About a dozen years ago, when my husband and I were expecting the imminent arrival of our first child, we did something a bit impulsive. At the annual gala to benefit a local farm we got into a casual bidding war on a silent auction item we were utterly unprepared to receive. After deciding to split the prize with our opponents, our check was written before we’d fully thought through how exactly we would store our winnings.
We were now the proud owners of a couple of hundred pounds of grass-fed beef, split into a multitude of cuts and frozen, from a happy cow raised on a family farm in Vermont. While we couldn’t have been happier with the outcome, we really had no idea what we would do with it all when it came.
This was far more meat than would ever fit into our standard freezer, so we headed to a big-box store and made another impulsive purchase: a chest freezer for the basement. That freezer turned out to be one of the best investments we ever made. In it we stored not only the meat of that first happy cow, but it allowed us to easily join a meat CSA; preserve cut kernels from summer’s corn and zip-top bags of peeled August tomatoes; package little tubs of puréed veggies to feed to our babies; and tuck away rolls of cookie dough and entire dishes prepared when time was abundant to bake when life turned busy.
When we moved from the city to the suburbs in 2010, the freezer came with us, plugged in overnight at the moving company so as not to lose the precious cargo inside. When we moved again last summer, the house we bought came with a stand-up basement freezer of its own, so we left our trusty chest behind for our old home’s new owners. The stand-up version we inherited is a serious upgrade: There are lights inside(!) and racks for holding baking trays, tubs of stock, baggies of nuts and seeds, so nothing tips over and goes missing at the bottom like sometimes happened with the chest.
The best thing about having extra freezer space is that I can cook vegetables and fruits when they’re at their peak and preserve them to enjoy in the dead of winter. Nothing tastes better in February than a sauce made with the ripest of summer tomatoes! I also keep a zip-top bag in the freezer to collect the odds and ends of vegetable scraps (like onion stems and skins, leek greens, celery bottoms and carrot tops), ready to dump into a pot with the remains of a roasted chicken or some beef bones for a simple broth, which then gets frozen in quart containers, too. Having these essential elements in the freezer is like money in the bank and an investment in the future: I can always make a delicious meal from local, healthy ingredients, without ever having to go to the store.
But sometimes I want something even easier, especially in the cold, dark winter—a ready-made meal, prepped for the oven, full of the bounty of autumn’s harvest. In the mid-fall, when our local crops are at their peak, I do my best to take a weekend afternoon—no matter the weather—and make a few dishes destined for the freezer. Soups, stews and savory pies are almost always on the docket, but lately baked pasta dishes, like lasagna and stuffed shells, have been in my rotation. I’ll make enough for a few large casseroles to serve family-style, as well as a quartet of small fluted ramekins for when company comes and I need something elegant that’ll bake up quickly. Sacrificing a clear-skied fall afternoon to cook something we won’t eat for at least a month or two may seem like a waste of the waning good weather, but by January I’m always glad I took the time to do it.
The following recipes are hearty and rich, perfect for mid-winter rejuvenation. Pop one in the oven after a day of skiing or snowman-making (or even a late-fall leaf raking session) and thank your freezer for extending the seasons.
Sarah Blackburn is a home cook, recipe developer, vegetable gardener and managing editor of Edible Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com