In Defense of Frozen Food

“I can’t eat local–what would I possibly eat in January–turnips?!”

Not necessarily. Because whether you grow your own food or purchase locally grown food, you can PRESERVE some of it for winter! And it doesn’t have to be complicated. You don’t need any special skills or equipment, unless boiling water is beyond your skill-set and a colander isn’t among your kitchen tools. And you know what? Many, many vegetables are BEST preserved by freezing rather than canning. (Think of the difference between frozen green beans and canned–which is most like fresh?)

True, some of the flavor and texture is lost through the freezing process, which is why you will prepare your frozen veggies differently than you would if they were fresh. You might make a Caprese salad with fresh tomatoes, like so:

yum! look for the recipe on Sunday...

But you couldn’t replicate that salad in winter by pulling out the frozen tomatoes. You could, however, put them into any number of delicious soups, stews, and sauces. And, as Barbara Kingsolver points out, since they won’t have traveled any distance in the meantime–they’ll still be local.

“But what about VITAMINS? Aren’t fresh vegetables healthier than and preferable to frozen ones?!”

Actually, very few vitamins are lost in the freezing process. Even commercially frozen foods can be nutritionally superior to their fresh (but imported) counterparts, because food is frozen at the peak of freshness. By contrast, fresh vegetables transported long distances lose a marked amount of vitamins over the course of their trip from the field to your plate.

And as to the question of environmental friendliness, I certainly feel better about buying US-grown frozen broccoli in December than buying broccoli that has been shipped FROM CHILE.

To reiterate–you don’t necessarily have to grow your own. In fact, if you can find a local source for vegetables (and no matter where you live, you probably can), you may get a discount for purchasing a large amount in bulk. This helps the farmer and it helps you–if you know how to preserve the food. For example, local farmstands where I live are currently charging about 70 cents per ear of corn. If you buy a bushel (about 40 ears) it costs $10.

So what do you do with those hypothetical ears of corn? This method is the simplest and easiest and applies to many, many different vegetables:

1. Dip prepared (ie, trimmed and cut) vegetables into boiling water for 3 minutes.
2. Immediately dunk into COLD water and rinse to stop the cooking.
3. Pat dry with clean kitchen towels and pack into freezer containers/bags.

I was given a vacuum sealer, but it's in storage in California. That's what I get for moving 5x in 8 these are just plain ol' freezer bags.


Ellen asked whether I have a dedicated freezer. I do–it’s one we’re borrowing from church, since they’re not currently using it. If that one wasn’t available, I’d be shopping around for a second-hand freezer, for sure. They’re quite energy-efficient (since they are opened only once in a while). Of course, space for a freezer is not always in great supply, especially if you live in an apartment (which I have done most of my adult life.) So this defense of frozen food may be somewhat unfairly biased toward home-dwellers. However, the basic point–freezing food isn’t hard!–still stands.


That’s it! You can readily get more details in this book or elsewhere on the net. (UPDATE: lovely tutorial here.) Or you can ask me! (Not that I’ll know the answer, but I’d be happy to hear about whatever preservation adventures you may be on…)

Oh, and some of my favorite winter recipes take frozen vegetables very well. You can see them here!

And the best part? When you’ve frozen your own veggies in summer and fall (whether home grown or grown locally by someone else), you get a bit of a taste of the warmer months during the colder ones. And that’s fun!

Countercultural Green Beans–Putting Food By

Five years ago, when we lived in California, our green bean plants were producing half a kitchen garbage bag of green beans per day. It got to the point where we had to take garbage bags of green beans in the car and drive around town (a very small town) to dish out green beans to everyone we knew (and even some people we didn’t really know.) We knew that we’d soon be moving to Scotland, and so putting some beans away for winter wasn’t much of an option for us. But sharing them, of course, was its own reward.

This year, in New York, we’ve again got loads of green beans–an easy 2 quarts a day, and while we’re eating plenty of them fresh, we’ve also been doing a bit of what 19th century folks called “putting food by”–that is, saving it for that time of year when Persephone goes back to the underworld and her mother, Ceres, mourns, turning our lush, green garden a dead and frozen brown. (No, I don’t believe that myth. But I do like it. My mom and I are really close, and you better believe that if one of us had to go to the underworld, we might forget to water the garden.)

my favorite field hand

So against that day, we’re storing up food, green beans among them. Frozen green beans can actually be quite delicious. Our favorite ones are the petite French beans you can buy at Trader Joe’s–and while they’re reasonably priced, I sometimes feel a little funny about the fact that they’ve come from France. I love French food, but we can grow great green beans right outside our door. France is a long way away, and while I love me a good French import now and then, I’d kinda rather see those transatlantic miles used differently (say, to bring Nora here. Hi Nora! Bisous!)

Mom's hands, trimming beans

My mom and I, together, trimmed and washed the beans, dipped them in boiling water, chilled them in ice water, dried them with a towel, and packed them into freezer bags. It wasn’t as hot and difficult as I once imagined such a process would be. In fact, it was kind of fun. Instead of going out for coffee, or ice cream, or shopping–instead of consuming, which we love to do (who doesn’t?) we stayed home and produced something, not for immediate enjoyment, but for future days.

ready for freezing

In other times and places, to speak reverently of such a practice–as if it constituted some kind of virtuous act–would be silly. ‘Putting food by’ was just what everyone did in the days before year-round availability of EVERYTHING NOW! There must have always been a kind of satisfaction in this work, though–the work of virtuous necessity, done (usually) in groups, with laughter, chatting, and singing to make ‘drudgery’ into good times. That’s what I’m grasping at when, in my own fumbling way, I try my hand at gardening and preserving. I’m trying to tread lightly on creation while exercising a homely kind of creativity, making small steps toward a hopeful future, and, in the present, creating good memories fueled only by necessity and love.

gratuitous adorable pet picture

Revolutionary Joy…and basil.

I’m ridiculously happy about basil. It’s growing like mad, this basil that started out months ago as seeds started inside, and yesterday I pulsed cups and cups of it in the food processor, adding just enough olive oil to keep the processor running smoothly, poured that green stuff into a silicone muffin tin to freeze, then finally popped the little discs of green into freezer bags, to be deployed sometime this winter as pesto, in soups and maybe even in a winter ratatouille.

I love growing things from seeds. There’s an aspect of faith to it. You open the packet–which almost always has either beautiful photography of the mature plant OR an artist’s rendering thereof–and see the most unlikely looking little flecks. The distance between those flecks and a grown up plant is huge. Can one tiny black speck–a basil seed–produce anything at all? I confess that I never seem to believe that it will.

But, very slowly, with lots of patience and care, those seeds germinate. They sprout, opening tiny, tiny leaves and sending down tiny, almost invisible roots. If you pull one of these sprouts apart, it already smells like the basil it is, and will eventually be. It will get bigger and bigger until, finally, the almanac tells you the danger of frost is over, and then it will look tiny and vulnerable when you put it outside in the garden.

And then, when summer’s heat is growing more and more intense, you’ll look and suddenly that basil is not fragile but formidable, its stalk thick and strong, its semi-gloss leaves big and bold and pungent. It’s then that you can make Caprese salad, fresh pesto, and whatever else you fancy. You can put some aside, like I did, for the time when those plants are buried under snow. And you can let some go to seed and save those unlikely flecks for next spring. 

(You can read more about how to freeze basil here, and how to grow it here! I used heirloom seeds from Baker Creek.)

Is it silly to get so excited about basil? Maybe. But maybe that’s okay. Especially for someone who spent 10 years being afraid of enjoying food. Finding joy in basil grown from seed returns me to a place of joyful creativity that’s not (I imagine) unlike the Creator’s joy. It reassures me that even black specks of nothing can turn into something beautiful and delicious, something that brings three generations to the table and gives them delight. No money changes hands, nothing goes in the trash or even the recycling. It’s a gift from God. And I’m grateful!

“Joy, like worship itself, is revolutionary, liberating, dangerous and deeply counter-cultural, enabling us to resist the forces that would seek to enslave us, and to laugh at their absurdities…”

Richard Johnson

“Commentary – Acts 16:25-34″ in Third Way Magazine (2006)