Last February my family and I were most of the way through a fabulous meal when it occurred to me that it was local enough to make Michael Pollan feel inadequate. Everything but the salt, pepper, olive oil and a dollop of mayo was from in-state, most of it from the garden, and it came together faster than it takes to order a pizza. In fact, part of the reason the meal turned out the way it did was that we were in a hurry.
It started with some items from the freezer: a thawed packet of deer meat from a fall hunt, a bag of turnip greens, and a jar of ratatouille I'd made from tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and garlic. While I thawed these, I set out dicing some parsnips from the root cellar in preparation for making a batch of "parsnip polenta," as I call it: tiny cubes of parsnip cooked in stock and then oven-baked, which gives the dish a nice crispy surface.
I normally would have cooked the meat, ratatouille and turnip greens on the stovetop, but since the parsnips were in the oven, I put them in there, too, to take advantage of the free heat.
Our February feast was quick and easy because we had already done the heavy lifting. The venison had been killed, dragged out of the woods, cleaned and cut to pieces. The turnip greens, a by-product of the turnip patch, had been blanched and vacuum-sealed. The ratatouille ingredients had been grown, washed, cut, oven-roasted together, and packed in jars.
Anyone can eat locally in summertime, or in California, with its year-round farmers' markets. What you eat in winter is the locavore's litmus test. And like most tests, how well you do is a direct result of how you've prepared.
All too often the freezer is a place where abandoned food goes to die. But with some planning it can become an integral part of a whole year of healthy eating. All it takes is a few easy steps.
Among the most obvious: Get a freezer, even if it costs hundreds. If you're a hunter, you probably already own one. There's nothing like 200 pounds of elk meat to make a freezer look affordable.
Second: Don't defrost your game at room temperature. Since freezing doesn't kill bacteria, the bugs can pop back to life on your counter. For safety (and optimum flavor) defrost the meat in the refrigerator. Defrosting in the microwave can lead to overcooking.
Most freezing techniques, meanwhile, will prolong food life, but everything will eventually go bad, no matter how perfectly it's packaged. A good rule of thumb is to eat your frozen foods within a year, which ensures that they're still tasty and clears the shelves for the next batch.
Before freezing your veggies, blanch them with steam or boiling water to keep spoilage at bay. Blanching kills enzymes that would otherwise slowly digest your food in the freezer. If you skipped this step, cook a bit of the veggie in question, unseasoned, and see if you detect off flavors; toss it if you do. In fact, it's a good idea to test all veggies solo before adding them to a giant dish and potentially tainting the whole thing.
Try your best to avoid freezer burn, that harmless but distasteful plague of imperfectly sealed frozen foods. You can prevent or greatly postpone the problem by using a vacuum sealer (about $50 and up). If freezer burn has already occurred—you'll see grayish discoloration—cut off the burned parts.
Alternately, you can rescue freezer-burned foods—particularly meats—by enhancing flavor with a good sauce. One easy way to make any meat taste good is to braise it in equal parts red wine and water. Just put the meat under the broiler—it doesn't even need to be thawed, providing you can get it out of the package—and keep turning and cooking it until it's nicely browned all around. Add enough wine-and-water mix to cover the meat at least halfway; secure the pan with a tight-fitting lid and cook at 300 degrees for several hours. Check occasionally to turn the meat and add liquid, if necessary. When it softens, season with garlic salt, pepper or even some red chili powder. When it flakes with a fork, it's ready to serve.
With a little experimenting, your well-stocked freezer can be a lot more than a way station for eats you forgot you had. Dig deep, and you can make something memorable.