent over at just the right moment. Instead, I arrived in her Brooklyn basement kitchen to find a neat brick of soggy spinach sitting in a sieve.
“What did you do to that spinach?” I asked her, thinking she had already thwarted my attempts to learn by sautéing it ahead of time. “I thawed it,” she said. It was like learning that it was not Santa Claus who had left my bicycle beneath the Christmas tree.
But my grandmother knew what I’ve come to believe: Frozen spinach is better. To get to the same place with fresh, you have to wash it a million times, de-stem it, and par-boil it first—sautéing it without doing so gives it that nasty bitter-liquid runoff—and quite often you pay a fortune for what seems like two hedges’ worth of spinach that shrink down to about two tablespoons. With the frozen spinach, all that stuff has been done for you, and it still somehow costs less. (In the case of some vegetables—say, artichokes—the labor and cost savings are downright ridiculous.) All I have to do is toss the brick into some boiling water, press out the liquid in a sieve, then sauté it with some garlic, chile flakes, and olive oil, or, if I’m in a real time crunch, toss it with lots of oil, salt, and pepper. The same treatment works nicely with mustard greens, kale, broccoli, you name it. Look, you won’t get, say, the pungent bite that comes with fresh mustard greens, but it’s still many satisfying steps up from frantically dialing for take-out at the last minute.
And frozen vegetables have also let me deal with the reality of having an infant: I’m lucky if I can even focus on one dish. With the veg taken care of, I can put more effort into the roast or pasta sauce. Lately, my frozen stash has been making its way into the main courses, too. If I had to wait until I had time to pare a bunch of baby artichokes for a weeknight supper, it might be 18 years before I tasted them again. Instead, artichoke risotto was on our table on an ordinary Thursday night—and, despite its unromantic origin, it tasted pretty darn good.
Risotto with (frozen) artichokes (serves 2 generously, plus leftovers)
Sauté 1/2 finely chopped onion in a few tablespoons of butter until translucent; add about 3/4 cup Arborio rice and sauté until grains are coated with butter. Add 1/2 cup white wine and bring to a boil; simmer 1 minute. Gradually add hot chicken stock, occasionally stirring the rice and letting the stock almost fully incorporate before adding another ladleful (if you run out of stock and the rice still isn’t done, just add water). When rice is halfway done, add 1 package frozen artichokes (if you’ve thawed them ahead, give them a rough chop; if not, just go at them with kitchen scissors right in the pan once they’ve thawed). Continue stirring and adding stock until rice is just slightly beyond al dente, then stir in another few tablespoons of butter and season generously with salt. Turn off heat and stir in some grated cheese; let sit a few minutes before serving with extra grated cheese.