On Dec. 31 last year, I vowed to “eat the freezer.” A more precise vow might have been to tame the freezer. I couldn’t open the door without things falling on my head. I had only the vaguest idea what was in there. When I needed bacon, I’d go to the store and buy it rather than attempt to unearth the frozen bacon I suspected lurked in its depths. Items I did manage to bring to light, or rather to thaw, were covered with the dirty fuzz of freezer burn, which meant they tasted bad, which meant I threw them out, which meant I was wasting food, which made me, as both a food professional and an environmentalist, feel like a fraud.

If you’re Jewish, as I am, each year brings you a second chance at an annual reckoning, on Jan. 1 and again on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which starts this evening. True, the Jewish new year calls for spiritual reckoning, not housekeeping, but entering 5780 with a clean refrigerator symbolized, for me, entering the new year with a clean spirit. And perhaps taking stock of my freezer would encourage me to take stock of myself.

I renewed and fine-tuned my secular new year’s vow: Before Sept. 29, I would excavate and organize the freezer. And just before August slid into September, I made good on that promise.

It came as no surprise to me that the freezer resembled a clown car, accommodating – barely – an implausibly large and motley assortment. A partial list of its pre-purge contents included:

A pre-purge list of the contents of Grodinsky’s freezer. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Rendered chicken fat, rendered duck fat, flour tortillas (large and small), 1 partial quart container carrot juice, 1/2 pound smoked salmon trim, black bean stock, 3 containers handpicked black raspberries, 3 bags curry leaves, not-yet-rendered chicken skins, 1 partial pint heavy cream, duck ragu leftover from duck feast last winter, 4 raw duck legs (same feast), quart container sour cherries, slivered almonds, sliced almonds, whole almonds, 1 partially consumed bottle sake, 1 container rotten banana puree awaiting its Cinderella moment as banana bread, leaf lard, 2 bags stone-ground grits (1 purchased, the second a gift), pecans from Trader Joe’s, local pecans from that fabulous farmers market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, visited on a recent trip, bacon fat and enough bread ends to reach the moon if laid side by side.

This shaggy pile of plastic bags on Grodinsky’s dining room table hold bread ends excavated from her overstuffed freezer. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

In the process of culling and categorizing, scrubbing and sorting, I learned, or recalled, a dozen life lessons, big and small. And hey, if Robert Fulghum learned all he really needed to know in kindergarten, I think my path to a meaningful life equally worthy. Publishers, I am standing by the phone awaiting your call. Meanwhile, loyal Press Herald readers, you get my future bestseller for the price of a subscription.

1) Things aren’t as bad as you think. Like many other household projects I dread, this task loomed over me for months, occupying a permanent berth on my To Do list. But in the end it took just two hours to clean out and organize my freezer. The mental energy I expended beforehand – in fretting about cleaning it, attempting search and rescues of urgently needed items, and cursing when I failed to locate them – easily dwarfed the energy I ultimately expended in just cleaning the damn thing.

2) Stop procrastinating. See 1). Had I not let the freezer situation get so out of hand, I’d have saved myself trouble as well as self-hatred of the I-am-a-big-unworthy-mess sort.

Rhubarb cake with freezer burn is not worth the calories. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

3) Learn to share. While organizing my freezer, I composted four slices of frozen rhubarb cake (2018), five slices of frozen cornbread (2018) and one frozen unbaked sage biscuit (2017), all coated in ice crystals despite being double-wrapped, and recognizable only because at least I’d had the sense to label them. The truth is I like to bake, so there is almost always a freshly baked cake in my house. Given that, for me, freezing baked goods is silly. Henceforth, share.

4) Life is full of happy surprises. Such as the roll of frozen dough of Whole Wheat Cookies with Currants and Cocoa Nibs I uncovered. Score! I love, love, love these cookies (thanks for the recipe, cookbook writer and baker extraordinaire Alice Medrich). I pulled the dough out of the freezer, sliced it into cookies, baked them off and, when the freezer was clean, rewarded myself for a job well done.

5) Life is full of contradictions. Don’t freeze baked goods (see 3), but once in a while, do freeze baked goods (see 4).

6) Simplify, simplify. Specifically, stop buying ingredients in order to make a single recipe. Among the items I rarely use yet were monopolizing valuable freezer space: corn flour, oat bran, wheat bran and white rice flour.

7) Life is short. I excavated a small bag of candlenuts from my freezer. I am almost certain these came from my former brother-in-law, who often traveled to Asia for work. He and my sister have not been together for about a decade. In that time I have moved four times, putting these globetrotting candlenuts in at least four freezers. What was I saving them for? Just eat the damn nuts, Peggy!

8) Know thyself. I am not yet the scary sort of hoarder you see on TV, but I teeter on the edge. On the shaky grounds that “this might prove useful someday,” my house is bursting with items that should have gone to Goodwill long since. Likewise my freezer. Take, for instance, the fish I unearthed while cleaning. “Sablefish. No good? Toss?” read the freezer label. Did I think that aging would improve the fish? I belatedly lobbed it into my compost bin.

9) Everything in its season. This is the time of year that other worthier food writers will advise you to “put away” the summer — to can, pickle, dehydrate and, most to the point here, freeze as much of the spectacular and short-lived farmers market fruit and vegetables that you can manage. Don’t let me discourage you. But as for me, I have lately reached the conclusion that, mostly, I don’t want a taste of summer in winter. In winter, I’ll eat winter, thank you very much: cabbage, cauliflower and cranberries, Brussels sprouts and broccoli, pomegranates and pears. In August, I will eat tomatoes, blueberries and corn on the cob morning, noon, night and in-between.

10) Unity makes strength. Or at least it makes sense. Consolidate freezer items. I merged the frozen parsley stems with the frozen pea pods and the bag of frozen bits, and bobs labeled “Items for Veggie Stock.” I mixed and mingled the four separate bags of slivered almonds.

11) Make a list. I keep lists of books I want to read, groceries I need, errands and chores I must do, restaurants I want to go to, flowers I’d like to grow in my garden. My memory is unreliable (see 8), so I am an inveterate list maker. Now I’ve got a list of the freezer’s contents taped to the outside of the refrigerator.

12) Done is beautiful. My fiance’s sister Kate, who plays a big part in organizing a large annual family reunion as well as family holidays throughout the year, often says this, especially if you volunteer for a task with the apologetic warning you are no good at it. Alone in the kitchen, admiring my sparkling and orderly freezer, I spoke her words out loud.

 

Sephardic Pistachio Honey Cake. I’ve made a new resolution: next time, I will use a ruler as a guide, as the recipe suggests, and cut the diamonds of cake more carefully. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Sephardic Pistachio Cake with Honey-Lemon Syrup  (Tishpishti)

Honey, and honey cake, are traditional for Rosh Hashanah, as the natural sweetener symbolizes a sweet new year; I often make this cake to cap my Rosh Hashanah dinner. (Versions of this cake, made with matzoh meal instead of flour and no leavener, are typically made for Passover, another Jewish holiday.)  This recipe, from Richard Sax’s classic, “Classic Home Desserts,” calls for walnuts and cinnamon, but I unearthed one quart mason jar and three large bags of pistachios in my freezer, so I call for those here, and use cardamom for the spice. It is important to make the cake ahead or it will be too wet to slice or eat.

CAKE

1 cup unsalted butter, cut into pieces

2 cups water

1 cup honey

1 cup sugar

1  teaspoon ground cardamom

3 cups finely chopped pistachios

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

Whole pistachios for garnish

SYRUP

1 cup honey

1/2 cup water

Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons (about 1/3 cup juice)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking pan.

In a large, heavy saucepan over medium high heat, combine the butter, water, honey, sugar, cardamom, chopped pistachios and salt. Cook, stirring, until the butter melts and the mixture just comes to a boil; remove from the heat.

Whisk together the flour, baking power and baking soda. Stir the dry ingredients into the saucepan. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan; smooth the top. Arrange the pistachios in even rows over the top of the cake.

Bake until the cake is golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean, usually 40 to 45 minutes.

Cool the cake to lukewarm in the pan on a wire rack.

To make the syrup, while the cake is baking or cooling, combine the honey and water in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add the lemon zest and bring the mixture to a boil. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until syrupy, about five minutes. Remove from heat; stir in the lemon juice.

While the cake is still warm, pour the syrup over it, a little at a time, letting it all sink in. Let the cake stand for at least four hours, or preferably overnight, before serving.

Using a ruler as a guide, cut the cake at 1-inch intervals, parallel to the long edge of the pan. Now cut the cake crosswise on the diagonal into diamond shapes with the decorative whole pistachios in the center of each. Covered with plastic wrap directly on its surface, this cake keeps well for several days.


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