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Frozen produce: cold hard truth


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I think many frozen produce items are underrated, forgotten, and poised for comebacks.

For the past three decades or so people have been thrilling to the increased availability of fresh produce year-round. But the fact that most of that produce tastes like crap is now catching up to us. Even the most expensive organic stuff is usually stored, schlepped and stored again -- so much so that it's like an artifact by the time you get to eat it.

Frozen produce has a lot to recommend it: it can be picked ripe, in season, and frozen immediately to preserve its essential flavors and nutrients. And while fresh produce has been having its renaissance, frozen produce has improved dramatically due to improvements in freezing technology. The IQF (individually quick frozen) process, where produce comes loose in a plastic pouch rather than frozen in a block, makes a huge difference.

I've been purchasing more and more frozen produce over the past few years, and was particularly pleased to see Mark Bittman pick up the frozen produce gauntlet in February 2005 in a New York Times "Minimalist" piece, where he wrote after concluding several months of frozen vegetable testing:

In general I felt I was eating ''fresher'' vegetables, which were brighter in color, more distinctive in flavor and more consistently pleasing in texture than much of what I had been buying in the ''fresh'' bins. Not insignificant -- and only a snob would say these aspects don't matter -- I also found them more convenient and certainly less expensive.

I was amazed to find I could use frozen red and yellow bell pepper strips straight from the package. (I am aware that this is not a revelation to everyone; call me stupid.) The peppers were great in a simple quick dish of fried rice and for $2.59 a pound I could not help comparing them favorably to the less tasty red and yellow peppers from Holland, which cost $4 and $5 a pound and yield only about half their weight in usable flesh.

The result was a flush of enthusiasm. I was a convert.

My only criticism of Bittman's research is that he neglected frozen fruits. I have right now in my freezer some frozen organic strawberries that I picked up the other day, and also in my refrigerator are some fresh strawberries. I'd say the frozen ones taste several times better than the fresh. The only thing to recommend the fresh ones is their texture, but for any item where texture doesn't matter -- such as chopping up strawberries to add to oatmeal -- the frozen ones are far, far preferable.

Also in my refrigerator are frozen sliced peaches -- the peaches must have been very small because the slices are only an inch or so long, but boy these must have been some damn good peaches because the frozen sliced ones are awesome. They even taste great frozen, right out of the bag -- just reach in and grab a few little slices as a snack.

Bittman also tells the story of Michel Richard at Citronelle using frozen brussels sprouts in a dish:

''Cook them in butter with a bit of chicken stock, and they are wonderful,'' suggested Mr. Richard, who serves them with a duck pot au feu.

I guess there's still a stigma attached to using frozen produce, especially in the fine-dining world, but the reality is that it's a widespread practice. I know of a few top New York restaurants that even do their own freezing: they buy up lots of extra greenmarket produce when it's available and they freeze enough peas and other stuff to get them through the winter.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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My Mom used to blanch and freeze corn from Dad's garden, and there was nothing better in the middle of winter than to thaw some out and taste summer.

Not that all frozen produce is of that quality, of course. But it does show, I think, that the freezing process isn't inherently bad for vegetables.

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70 percent of restaurant operators agree that using frozen foods provides labor cost savings (2002 National Restaurant Association survey).

In 1998, FDA ruled that the same protocol regarding the “healthy” label would apply to frozen produce as raw produce, noting “some data showed that the nutrient content level for certain nutrients was higher in the frozen version of the food than in the raw version of the food.”

pdf document on using frozen foods ... which is more than a little interesting ... and I do love the taste of frozen peaches, while still frozen or even thawed.

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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Peas and corn are my favorite frozen vegatables. Canned peas and corn taste like, well, the can - esp. corn. I hate canned corn. I'll probably be pummeled for that.

I like canned green beans. Frozen beans taste like what I'd think grass would taste like. I don't have access to a Trader Joe's or whoever it is that has the hariot coverts.

Fresh cauliflower and broccoli are so economical and good quality, I don't know know why anyone would use the frozen, but my mom is never without them. They are ok, just don't mix them with frozen carrots. Frozen carrots are nasty.

Frozen fruits are just great (those peaches are great for teething babies!) and I always keep some on hand. Add some ice cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon for dessert.

My mom tells this story: After they got electricty at their farm - about 1945, I think, Gma and Gpa bought a deep freeze. It came fully stocked with food. Imagine a Kansas farm family with lima beans, peaches, pineapple, broccoli and cauliflower. They couldn't believe the riches they had received!!!

Stop Family Violence

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Not that I've tried much of a variety of brands, but I haven't had much luck with frozen pitted fruits I've tried, primarily peaches. Any that I've tried have been crunchy-- and I mean that under-ripe crunchy, not ice-crystal, still frozen crunchy. What brands have people been impressed with?

As for veggies, well there's usually some in our freezer-- I like Hanover brand veggies, and Cope's frozen white corn is fabulous! I like using that and Green Giant canned white creamed corn in Nigella's corn pudding recipe. I also like those TJ's haricot verts too.

"Fat is money." (Per a cracklings maker shown on Dirty Jobs.)
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We use some frozen veggies here: peas, corn, and green beans, primarily. Oh, and I use frozen yellow squash for an old-fashioned squash casserole I make a few times a year. Frozen spinach is terrific in lots of things, too.

I much prefer fresh broccoli and cauliflower, however, as someone has already mentioned.

Edit to add: Did Bittman say anything about frozen cruciferous veggies? What did he do to them in cooking?

Edited by Lori in PA (log)

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Lori, he concluded that the following are much better when purchased as fresh produce: kale, collards, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, onions and carrots.

He said that the following were better frozen (though he was speaking in the context of February -- he wasn't saying these would be better than local, in-season greenmarket examples): turnips, peas, corn, green beans, limas, favas, edamame and pepper strips. He also included a recipe for an omelette made with frozen rutabaga, and sang the praises of Michel Richard's frozen Brussels sprouts.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Jan, I've been buying Cascadian Farms. Their stuff is excellent and not terribly much more expensive than standard brands -- though it never goes on sale 10 for $10 or anything like that; I think the vegetables are pretty consistently two bucks a bag and the fruits are $3.50 but I have to check. I believe the company is now owned by General Mills. The fruits I've had luck with (Dana, my frozen fruit Renaissance has definitely been helped along by a teething baby!) from Cascadian are blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and sliced peaches. Although, I recently bought some Dole frozen sliced peaches (the supply of Cascadian products, at least where I shop, is inconsistent), and I didn't find them to be all that bad. They were a notch down, though. In terms of vegetables, they make both "garden peas" and "sweet peas." The sweet peas are, well, sweeter. Also smaller. I like them better. I can also vouch for the cut green beans -- the trick there is to sautee them briefly at very high heat. All of the above are the ones in little plastic pouches, not the boxed line they also have available. I guess I should do a price check next time I shop, but unless there's a deep discount I can't imagine why anybody would pick, for example, the frozen block of peas in a box over the loose IQF peas in a bag.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Trader Joe's Harvest Hodgepodge is my favorite blend, as well as Costco's "Stir Fry Vegetables".

Frozen veggies are definitely my friends - many a dinner would be more complicated without them.

Andrea

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"You can't taste the beauty and energy of the Earth in a Twinkie." - Astrid Alauda

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I have to disagree with his dissing of frozen spinach, I use it a lot. The great advantage is it is pre cooked. Fresh spinach cooks down to next to nothing, so if you're going to cook it, you need a LOT. A pound of frozen is a usable pound and I find it tastes pretty good.

I also like frozen okra. Toss some in soup and stew. Guess I'll have to revisit some of the others.

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I remember that Minimalist article, it was nice to see an article in the food section of the NYT about buying something cheaper.

Trader Joe's seems to own in this category. I especially like the their super sweet corn, I can eat it frozen right out of the bag.

I also buy the blocks of frozen spinach (usually Jewel brand) for quick pasta and soup meals. I keep a beat up old bread knife to saw then in half and throw it into the boiling pasta water or soup stock for my dinner.

Quick question about frozen edamame, I've only had it when I cook it and don't know what it's texture should be. Should the beans still be crunchy-ish? I usually only cook them for a minute, just to get them unfrozen and warm, because I'm afraid of mushy beans.

Dan

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I have to disagree with his dissing of frozen spinach, I use it a lot.  The great advantage is it is pre cooked.  Fresh spinach cooks down to next to nothing, so if you're going to cook it, you need a LOT.  A pound of frozen is a usable pound and I find it tastes pretty good.

Definitely! Frozen spinach is so much cheaper than buying fresh and much less work. Actually, besides the savings, I prefer the frozen because it doesn't bother my teeth as much (am I the only one who gets "fuzzy" teeth from spinach?). I have a friend who is a bit fanatical about buying everything at the farmer's market, but she loves my spanikopita. I'm embarrassed to tell her that I always use frozen spinach in it.

Other than that, peas, corn, and artichoke hearts are the frozen vegetables I keep on hand. I agree that frozen strawberries and raspberries are often superior to fresh, but for some reason I rarely buy frozen fruit. Also, I have recently discovered the joy of frozen baby limas to make this spread. Yummy, and it can be made in 15 minutes or so.

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Yes, I don't think it's necessarily sensible to divide frozen produce into good and bad. It all depends on purpose. In general, where a fresh, crispy-crunchy textural snap is very important, frozen is not going to cut it. But that still leaves open a world of possibilities for just about every frozen vegetable.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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this is weird how suddenly, people start trying the same thing at the same time!!

I've made sure I had a few bags of frozen veggies in the freezer for the past year or so--we fix a dinner for my MIL every day, and she eats around 4:30 in the afternoon, so they've been convenient if I didn't cook a veg for dinner the night before (often we just have a salad with our dinner).

anyway, I have always thrown frozen veggies into a clean the fridge soup, agree about frozen spinach being great to add to something--I would never serve plain frozen spinach as a side on a plate for dinner--yeech!

Fat Guy about Bittman--

"He said that the following were better frozen (though he was speaking in the context of February -- he wasn't saying these would be better than local, in-season greenmarket examples): turnips, peas, corn, green beans, limas, favas, edamame and pepper strips. He also included a recipe for an omelette made with frozen rutabaga, and sang the praises of Michel Richard's frozen Brussels sprouts. "

I agree about all of these, except the green beans--don't like them much plain.

And about lima beans--way better than fresh ones--I did a test of this several summers ago--in NJ which is a big grower of limas--bought fresh ones at the farm stand--cooked them and compared them to frozen--the frozen were sweeter and more tender.

I have to try the brussel sprouts cooked as Bittman describes--I did succumb to a couple bags of them--we love brussels sprouts--could easily eat 2 pints of them for dinner--and they are so expensive--the frozen ones steamed were still mooshy and tasteless--just as I remember them from my childhood.

And Danf-- about edamame--they should be cooked a little more than you are doing--not til they are mushy, but they should be tender--try some in Japanese restaurant to get an idea

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I'll never forget when I was about 4, and my grandmother (NE farm wife) got her first IH freezer. What a revelation for those farm wives! No more standing over a hot stove with hugs pans of steaming water to can. No more up until 4:00 am sterlizing jars in preparation for canning the next day while getting a meal ready to take to the men in the field.

And, they, like me, think that the frozen is much getter. Not mushy before it gets onto the shelf, and the time from field to freezer was darned quick.

I spent a summer during college working the Bird's eye pea (early summer) and corn (late summer) pack, and the stuff goes from the field to flash frozen in a very short time, so much of this stuff is fresher than if you stop at the local greenmarket in the summer on the way home from work and the corn, or peas, or whatever (those two especially because of the starch thing) have been sitting in the hot sun all day in little trays.

I think one of the worst of the frozen veg is the corn on the cob. Ick! Why is the stuff off the cob so much better than the stuff on the cob?

I haven't done any frozen fruit, mostly because we pick organic strawberries in the summer, and I freeze what we aren't going to eat immediately (on cookie sheets in the deep freeze; transferred to ziplocks). I do the same with rhubarb, fresh picked raspberries and Colorado peaches, so I'm well supplied. No, they don't eat like a fresh berry, but every bit of that summer sweetness and tang is preserved.

Hmmm. Maybe time for a strawberry rhubarb pie this weekend.

Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"
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this is weird how suddenly, people start trying the same thing at the same time!!

well, it is the middle of winter, after all...

Anyway, I'm a big fan of good frozen vegetables. Has anybody mentioned those haricots verts from Trader Joe's? Because they're awfully good.

Peas, too. The season for fresh peas is so short that most of the year, the frozen kind are a lot better.

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this is weird how suddenly, people start trying the same thing at the same time!!

well, it is the middle of winter, after all...

Anyway, I'm a big fan of good frozen vegetables. Has anybody mentioned those haricots verts from Trader Joe's? Because they're awfully good.

Peas, too. The season for fresh peas is so short that most of the year, the frozen kind are a lot better.

Amen to the frozen peas. Fresh peas seem to have an even shorter 'sweet life' than fresh corn does! And someone mentioned getting sweet, tender frozen limas. Where, pray tell?? I'd love them, but any frozen ones I've had lately-- mainly in a veg mix-- have been tough and starchy. bleah....

"Fat is money." (Per a cracklings maker shown on Dirty Jobs.)
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I'll never forget when I was about 4, and my grandmother (NE farm wife) got her first IH freezer.  What a revelation for those farm wives! No more standing over a hot stove with hugs pans of steaming water to can.  No more up until 4:00 am sterlizing jars in preparation for canning the next day while getting a meal ready to take to the men in the field.

This is exactly what my husband, Minnesota born and bred, remembers from his childhood. When his parents got their first deep freeze, his mother and the kitchen were both liberated from having the canning kettle running nearly nonstop during the hottest days of the summer. She never looked back.

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
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"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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My freezer is always stocked with peas, Cope's corn, limas, speckled limas, coconut, and my new favorite: favas! Yes... whole foods has a shelled frozen fava that is pretty darn good. I wouldn't use it blanched for salads, but add them to pasta with some parm and they are fantastic!

"Godspeed all the bakers at dawn... may they all cut their thumbs and bleed into their buns til they melt away..."

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More props for Cascadian Farms here. My father buys their berries (blueberries, raspberries, mixed berries, etc.) and peaches. They taste great!

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Interesting. Though I've long been a proponent of frozen produce to get you through the long dark months between greenmarket seasons, this was the year that I discovered a local "Farmers' Market" and for the first time have been eating nothing but fresh fruits & vegetables in January.

The green beans ($1.29 - $1.49 / lb) are crisp & fragrant. The red peppers (haven't seen yellow for a few weeks) at $1.29 / lb beat any frozen product. The flavor & aroma of CA & now FL strawberries ($1.98 - $2.98 / quart) have been a revelation; no, they don't match up to local berries in June, but at current levels of quality I'll never be tempted to buy frozen again.

I'm still a big fan of frozen peas, spinach, brussels sprouts, & so forth. But it sounds like Bittman was writing about his New York-centric experiences, not to mention prices. Things are different out here just 8 miles west of the Hudson, at least this year. Maybe it's just a better year for non-local produce than 2005 was; I'm open to evidence of that notion.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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frozen mango is great if you can find it.

Dole now had really, really good rasberries (few to none smooshed), cherries, and strawberries

I also like the frozen squash both cooked and pureed (for ravioli) or in chunks (for ravioli) both solid products that don't really take away from the final dish.

I do love frozen spinach for the reasons mentioned before, I just wish the would be a bit more meticulous about taking off more of the stem, it's my only complaint.

I also like the artachoke hearts as well, what a great time saver.

shredded potato's are great too, as long as there are no additives...

does this come in pork?

My name's Emma Feigenbaum.

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I am a huge fan of frozen peas. In fact, they are on the menu tonight. While I love fresh peas, the season is so short that I'd spend a lot of time without peas if it weren't for frozen.

Some of the frozen fruits are great, especially frozen cranberries, also another very short season. Some of us do make turkey and cranberries at times other than Thanksgiving! The frozen raspberries and strawberries are great for pies when those aren't in season, although I confess to paying an outrageous price for fresh raspberries to make the Napoleon yesterday.

There's something wrong with frozen green beans and broccoli though. They just taste weird. And unlike Susan, I like frozen corn as well.

Marlene

cookskorner

Practice. Do it over. Get it right.

Mostly, I want people to be as happy eating my food as I am cooking it.

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Just about always, we have frozen petite peas and frozen petite whole green beans (haricots verts when we can find them) on hand, most often C&W brand, which is sold West of the Rockies.

We also keep a stock of frozen berries -- most often, strawberries and blueberries -- for topping breakfast cereal and making improvised desserts. I'll have to try Cascadian Farm peaches; the other brands I've tried have been icy and underripe.

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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