Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library's culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called "First Monday," where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.

Barbara's books include "From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals" and "From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food," which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including "Home Cooking in the White House" published in "White House History." She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called "Cooking in Captivity."

She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who's Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television's "The Today Show," "Martha Stewart Living" and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who in Food and Beverages" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escofier.

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How Personal Cookbooks Can Say Something More Image

I am planning to compile a personal cookbook — not for publication, but rather as a private collection of favorite recipes to give to family and friends. The idea has been brewing ever since I got a phone call from a son at college who wanted to know how to make “skinny fries,” a potato recipe he’d grown up with. At other times I get requests from friends for how to make a particular dish they had at my house. Although some of the recipes I will be compiling are for family dishes that were passed down to me, many come from cookbooks or magazines, recipes I probably tweaked before deciding they were perfect. What makes my cookbook personal, of course, is that it will reflect my particular tastes in food, leaving out ingredients I do not like, and going heavy on the types of dishes I love.

We all know that the world has become flooded with recipes so that selecting the best of them is challenging and time consuming. I have spent years accumulating thick files of favorites I culled after having tried so many other recipes that were similar but not as good. So I see my collection as a worthwhile service to loved ones by offering them what I consider to be the best of the best. It took years, for instance, to find the perfect chocolate cake, a dessert I now bring to potluck gatherings where I am always besieged for the recipe. I also have a biscotti recipe that experienced biscotti eaters tell me is the best they have tasted. I have recipes that were handed down by the women in my family, and passing these along gives me a sense of continuity and order. These include recipes for a winter soup made with beans and meat, and a meatloaf made light and fluffy because of its secret ingredient — a grated raw potato.

I routinely hear tales from friends who regret not getting their grandmother’s recipe for a dish they continually think about, but don’t know how to make because no one in the family thought to jot it down. It would have required trailing after grandma in her kitchen, and managing to measure and write down what she instinctively threw into a pot. I have even heard stories about grandmothers who will not give out their recipes, or if they do, will deliberately leave out key ingredients. Their motivation seems to be the hope that family members will continue to visit and eat what they cook. My expectation for myself is to have it both ways — to continue to please my visiting family members with the dishes they love and then to hand them all copies of the recipes.

It’s ‘CSI: The Kitchen’

I have seen compilations of family recipes assembled by other people, and they tell me a lot about the person who put the collection together. They add up to what I think of as a food profile. Just as FBI profilers can speculate about perpetrators of crimes by analyzing clues left behind, I feel I can gain insights into a person by examining the foods they choose to eat. But the work of a food profiler is far more pleasant — investigating noodle puddings and fruit pies rather than bullet holes and blood spatters. I have noticed, for instance, that books filled with dishes for grilled meats strike me as man pleasers or may even have been created by men. Ethnic backgrounds are also easy to spot — loads of pasta recipes with tomato sauce suggest Southern Italy, while yeast breads and coffeecakes using cardamom say Scandinavia.

Regional recipes are striking when, for instance, books recommending sweet tea and directions for such desserts as triple-layer coconut cake and sweet potato pie announce old-time Southern cooking. Recipes using such stylish grains as farro and quinoa and a wide variety of herbs and spices suggest an adventurous eater, while those relying mainly on salt and pepper for seasoning strongly hint that the eater has conservative tastes. And there are subtle clues. If many of the recipes yield eight or more servings, I deduce that the person either has a large family or entertained frequently, and the reverse is true. Recipes serving just two indicate a more private lifestyle.

My personal food profile

If I were to be food-profiled, the absence of cilantro, the herb people seem to either love or hate, would herald my aversion to the thing. Also noticeable would be my preference for cooking with olive oil rather than butter, and that an indifference to butter and cream carries over to desserts that omit whipped cream. Recipes for candy and cookies will lord it over puddings and tarts. My book will contain anecdotes, tributes to my sources for recipes, and nostalgic comments about the people whose recipes I am reproducing. I would hope to be seen as someone with a generous spirit, but most of all I would like to be seen as someone with a respect for history. I long ago learned that history is not just about the actions of presidents and kings but about the aspirations of regular people, and personal cookbooks can be a key to understanding how these people really lived.

Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti

(Adapted from “Cooking With Les Dames D’Escoffier” cookbook)

Prep time: 30 minutes (this includes the slicing before the second baking)
Chilling time for dough: 3 hours
First baking: 45 minutes
Resting time between bakings: 1 hour
Second baking: 25 minutes
Total time: 5 hours 40 minutes

Yield: 48 biscotti

Ingredients

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
10 tablespoons (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs divided
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons milk
1½ cups miniature chocolate chips
1½ cups chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and granulated sugar in a large bowl until blended. Add two of the eggs, one at a time, beating just to blend after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and milk, then the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
  2. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 3 equal portions. With lightly floured hands, form each portion into an 8-inch long log and flatten it to 2½ inches wide; place each log on a piece of plastic wrap large enough to cover the dough. Wrap in the plastic and chill for at least 3 hours or up to 3 days.
  3. Position oven rack in the upper third of the oven. Preheat oven to 325 F. Line a heavy, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap the logs of dough, leaving them sitting on the plastic. Beat the remaining egg well to make a glaze. Brush the tops of the logs with the glaze and place them on the parchment-lined sheet. Space them 2 to 3 inches apart since they will spread. Bake 45 to 50 minutes until golden brown and just firm to the touch. Let logs cool completely for at least an hour.
  4. For the second baking, heat oven to 300 F. Line one or two sheets with parchment paper. With a long serrated knife, cut the logs crosswise into ½ to ¾ inch slices. Arrange biscotti on the sheets, putting the ends cut side down. Bake for 15 minutes and then turn them over and bake for another 10 minutes. Cool and store.

Notes

Variation for cranberry-pecan biscotti: Omit chocolate chips, vanilla and milk. Add 1½ cups dried cranberries, 3 tablespoons lemon juice and 1½ tablespoons lemon zest. The rest of the directions are the same.

Main photo: Chocolate Chip-Pecan Biscotti. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Where A Pursuit Of Food Obsessions Can Lead Image

When I hear about a tantalizing version of a food I love, nothing will stop me from going to the ends of the earth to find it, and I mean this literally. I am way too fond of confections and have been known to track down the best almond candy in Seville, the most delicious licorice in Helsinki or Amsterdam, and, when in Italy, the tastiest hazelnut chocolates. I go off in crazed pursuit of an obsession, tasting along the way to ensure I find the best. These hunts in foreign countries are no easy task since I have no sense of direction, so I try to take along a willing friend on these missions.

Of course I do not have to be abroad to find favorite candies. American cities often have unique treats worth seeking. When in California, I always visit a See’s candy shop. Although See’s boxed assortments are available east of the Mississippi, the shops are located mainly west of the river and only there can I buy whole boxes of my favorite piece, the delectable peanut crunch. In New Orleans I seek out the best pralines, and in Nashville Goo Goo Clusters, and I have recently discovered in Milwaukee the resurrection of the Giant Bar, a milk chocolate bar studded with peanuts, a grade-school favorite I thought was extinct.

But sweets are not the only foods I seek to satisfy a yen. I also have a weakness for bakeries that produce excellent bread, and for years have been in pursuit of the perfect bagel. What I was finding in most stores was far removed from the bagels I remember from my childhood. Handmade by bagel professionals, those objects of my desire were small with a hard and shiny crust, a chewy interior. These days, bagels are being churned out by machine and have become bloated and doughy, and even have pretension of being muffins in that some are made with blueberries, a hideous travesty.

But those days of responding sullenly to present-day bagels came to an end when I discovered flat bagels or “flagels” as they are lovingly called. I was at a brunch in New York when the hostess put out a basket brimming with a kind of bagel I had never seen before. They were large and flat, mostly crust with very little interior so there was no gummy stuff to contend with, and they were studded with poppy seeds or sesame, my favorite. And so I went on a hunt for the best flagels in NYC and found them at David’s bagel bakery on 1st Avenue. I bring back a bagful when I am in the city, and now think of this bagel as being the most important and satisfying resolution to any of my food odysseys.

Making someone else happy

Food pursuits can be about appeasing someone else’s desires rather than your own. I have a dear friend who spent great chunks of her life trying to please her 90-year-old, very particular mother. We all know how favorite items can disappear from grocery shelves, and this woman had lived long enough to endure many such disappointments, or, as her daughter put it, “my mother had only to like a product for it to go belly up.”

To buy up a remaining supply of a discontinued breath mint her mother claimed helped her digestion, my friend spent hours running around from one Greater Chicago gas station to another, scooping up all she could find to deliver to Mother. Another disappointment had to do with the demise of freeze-dried instant Sanka coffee, much beloved by her mother who adamantly rejected the powdered kind. This product was wiped out when Folger’s took over the market and crushed its competitor. In a relentless search for any remaining Sanka, my friend scoured large and small grocery stores, going farther and farther from her neighborhood with only an occasional payoff — a dusty jar at the back of a high shelf. Soon, those sources, too, were depleted.

The Cronut food obsession

I love to hear about other people’s food obsessions, and am happy and relieved to say that I seldom get caught up in them, since I have enough of my own. Most notably, we are seeing the stampede for Cronuts, that clever alliance between a doughnut and a croissant invented a little over a year ago by a New York pastry chef. His shop opens at 8 a.m., and people start lining up hours before for the privilege of buying two Cronuts, a rationing system that was put in place in response to demand. I would add that the lines and the rationing also keep up the hype. Each Cronut costs $5 and is filled with cream and topped with a flavored glaze. The fervor to get them has led to scalpers standing in those lines and profiting by reselling the pastries to well-heeled stayabeds.

Although the name “Cronuts” has been trademarked, the idea is available to all bakeries that want to bake and sell impostors. Imitations with such names as “doissants,” “crodoughs” and “kronuts” have shown up, and even the quite literally-named “doughnut croissant.” I have buzzed around and tasted a couple of these knockoffs and shrugged, although I would concede that the original is probably better, and someday I may get to try one.  But, all in all, I’d rather be eating a flagel.

Main photo: Flagels. Credit: Barbara Haber

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It’s Time To Show Honey Some Love Image

It seems that Americans are not making much culinary use of honey these days and are more likely to value bees for their ability to pollinate crops than for the food they produce. Unlike those living in ancient cultures who cherished honey and considered it the food of the gods, Americans seem to think of it as just another supermarket product and not a very important one at that.

We currently sweeten our food with inexpensive granulated sugar and corn syrup, so the more costly honey is thought of as a specialty item that is most useful to people baking Greek pastries. Many supermarket shoppers are not even aware that not all honey tastes the same. But if you talk to beekeepers, you discover that the nectar that the bees gather from a particular plant will produce honey that varies in flavor from other plants so that, for instance, we get an aromatic honey from orange blossoms, whereas buckwheat produces a dark, deep-flavored product.

This information was brought home when I had an emergency caused by a wasp nest in my backyard. Expecting houseguests and planning an al fresco lunch, I noticed a menacing stream of yellow jackets zooming in and out of a hole near where I had planned to set up a picnic table. I located someone who advertised himself as a bee and wasp expert, and he promised to come right over. Soon, a yellow truck in the shape of a bumblebee pulled into my driveway and out came a man wearing a straw hat and coveralls, and sporting a straggly beard that reached almost to his waist. He looked like a 19th-century farmer hailing from the wilds of Maine or Vermont.

Adventures in beekeeping

The man eliminated the wasps in a hurry and then joined us on the porch, regaling us with story after story about his adventures as a beekeeper and about the wonders of honey. Before leaving, instead of a business card, he gave me a jar of honey produced from his own hives with a label that had his contact information.That honey was a revelation to me, smooth yet tingling with complex flavors, convincing me that I was eating a new food. Since that time, whenever I am at a farmers market, I head right for the honey people who often provide delicious tastes.

The early Romans prized honey for its flavor and its ability to preserve foods. There are many recipes attributed to Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius. He used honey in sauces served with meat or fish, and often balanced them with vinegar to create a sweet and sour effect. One of those recipes is for mushrooms cooked in honey, olive oil and fish sauce that wind up with a honey glaze, a dish I mean to try. Instead of coating meat in a thick layer of salt in order to preserve it, Apicius suggested coating it with honey, a practice he also used to preserve fruit.

The Romans also added honey to dry white wine to produce mulsum, a drink that was served with appetizers, and they drank mead, an alcoholic drink made of fermented honey that was consumed all over the ancient world. I once went to a banquet featuring a historic Roman meal and had a wonderful time tasting dish after dish of well-seasoned delicious foods and interesting drinks.

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

New England honey. Credit: Barbara Haber

Because honey is such an ancient food, it has a long history not only of recipes but of beliefs in its power to cure disease, and it was seen as a talisman, a protector against misfortune. One superstition advised that strings dipped in honey at sunrise and tied around fruit trees would ensure that an excellent crop would be produced.

Bees too have had their legends. For instance, it was thought that if a bee enters your house, it is a sign that a visitor will appear, and if you kill the bee the visitor will be unpleasant. Even today claims are made about the health benefits of honey, suggesting it can ward off cancer, alleviate allergies and soothe minor burns.

Colony Collapse Disorder

These days, attention is being paid to the mystery of the disappearing bees. Commercial beekeepers whose livelihood depends on their transporting beehives from one part of the country to another in order to pollinate crops are experiencing a threat. Bees are mysteriously disappearing from their hives, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists around the world are trying to work out the causes, speculations that lay the blame at pathogens, fungus, pesticides, and the wear and tear of being hauled around on pollination jobs, or all of these things.

A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health points the finger at a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies, particularly during cold winters.

This threat makes me appreciate honey all the more, and I am always on the lookout for dishes that include it — not just sweets such as baklava, but savory dishes that use just a little for flavoring. I found such a dish recently while browsing through a used bookstore, and came across “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas that has a recipe for fresh tuna with a touch of honey. I love this dish and cook it regularly with swordfish, which I prefer, and it has become a family favorite.

Atun Frito Con Miel (Honey-Coated Fried Tuna)

This is adapted from Penelope Casas’ “One Pot Spanish.”

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 pounds fresh tuna or swordfish steaks

Salt

2 eggs

½ teaspoon ground cumin

Honey, enough to lightly coat both sides of the fish

All-purpose flour for dusting

Olive oil for frying

Directions

1. Cut fish steaks into four pieces and sprinkle both sides with salt.

2. Beat together the eggs with the cumin in a shallow dish.

3. Spread both sides of the fish steaks with a thin layer of honey.

4. Dust the steaks with flour, then coat both sides with the egg mixture.

5. Heat about ⅛ inch of olive oil in a skillet. Place steaks into the pan and cook over medium-high heat, turning once and cooking each side for 4 to 5 minutes until the coating is golden and the fish is cooked to taste.

Main photo: Honey-coated fried swordfish. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Skip Stale Peanuts, Take Travel Food To The Next Level Image

I never thought I would say this, but I am beginning to miss airline meals. I know, I know, they were pretty bad, but at least they could fill the belly, even if you only picked away at bits of chicken and a few lettuce leaves and ate up the dinner roll.

You could at least ward off hunger and not be at the mercy of airline snacks. Nowadays, of course, for those of us who travel coach, snack foods are the only available edibles. It is possible, I reckon, to fly from coast to coast eating only pretzels. Even the more nourishing peanuts are no longer offered because everyone is so concerned about peanut allergies, fearing that even a whiff of them can cause passengers to keel over.

Travel food worthy of vacation

When flying, I try to bring along something decent like roasted almonds, slices of cheddar and a Granny Smith apple, but I don’t always remember, so this is why I sometimes long for that tray of food that used to be set down before my grim face.

Some food lovers think ahead and pack a delectable meal if leaving home or, when heading back to the airport, they pick up good travel food from a favorite deli before getting anywhere near an airplane. A good friend from California who is in New York now and then, never leaves the city without a pastrami sandwich, thus extending her New York visit just a little bit longer.

Another trick of the wary traveler is to pack a lunch from a breakfast buffet just before heading for the airport. I do this when I am staying in a favorite hotel that offers such a buffet, managing to stow away a hard-cooked egg, an orange and a muffin, thus protected from whatever may befall me. Feeling like a bag lady, I always hope that no one I know will catch me squirreling away the food, but if it happens I go into a long ramble about the terrors of airplane food.

But such a humble lunch does not appeal to everyone. I know a woman who never forgets to organize and bring along her own travel food that is always the envy of other airline passengers. First she spreads a placemat on her tray table, then retrieves from her hand luggage a slice of country pâté and cornichons, thinly sliced rye bread, a wedge of Roquefort, naval orange segments, and squares of dark chocolate. A small bottle of fine wine used to accompany her meal, but now that stiff airline regulations prevent liquids in carry-ons, she drinks whatever she can find tolerable on the plane, often only water.

An improvised travelers’ feast

The best improvised meal I ever had in connection with air travel occurred some years ago when I was heading back from Spain from a food trip. About 10 other people who had been on that trip were with me on the flight from Madrid to New York City when our plane suddenly had engine trouble, did an about-face and delivered us back to Madrid. We were told that we would be staying overnight at a small hotel near the airport until our plane was appropriately repaired.

We managed to communicate with family and friends back home to explain the problem and, realizing we had no other choice, decided to make the best of it. Vouchers for a free meal in the hotel dining room were distributed and we bravely trooped in to face a cafeteria-style steam table filled with gray meat, mashed potatoes and overcooked vegetables. That was not Spanish food at all, but stuff designed for tourists on a low budget, so we foodies all turned away and decided to rummage in our carry-ons to throw together a meal of  travel food we hoped would contain a little joy.

We met in one of our rooms, each carrying various bottles, jars, cans and packages of food we had collected on the trip. A more normal group of travelers would have been carrying souvenirs such as fragile ceramic bowls or figurines, but we had our own ideas about what to bring back from a foreign country.

Out came hunks of manchego cheese, cans of sardines, jars of bonito tuna, olives and peppers, Galician bread, boxes of crisp crackers from Seville and marcona almonds, those distinctly Spanish nuts that bring almonds to a higher level. The sweet lovers among us provided a dessert of almond turron and those chocolate-stuffed figs I have seen only in Spain.

It was a memorable and certainly a movable feast. And I know that if we had been given kitchen privileges, we might have whipped up a paella since some of us had the skill to do it as well as the fixings.

We all had tucked away bags of bomba rice and tins of smoked paprika because that’s what you buy in Spain. This improvised meal was surpassed only by the generosity and fun of the company, for food people know how to cheer one another up when stuck somewhere in a seedy airport hotel far from home.

Main photo: Travel food, from left: Marcona almonds, stuffed peppers, albacore tuna, roasted red peppers, olive oil, Bomba rice for paella, and in the foreground sweet orange-flavored torta made with olive oil. Credit: Barbara Haber

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A Well-Aimed Splash Of Milk, And More Fond Food Memories Image

We are frequently reminded that food prompts memory, a recognition that has led to the flourishing of food memoirs, a literary genre that has taken off in recent years. Many writers are inspired by Marcel Proust’s description of nibbling on a petite Madeleine only to be flooded by memories that resulted in the thousands of pages that make up “Remembrance of Things Past.”

Other good writers, M.F.K. Fisher especially, have constructed narratives around recalling a precise food moment in their lives. I am taken with Fisher’s description of the tangerines she left for hours on a radiator on a severely cold day in France. She tells us that “on the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.” Fisher’s ability to capture sensuality in spare prose is what I like best about her writing.

Powerful childhood food memories

As for me, I have no plans to write a full-length food memoir because I am conscious of the “so what” factor when I read some of these books, a sinking feeling that what a writer finds endlessly fascinating about her own life may be tedious reading for others. But I cannot help but indulge myself just a little by describing a few of my food memories that have been lasting points of reference in my life.

For instance, when I look at a tall glass of newly poured milk I am brought back to my childhood and my older brother who tormented me with constant teasing. When we sat around the dinner table, he would quietly mutter taunts that he knew only I could hear.

One day, when he leaned toward me to whisper something insulting, I reached for the tall glass of milk our mother had just poured and threw all of it into his face. I hung around long enough to see his expression change from an evil glint to horrified shock, and then ran for my life into the bathroom where I locked the door and waited for everyone to calm down.

Another recollection from my youth has to do with being present at a post-funeral gathering. The departed was an elderly distant relative I had never met and I didn’t know most of the people who came to pay their respects. Many arrived with boxes of candy, and I positioned myself at the door to take their coats, graciously accept the candy and then head for the bedroom where I dumped the coats and opened each candy box to select and devour my favorite pieces.

Happily, not all of my food memories involve childish bad behavior. I am touched by remembering how my mother, who hated the smell of cooking fish, figured out a comfortable way to cook and serve one of my father’s favorite fish dishes. She would go to our backyard patio with her ingredients and an electric pot, then assemble the dish, set it to cook, and flee back inside, entirely escaping all cooking smells. The only drawback was that the dish appeared only in the warmer months because my mother was not inclined to brave Wisconsin winters to cook for the man she loved.

College love and fudge bottom pie

Another memory that has me in its grasp is about a pie I used to eat during my college years. I attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison and regularly took my meals at the student union cafeteria. This being a dairy state and a campus with a large agricultural component, the food was fresh, cheap and good. Best of all, the union was and still is a central meeting place where students from its disparate colleges would gather to rendezvous and meet new people.

Every now and then the cafeteria would serve fudge bottom pie, an iconic dish with a huge fan base, and I was undoubtedly its biggest admirer. The bottom of the pie is a graham cracker crumb crust that is covered with a thick coating of chocolate — not too hard and not too soft — and over this a custard filling that is the largest component of the pie. This custard is neither stiff and solid nor runny and gloppy. It must be just right. And the top of the pie is spread with a thin layer of sweetened whipped cream and flourished with a sprinkling of chocolate shavings.

Years after college, I tried to create this pie at home, but could never get any of my attempts to taste as good as I had remembered. I finally stopped trying when I realized that the meaning of this pie is as much about my blissful undergraduate years as it is about something good to eat. I came to realize that fudge bottom pie was a symbol of carefree youth, the excitement of meeting new people, and falling in love for the first time when a slice of that pie was shared with someone special.

I now realize that fudge bottom pie is my Proustian moment, my petite Madeleine, but with a twist. I have to only think about it, not eat it, and I am flooded with memories of my college years when life was uncomplicated, carefree and full of adventure.

Top photo Fudge bottom pie. Credit: Barbara Haber

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What Can Go Wrong (And Right!) With Freezing Meals Image

After my stove, my freezers are the most important kitchen gear I own. I have a large standup one in my kitchen, a chest freezer in the basement, and the freezer that is part of my old refrigerator, also stored in the basement, and all of them are full.

I think of them as essential parts of my pantry, and their contents always enter into my plans for my next meal. As someone who likes bread for breakfast, but not the same kind every day, I store an array that can satisfy any of my moods. Sometimes I want a hearty whole grain loaf, so I pull out a slice from the loaf I baked using Joanne Chang’s recipe from “Flour.”

If I go for something a little sweet, I have home-baked coffee cakes that are not too rich or frosted, yet have that slight sweetness, yeastiness and pull I find so satisfying. I always keep store-bought rolls, and am especially fond of ciabattas, which go from the freezer to the convection setting on my toaster oven, ready to eat by the time the coffee is brewed.

I would add that these rolls are improved by this process, for they come out with a crunchy crust after having been subjected to thick plastic bags that make their crusts flaccid. Sourdoughs, sandwich loaves, and bagels are also in my kitchen freezer awaiting their turn at the toaster oven.

Freezing meals, not just foods on sale

Of course I have cooked dishes in my freezers, and this is the most important reason to have so much freezer space. Instead of filling the spaces with foods on sale in the super market — a pile of chickens, for instance — I use my freezers as a convenience, making sure that appealing cooked dishes are available all year round and get used up in a timely way. For instance, when I am in a cooking mood I prepare thick soups to serve on those winter nights when I may not feel like cooking.

Other dishes are great candidates for the freezer, such as cabbage rolls, because the dish has so much sauce that it freezes and preserves well. And, clearly, one does not have to come from Eastern Europe to love this dish. An Irish friend dropped by recently, joined us for a cabbage roll dinner, and wouldn’t leave until he got the recipe. And I have friends I already know love this dish, so I can always come up with a last-minute meal I know will please them. I just have to mash some potatoes and dinner is set.

Staples from the freezer. Credit: Barbara Haber

Staples from the freezer. Credit: Barbara Haber

The other good use I make of my freezer is to preserve foods that can otherwise go bad. Whole wheat flour is a prime example. And I keep many of my other grains in the freezer to keep away those kitchen moths that are known to invade.

My interest in convenience means that I will keep on hand cuts of meat my family enjoys. Because we all like chicken thighs, I buy them in bulk and clean and skin them before packaging and freezing so that when they thaw they are ready to go into any dish I choose. But I don’t stuff my freezers with bulky items, especially large cuts of meat or turkeys. This may be because I came across a story some years ago that I have since thought of as a cautionary tale.

A man was given a 30-pound turkey one summer, which he decided to freeze until Thanksgiving. He managed to stuff it into his old chest freezer, pushing it around the internal coils.  When he went to get it, he found the turkey hopelessly stuck and impossible to retrieve because, of course, it was no longer malleable and capable of bending around the coils. He had no choice but to unplug the freezer and wait for the turkey to thaw.

Be careful about what goes in the freezer

I sometimes store foods that are available only at stores far from home, but such long-distance shopping can backfire. I have a friend who likes fresh beef tongue, something you don’t find in neighborhood groceries, so she had to travel some distance to get one. When she got home and unwrapped it, she found that it was smelly and had gone bad. In a rage, she called up the butcher who sold it and gave him a piece of her mind, emphasizing that she lived far away from his shop so that returning it wasn’t going to be easy. He told her to put it in her freezer until the next time she was in the area to which she replied, “What do you think I’m running here? A morgue?”

So I am cautious and selective about what goes into my freezers. I remind myself that I don’t think of freezing food necessarily as a way to save money, but rather as a convenience and a way to eat well. When I have a good crop of tomatoes from my garden, many go into a marinara sauce. And I have a favorite corn chowder recipe I prepare in August and pull out in February. Being so enamored of freezing food has led to some teasing by family members. Recently, I went to my basement to put away muffins I had just made when I found taped to the top of the freezer a cartoon showing a husband, wife, and their own chest freezer. The caption has the wife saying, “Do you still want this?” Tucked under her arm is an object shaped like a man and wrapped like a mummy, which she fails to recognize as a leftover corpse.

Cabbage Rolls

Serves 12

Ingredients

1 head cabbage with large tender leaves

2 medium potatoes, coarsely chopped

1 large onion, coarsely

2 eggs

1 (28 ounce) can of tomatoes

1 can sauerkraut

1 (15 ounce) can tomato soup

Juice of one lemon

1½ cups brown sugar (or less, according to taste)

2 pounds chopped beef, uncooked

2 carrots sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

1. With paring knife, make cuts around stem of cabbage, then steam for five to 10 minutes, allowing leaves to soften so they can be rolled without splitting.

2. Using a food processor, process potatoes, onion and eggs, until all lumps of potato and onion are gone.

3. In large 8-quart Dutch oven pour in the tomatoes, sauerkraut, tomato soup, lemon juice and brown sugar. Add the vegetable mixture from the food processor and the raw, sliced carrots. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. When cabbage leaves are cool and pliable, fill each one with a heaping tablespoon of meat, roll loosely and place in Dutch oven on top of ingredients. If cabbage leaves are stiff, put remaining cabbage back into the steamer until leaves are pliable.

5. Simmer the dish for 1½ hours. It tastes best the day after it is cooked.

Note: I found at a Chinese market a cabbage that is wide and flat. It has very large leaves that are easy to roll. Standard cabbages can be more difficult to handle.

Top photo: Stuffed cabbage rolls. Credit: Barbara Haber

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