The Freezer is My Favorite Kitchen Appliance

A couple of years ago, I assembled a squash gratin for a friends’ Thanksgiving. It was this one, and it smelled good as I cooked it; I browned onions and softened the butternut squash and added nutmeg and cream and Comté, then I covered it in foil and stuck it in the fridge. Then, my grandpa died, and I was no longer going to the party. The foiled gratin went into the freezer, where it stayed until I moved apartments two months later. I felt crazy packing it up to move it. It was exactly the kind of thing my mother would never do. “Toss it,” she says, about the ends of sauces or a stray vegetable or any food items inconveniencing life, but I let it inconvenience me, and it anchored an Ikea bag full of other condiments and spices that did the same.

Two days later, I pulled it out of my new freezer and cooked it to serve with a roast chicken and some feety French wine. It was so good. The time in the freezer, I have come to believe, does something mysterious to these kinds of dishes; sauces, soups, stews, and gratins benefit wildly from a good rest.

The flavors marry, and become bolder, and for the kind of food I love to cook, which is simple and demands all ingredients speak for themselves, it’s the best kitchen hack I know. A pesto that was truthfully mediocre going in last summer emerged, in February, as a summery basil sun blast from the August farmers market. A ratatouille that I tossed with pasta was spicy and complex, not the sort of muddy hippy food I remembered packing up a couple months earlier.

But the undisputed King of the Freezer is eggplant parm, and I have the controlled experiment to prove it. I assembled two eggplant parms one Saturday this summer, then stuck one in the freezer, and one in the fridge, where it waited for 24 hours–a decent rest, itself. The Sunday eggplant was good; we finished a proper-sized one between two with a bottle of frappato and La Notte, and it was as great as it sounds.

But then, about a month later, I baked the frozen one, and it was better.

 

Eggplant Parm, or Melanzane alla Parmigiana

Adapted from Lalli Canneri, Marcella Hazan, and Rachel Roddy

Serves: 4-6

  • 4 medium eggplants
  • Salt
  • Olive oil, for frying
  • 4 cups pomodoro (below)
  • 1 lb. fresh mozzarella, sliced very thinly
  • 1.5-2 cups grated parmigiano-reggiano
  • Bunch of basil leaves

Slice eggplants into rounds. Lay one layer in a colander, sprinkle with salt, then add next layer. Leave to sit for a few hours, ideally while you go to the beach.

Blot the eggplant dry with kitchen or paper towels. Heat a few inches of olive oil in a large saute pan over med-high to high heat. Test oil with a piece of bread or a small piece of eggplant to see if it sizzles. Fry the eggplant in batches, turning each piece once, until golden on both sides. Lift to drain on a surface with paper towels.

Preheat the oven to 400F (200C).

To assemble, layer some eggplant slices on the bottom of a baking dish, then spread some tomato sauce, not too thickly, then mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano, and finally a few basil leaves. Repeat until you’ve used all the eggplant, ending with a layer of eggplant and a generous sprinkling of parmigiano. 

If ignoring the central thesis of this blog post and serving right away, bake for about 25 minutes, until everything is bubbling and the top is slightly browned. Then be sure to let it rest for at least 15 minutes so everything can settle. 

Otherwise, foil it up after sprinkling with parmigiano, stick it in the freezer, and when ready to serve, bake for a little longer–about 35 mins, looking for the browning. Same thing, re: resting.

Serve with a spicy southern Italian red, and make everyone weep with joy.

 

Lalli’s Pomodoro

  • 1 can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes, or about 3 pounds fragrant August ones from the farmers market
  • ⅓ cup olive oil, plus more for serving
  • 2 tbs. chopped onion
  • Handful fresh basil
  • Salt

If using fresh tomatoes, peel by cutting a small X at the bottom of each one, then dropping them into boiling water for about 15 seconds and plunging into ice water. The skins should come off relatively easily.

Heat olive oil in a saute pan over medium-low heat, and add onion. Let cook until soft but not even close to browning. Add tomatoes (whole) and a few basil leaves, then season lightly with salt, and stir. Raise heat to medium and let simmer for 30-40 mins, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon as it goes along. 

Using an immersion blender, food mill, or food processor, blend the sauce until it is creamy and turns rosy but still has some texture. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and basil if needed. 

 

 

 

Sardines & Salad

If this sounds a little precious, it is. But it’s also cheap and delicious and canned (or “tinned”) fish have been celebrated in Mediterranean cooking for years, since they are, again, inexpensive, and nutritious.

I eat this when I’m alone because I find the act of assembling relaxing but don’t like cooking something very involved for just me. This is the most scale-able of recipes, however, so assemble away for a crowd. The sardine portion makes a great appetizer (on crostini); the salad I serve with basically all dinners.

 

A Solo Meal

Good tinned sardines in olive oil

Baguette

Butter

Salt, flaky if possible

Lemon, if you have it

 

Fresh lettuces*

Shallot dressing, recipe below

Parmesan cheese, grated, optional

Freshly ground black pepper

 

*I like red and green leaf and butter lettuce. Buying them whole (not bagged or boxed) is economical. You’ll have to wash them, but this is a net positive: you can make sure they are crisp and cold and not plasticky and limp.

To wash: Fill a large bowl with cold water in the sink. Unless you have a salad spinner, have a dish towel (or a layer of paper towels) ready near the sink. Slice the root off the lettuces so they break into leaves. Add to the bowl however much lettuce will fit, leave it to sit for about a minute, then swish it around a few times.

Place the leaves on the dish towel and press tops gently. Then get them into the salad spinner, or fold the corners of the dish towel up into a little parcel. Either go outside or accept the fact that you’ll have to dry your floors later, and swing the lettuce parcel like you’re winding up for a pitch. The centrifugal force will keep everything intact, except for the water, which will be whisked into the air. After a few wind-ups, empty lettuces into a bowl.

Repeat with remaining leaves, then place a few paper towels over the bowl and stick in the refrigerator. I’ve eaten lettuces three days out from washing with this process.

 

Open sardines and drain most, but not all, oil.

 

Toast however much baguette you deem appropriate. Butter generously.

 

I use half the can of sardines, so I put half in a bowl covered with plastic wrap to be used the next day (don’t store in the can for safety reasons). Arrange the other half of the sardines over the toast, drizzling with a little of their leftover oil. Sprinkle with salt, and squeeze a few drops of lemon over, if you have it.

 

Mix a portion of lettuce with an appropriate amount of dressing (I toss with my hands), and grate over some parmesan, finishing with black pepper.

 

Shallot Dressing:

 

1 medium shallot (large is fine, just adjust the rest of the ingredients)

Sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar

Honey or sugar

Salt

Olive oil

 

Slice the shallot so you get thin rings. Place the rings in a bowl and just cover with the vinegar. Add a generous tablespoon or so of honey or sugar, and a good amount of salt (start with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, slightly less if using table salt). Stir to dissolve sugar and salt, then let sit for 15ish minutes, up to an hour. Congratulations, you’re quick-pickling! This is simultaneously taming the bite of the shallot and infusing the vinegar with flavor.

 

Whisk in the olive oil until it emulsifies. Use a lettuce leaf to taste, and adjust any ingredients (except shallot, sorry you’re too late) you think are out of balance. My ideal version is sharp but slightly sweet, rounded by the honey; others like it more or less acidic. As with any recipe, make it a few times to make it your own. Keeps in the fridge for weeks.