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How to Cook With Frozen Vegetables

03/10/2015 04:08 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015
Alpha Smoot

Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: No more mushy peas. Here's how to get the most out of the frozen vegetable aisle.

By now, we know that eating produce during peak season benefits the environment, the wallet, and of course, the flavor of our food. But during the winter months, our tuber-heavy roster grows tired -- even parsnips lose their charm after a while.

That’s where the freezer aisle comes in. Frozen vegetables put out-of-season ingredients back into your regular rotation, adding variety without a huge carbon footprint or price tag. But for all the good they do, they're majorly undervalued because they are often equated with waterlogged peas or stinky broccoli.

That's why we’re doing a little frozen veggie refresher. With the proper thawing techniques and a few cooking best practices, you'll be able to keep those frozen peas and sprouts perky with ease. So put on a sweater, head to the chilly section of the store, and discover the variety of produce available all year long. Here's how to get the most out of frozen vegetables (beyond smoothies):

The Nutritional Truth

Do not mistake the plastic packaging as a sign of less healthful ingredients. Frozen vegetables actually rival fresh ones in terms of nutrition, as they get picked and flash-frozen at peak ripeness when they are in a nutrient-rich state. In some cases, like when the produce must travel far distances, frozen products may even prove healthier, since vegetables continue to lose nutrients from the time they are picked to when you finally stash them in your crisper.

Plus, frozen vegetables are preserved without additives, unlike their canned cousins. Some products do contain extra sugar, salt, and other ingredients, so just be sure to check the vegetables' labels to find those in their most natural state. And look for a USDA “U.S. Fancy” shield for the most nutrient-rich products.

Shopping Advice

If you haven’t looked lately, the modern frozen aisle contains more than just peas and carrots. Today, you’ll find purple cauliflower florets, rainbow chard, artichokes, and okra, to name a few new arrivals. Many of these options also come pre-chopped and parboiled, meaning minimal prep time for you. 

So when should you not buy frozen vegetables? Stick with fresh options when the ingredient, like carrots or broccoli, are available fresh for most of the year -- or when the vegetable is the star of a dish or you need a firmer structure (such as in these Steam-Roasted Carrots with Cumin). You’ll be happier with the results. And they often prove just as easy to prepare and are equally budget-friendly.

Cooking Advice

Depending on the vegetable and the recipe, thawing techniques will differ. But one rule holds true across the board: Do not boil. Boiling will add more moisture to the product, increasing chances of an unpleasant “mushy” texture and the loss of water-soluble vitamins. So skip the boil and simply steam or microwave the vegetables with two tablespoons of water after thawing. 

More: Don't have a steamer? Here's how to hack one.

For most recipes, you can even skip the thaw. Whether steaming or adding them to a cooked stew, use vegetables straight from the freezer to retain as much structure, color, and flavor as possible. When you add frozen vegetables to a dish in-progress, it's best to add them near the end of the cooking time to prevent them from breaking down too much. 

That being said, not all frozen vegetables can adapt to the same recipe. Some vegetables do best blended into the background of a dish; others easily spotlight in dips and stir fries; and a small group can take center stage on the plate. By following the guidelines below, you'll be able to use frozen vegetables to the best of their abilities. Better yet, you'll be able to skillfully swap them into recipes when you don’t have the fresh stuff on hand. Here's what you need to know about incorporating frozen vegetables into different types of recipe:

Cold

Bite-sized items -- like frozen corn, peas, bell pepper strips, green beans, edamame, and chopped artichoke hearts -- only need a quick thaw or steam before they’re ready for the plate. Mix with cooked grains or sturdy greens for a not-sad desk lunch. Or toss with tangy dressing -- like in this parsley, preserved lemon, and artichoke salad -- and let them stand on their own.

Crispy (and Casseroled)

Frozen asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli florets, okra, butternut squash, and cauliflower tend to get a soggy feel when roasted or sautéed. It's best to lend them texture through breading and/or frying. When in doubt, it's always a good idea to use these ingredients in casseroles or gratins, or anything with a crispy coating.  

Baked

You can add almost any frozen vegetable to a strata or frittata, like Merrill’s Strata with Sausage and Greens, straight from the package. Or add them to muffins, savory pie fillings, or puffed pastry pinwheels.  

Mixed 

Whether you choose meatballs, falafel, or gnocchi, most frozen vegetables do well when used as part of a patty. Give thawed or steamed ingredients, like spinach, sturdy greens, and florets, a fine chop by hand; for tougher items, like carrots and green beans, a quick whirl in the food processor is recommended. You'll be ready to roll, burger, and dumpling in no time.

Swirled 

Mix spinach, collard greens, chard, and kale with sour cream or yogurt for a quick and easy dip; blend with garlic and onions for a chunky pesto; or combine with hot cheese and bacon for an irresistible pasta sauce

Souped (and Stewed)

Want a foolproof way to use frozen vegetables? Make a soup or stew. The tenderness of most thawed vegetables is actually a plus here, especially for blended soups (like this Thomas Keller classic). When making minestrone or other textured soups, however, just remember to add frozen ingredients towards the end of the cooking time. 

Smashed

Forget the avocado and give butternut squash, carrots, and other “mushy” frozen vegetables a chance at redemption with ABC Kitchen’s Butternut Squash on Toast or Modern Farmer’s Hard Summer Squash Hummus. Spread on toast, then spread the good news.

Gnocchi and hummus photos by James Ransom; all other photos by Alpha Smoot

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