Eugene Weekly : Food : 3.26.2009


The Freezer Food Pyramid
Identifying and cooking with all four groups
By Jennifer Burns Levin

We have reached the point in the middle of winter just before the early spring vegetables start to flourish, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve turned to your freezer for solace. Packages tumble out. They seemed like a good idea at the time. But now, how to cook those slightly freezer-burned, endless supplies of frozen stuff? Don’t despair, for last September’s hamburger and those blueberries you picked in your dewy youth can be used in creative ways.

It doesn’t matter how you found yourself in this quandary. You could have had a great garden harvest or assiduously packed away your summer CSA boxes while the grasshopper fiddled. Maybe you’re just excellent with the bargains. What matters now is that you have an opportunity to save some food dollars, eat locally in the darkest days of the year and, best of all, make room for the process to start again.

This column will address the four freezer food groups. These are basic staples of fresh frozen food, not prepared foods, such as the six packages of fake bacon that your husband inexplicably kept buying at the grocery store. No, this is talking about the stuff purchased because it was live from the Willamette Valley, and it looked so good … in its prime.

Understanding how to eat down the freezer involves understanding the Freezer Food Pyramid. There are four main freezer food groups in this pyramid: meat, berries, small round vegetables and sauce. 

Taking up the most freezer space is meat: hamburger, chicken breasts and smaller than necessary mystery roast. But mostly hamburger. Sure, you could make spaghetti sauce, but instead, I suggest going multicultural. I form mine into meatballs for Thai curry and an Ethiopian spicy stew with hot beriberi pepper blend. Indian minced vindaloo with hamburger and peas works particularly well, too. Mystery roast pieces can be minced with the chicken breasts and onion, then browned and layered with parsley and lemon juice in between buttered phyllo dough sheets. And chicken breasts are divine when pounded flat, mounded with chopped hamburger that’s been browned with sage and garlic and rolled up to pan fry. 

Next, especially important in the Willamette Valley, is berries: blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and berry mush. Most important is to steep your berry vinegars now (use 3:1 ratio, vinegar to berries) for spring’s salad crop. Lovely: strawberry rose vinegar with dried rose petals available in Mexican markets. Your blackberries, blueberries and berry mush can and should be turned into liqueur: 2 cups of berries can be steeped with vodka and sugar for a summer tipple. 

Small round vegetables closely follow berries. This group may be a mix of native and non-native species: peas, corn, black beans, favas/limas and pearl onions. Fresh salsa, anyone? Corn, black beans and roasted red peppers can be brightened with red onion, lime, cilantro and salt for a fiesta. Basmati rice tossed with peas, pearl onions and ginger is wonderful. Steam peas or favas, then smush them with a leftover baked potato for a bright green spring mash. Or pretend you’re in the Moroccan Jewish community: roast fennel and serve over couscous with sautéed artichoke hearts and favas.

Last but not least, we have sauce: Tomato, pesto and turkey stock cubes. You thought you were being clever, didn’t you? Replacing some water with tomato sauce in any soup or braise enriches it.  A cube of pesto in a vegetable soup or any bean, chicken or potato salad = the win. And the turkey stock cubes can be used to cool too-hot caramelizing onions or add some sauciness to stir-fries or steamed veggies. 

In no time, you’ll have an empty freezer and a refrigerator full of chard. Hang in there.

Jennifer Burns Levin writes about local food at, where you can find recipes for all four freezer food groups.