Frozen foods are basis for creative meals

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To meet today's hectic pace, cooks trade mixing-and-measuring time for the speed and simplicity of defrosting.

The goal is to squeeze more personal time out of the day, and the battle plan is as simple as Caesar's: We come. We thaw. We conquer.

Last year, hundreds of new products were introduced into grocery freezer cases, according to Traci Vasilik of the American Frozen Food Institute. Retail sales of frozen food increased to $11 billion, she said, up from $10.7 billion in 1990 and $10 billion in 1989.

From the morning's frozen breakfasts to the evening's prepared desserts, the freezer rescues time-crunched consumers.

Here's a quick look at what's on ice these days and creative ways to use it:

* Salad daze: For a quick salad, thaw and lightly cook -- according to package directions -- sliced or crinkle-cut frozen carrots, cut cauliflower or green beans. Run under cold water to chill, then toss with a vinaigrette dressing. Garnish with chopped parsley or a tomato wedge.

* Flavor enhancers: Fresh herbs such as cilantro, basil or scallions sprinkled atop frozen pizzas and entrees will add zip and make the kitchen smell as though a complicated concoction is in the oven.

Also try sprinkling vinegar, especially balsamic, on frozen vegetables after cooking.

* Filling station: To fill an omelet quickly, heat a favorite package of fro-zen vegetables in cheese sauce and pourinto the cooking eggs before folding the omelet in half. One package fills an omelet for two.

* Pasta perfect: For a quick pasta sauce, heat a favorite boil-in-bag vegetable in cream sauce according to package directions. Meanwhile, cook 2 ounces of pasta and drain. Toss the vegetables in sauce and pasta, season with salt and pepper and top with Parmesan cheese. Makes one main-dish or two side-dish servings.

* Frozen larder: Chefs use the freezer to stock staples.

Chef Jacques Pepin, author of "The Short-Cut Cook" (William Morrow and Co., $19.95), suggests preparing for last-minute meals by stocking your freezer with:

-- Peeled shrimp;

-- Fruit juice concentrates such as orange, pineapple and grapefruit;

-- Dessert products such as cakes and brownies;

-- Fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches or cherries;

-- Vegetables such as petite peas, corn, French green beans and cauliflower;

-- Sausage and chicken breasts;

-- Bread dough and puff pastry.

* Pizza quick: Keep frozen bagels on hand to serve as quick crusts for miniature pizzas. Slice the bagel while still frozen, top with spaghetti sauce, cheese, cooked meat and herbs and microwave for a few minutes.

* Kid size: When looking for child-size frozen entrees, consider small pasta side dishes. Parents say they are the perfect portion for little tummies.

* Family size: A number of food companies offer family-sized versions of frozen meals. Banquet, Michelinas, Sanderson Farm and Stouffer's offer large sizes of dinner entrees.

Freezer facts

* Ice, baby: Space allocated to frozen foods in the supermarket continues to grow, increasing 20 percent in the past five years.

The average new supermarket has 700 linear feet (more than the length of two football fields) of frozen products, according to Nielsen Marketing Research, which analyzes supermarkets.

* Cold, hard cash: Shoppers in a 1991 survey by Better Homes and Gardens spent $12.61 of their average $73.66 weekly grocery bill on frozen food. The leading reasons cited in the survey were convenience and ease of storage.

* Meltdown: To extend the storage life of frozen vegetables, put them in your freezer as soon as possible after purchase. If they thaw slightly and refreeze, ice crystals will form and the vegetables' texture will deteriorate.

For optimum storage, set your freezer at 0 degrees and use the vegetables within four weeks. If frozen vegetables thaw, refrigerate them and use within three days.

* Pet projects: Even the family dog can enjoy the fruits of the freezer.

Three years ago, the frozen treat Frost Paws -- basically a puppy ice cream -- was introduced, but it didn't make a strong showing.

Now, however, Bil-Jac frozen dog food is nipping at the heals of dry-food products. According to Lynn Bingham, vice president of the manufacturer, Win-Hy Foods of Tulsa, Okla., Bil-Jac, developed in 1947, has been a big seller in Oklahoma, Ohio and Georgia for years.

"A large part of our market has been show dogs," he says of the food, which comes in 5- and 2-pound sizes.

* Hot stuff: Frozen sandwiches are showing the hottest growth in frozen foods, says Joanne Myers of the National Frozen Food Association. Between 1983 and 1990, sales of frozen sandwiches showed an average annual growth in sales of 25.2 percent.

Sales of frozen breakfasts increased 20 percent during the same period.

Traditional freezer-case favorites such as pizza, pot pies, prepared vegetables and baked goods showed below-average growth.

Quick vegetable gazpacho

Makes 6 1-cup servings.

1 (16-ounce) package frozen broccoli, carrots, water chestnuts and red peppers (divided use)

1 (32-ounce) can (4 cups) tomato juice (divided use)

2 medium cucumbers, peeled, 1 cut in small chunks, 1 halved lengthwise (divided use)

1/4 teaspoon celery salt

In food processor bowl with metal blade or in blender container, combine 3 cups of the frozen vegetables, 2 cups of the tomato juice, chunks from 1 cucumber and celery salt; process until finely chopped. Place in large bowl. Add remaining vegetables and tomato juice. Dice a cucumber half; stir into vegetable mixture. Refrigerate 1 hour. For garnish, slice remaining cucumber half.

Cheese sticks

Makes 30 sticks.

1 (10-inch) square sheet (8 ounce) frozen puff pastry

1 tablespoon unsalted butter (divided use)

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Place frozen pastry on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil; let sit at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. While the pastry is still partially frozen, unfold the dough (even though it will tend to crack at the seams) and rub half of the butter over the surface. Combine the Parmesan cheese, paprika and cayenne pepper. Sprinkle half this mixture over the butter, spreading with fingers to distribute evenly. Turn the pastry over and repeat with remaining butter and cheese. Cut the pastry into 10 (1-inch-wide) strips; cut the strips into thirds to yield 30 sticks, each about 1 inch wide and 3 inches long. Work quickly because the pastry is easier to handle while it is still partially frozen. Place the sticks on the cookie sheet and bake for about 12 minutes, until they are dark brown. Cool on a wire rack.

(Source: "The Short-Cut Cook" by Jacques Pepin)

Macaroons

Makes 30 cookies.

1 (10 3/4 -ounce) frozen poundcake

1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon almond extract

-- salt

3 cups sweetened, flaked coconut

Heat oven to 325 degrees. Cut cake into 15 slices, each 3/8 -inch thick. Cut each slice in half to make 30 pieces. Place pieces half an inch apart on buttered cookie sheet. Combine milk, water, almond extract and salt in a small bowl; generously brush on each piece. Sprinkle and press on coconut. Flip coated pieces; repeat brushing and sprinkling on the other side. Bake 20 to 25 minutes or until golden. Serve, or store in airtight container.

Fish fillets with Dijon sauce

Makes 4 servings.

1 pound frozen flounder, sole or cod, thawed

1/4 cup reduced-calorie mayonnaise

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped pimiento

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives or chopped green onion, including green part

Arrange fillets on microwave bacon or roasting rack with thickest portion to the outside. Overlap thin areas in center of rack. Combine mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and lemon juice. Spread over fillets. Sprinkle with red pepper and chives. Microwave on high (100 percent power) for 5 to 8 minutes until fish flakes easily when tested with fork. Let stand 1 minute before eating.

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