For those of us accustomed to shopping at farmers markets and/or growing our own, it’s tempting to lament the onset of winter. Sure, year-round markets are selling winter greens and crunchy radishes, cold-storage apples and turnips galore. But what about those beloved snappy green beans, dripping-ripe tomatoes and sweet, sweet corn?
Savvy cooks preserve them, you say. It’s true: I’ve done more than my fair share of pickling (beans and cucumbers) and freezing (slow-roasted tomatoes). But until I emptied it out last month, the jam-packed little freezer atop the fridge in my Dupont Circle co-op was occupied mostly by meats, pizza crusts, make-ahead soup bases and leftover stews, leaving little room for the plain and simple vegetables I start to miss so desperately this time of year.
Now that I’m staying with my sister and brother-in-law in southern Maine on an extended book leave, I have a new, firsthand appreciation for veggies quickly blanched and frozen at their peak. My sister, Rebekah, is a devoted user of the FoodSaver vacuum-sealing system, and stacked in their three — three! — freezers are neat packages of green beans, in-the-pod edamame, peas and garlic scapes (not to mention all manner of stocks, fruits and meats).
Of course, it makes perfect sense for them to send into cryogenic hibernation as much food as possible, given that they grow all of those vegetables themselves. Especially where the winters are long, any way to extend the harvest is welcome.
For a single cook like me, the result is nothing short of bountiful. Rather than driving 20 minutes to the nearest supermarket, I can go “shopping” in their basement, transferring my favorite finds from the chest or upright freezer to the little one connected to the fridge in the kitchen upstairs. From there, I just snip open a package, take what I need and make with it what I will. (Even though I’m not living alone this year, I fend for myself when they’re working or traveling.)
Frankly, even when we do hit a grocery store, I’m more likely to buy some of those vegetables from the freezer aisle than the produce bin, particularly in January. Studies have shown that out-of-season produce that sits for days on end in the supermarket loses far more nutrients than the stuff that high-tech farmers are able to flash-freeze while it’s still fresh from the field.
No matter where I get it, though, this cold-weather harvest does present a dilemma: How do you use frozen versions of such summer staples as corn or green beans in a way that not only takes best advantage of their changed texture but also honors the fact that it’s winter? I won’t kid myself that I can get anything resembling snappy crispness from green beans I’m pouring out of a freezer bag, and I simply don’t have a taste for something like black bean and corn salsa when there’s snow on the ground, or on the way.
I picked up frozen corn in the supermarket, and while it doesn’t have the same crunch as when it’s fresh off the cob (and when the cob is fresh off the stalk), it still adds a welcome pop to soups. This time of year, I riff on a cabbage soup by using Brussels sprouts, which I like to call single people’s cabbage, and add rice for a hearty, one-pot meal.
For the beans, I draw on my Southern roots and cook them for a comparatively long time, throwing in a little bacon and braising them in tomatoes until they are very tender yet not mushy. The technique works well with frozen cut green beans from the supermarket, but I’ve been lucky to have my sister’s frozen Romano (flat Italian) beans at hand. After braising, their flavor is deep and round, not grassy and sharp as when the beans are fresh — a difference that seems to perfectly match the cold weather.
I’ve already grown so enamored of this style of winter cooking that I think I know what might happen when I move back to Washington at the end of the year. Those closets I cleaned out so efficiently before I left, to make room for tenants? One of them, surely, could accommodate a chest freezer.
Yonan writes Cooking for One monthly. He is the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @joeyonan.