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Surprising Benefits of Frozen Fruits and Vegetables

Shop the freezer section for more nutritious produce — and to save money

By Kathy Kingsley | January 31, 2013

Unless you live in California, it’s practically impossible to find fresh local and seasonal food during winter. Most farmers markets shut down — or move indoors and feature root vegetables and prepared foods. And supermarket produce aisles are filled with often pricey items hailing from south of the border (or California).
 
Yet we still need these nutritional powerhouses. What to do? Head to the other side of the supermarket, to the freezer section.
 
Nutritionally speaking, frozen fruits and vegetables are often superior to the “fresh” ones you find in the supermarket. On average, food travels 1,500 miles from farm to grocery, taking up to two weeks to get there. At least one study found that food can lose up to 45 percent of its nutritional value in that time. And who knows how long it has been in the store when you buy it.
 
This is why buying frozen fruits and vegetables makes sense. Most are processed immediately after being harvested, when they’re at their peak ripeness and most nutrient-packed. Called flash freezing, this method of preserving was pioneered in the early 20th century by Clarence Birdseye.
 
Yes, that Birdseye. Clarence Birdseye was a biologist who loved to cook. Once, on a scientific expedition in northern Canada, he observed how the Inuit people preserved fresh fish in barrels of sea water that were quickly frozen by the Arctic air. He concluded that the rapid freezing in the extremely low temperatures was what caused food to retain its fresh taste, texture and appearance when thawed and cooked months later.
 
Inspired by those native people, in 1917 Birdseye created a method for quick-freezing fresh food, and by 1930 his frozen products had taken the country by storm. Birdseye didn’t invent frozen food, but his innovative thinking launched the modern frozen food industry.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: 5 Nutrients You Need Right Now)
 
Frozen Assets
 
Now as then, it's tough to beat the convenience of having an array of frozen vegetables at your disposal. Having your own stockpile lets you make most recipes any time of the year. And frozen produce saves you time and money: They’re already chopped and ready to eat, and since you use only what you need, there’s no wasted food.
 
If you haven’t checked out the freezer section in a while, you may be amazed at what you find. In addition to the usual suspects — corn, green beans, broccoli — today you can find blended mixtures, including Chinese, Mediterranean, Indian and Thai. And the selection of fruits is truly impressive — even organic mango and raspberries! So steer your grocery cart into the deep freeze zone and stock up on some of the healthiest produce available this time of year.

(MORE: Hotdish: Spinach-Three Cheese Casserole)
 
5 Frozen Produce Tips

Follow these tips to get the most of frozen vegetables.

  1. Choose pesticide-free organic over conventional. Most large supermarkets carry a variety of frozen organic fruits and vegetables, and their store brands are often very competitively priced with non-organic choices (because they have no marketing or advertising costs). You’ll also find a great selection in the big chain stores, like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Costco.
  2. Cook minimally for maximum nutrition. You can prevent loss of water-soluble vitamins by microwaving frozen vegetables (with a tablespoon of water in small dish) or steaming them, even if the instructions don’t say to. To steam, simply insert a steaming basket (or strainer) in your pot and set it over simmering water just until veggies are crisp-tender. And because most frozen vegetables are blanched during processing, there's no need to precook them before adding to casseroles or stir-fries. Just place them in a colander and thaw under cold water.
  3. Read the label. Most frozen vegetables and fruits are salt- and sugar-free, but not all, so if you are limiting those ingredients in your diet, make sure you know what you’re getting.
  4. Avoid long-term storage. Nutrients in frozen fruits and vegetables will diminish after about three months, so buy only amounts you’re sure to use. Break up solid blocks of vegetables into smaller amounts by tapping the package lightly before opening.
  5. Repackage for best results. It’s fine to store frozen fruits and vegetables in the bags in which they were purchased. But once the packages are opened, transfer any remaining vegetables into a zipper-type plastic baggie to prevent freezer burn.
3 Great Recipes Using Frozen Produce
 
Tortellini Primavera
 
This creamy pasta and vegetable dish is always a treat, and using frozen chopped vegetables instead of fresh makes it easier to prepare. Serve with a tossed green salad and a whole-grain roll or baguette.
Serves 2
 
8 ounces refrigerated or frozen tortellini, filling of your choice
One 10-ounce package frozen mixed veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk (whole or low-fat)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
  1. In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the tortellini according to package instructions. When there’s about 2 minutes left of cooking time, add the frozen vegetables and cook until pasta and vegetables are just tender. Drain the pasta and vegetables, reserving 1 cup of water.
  2. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and whisk to combine. Whisk in the milk and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 6 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Stir in pasta and vegetables, tomatoes, Parmesan and basil, adding enough pasta water to create a thin sauce that coats the pasta. Serve with more Parmesan, if desired. 
Kung Pao Shrimp and Vegetables
 
Frozen chopped vegetables make stir-frying a cinch. Serve this classic over steamed brown rice or soba noodles for a quick and healthy dinner.
Serves 2
 
Sauce
1/4 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
 
One 10-ounce package frozen tri-colored bell pepper strips
1 cup frozen snow peas
4 teaspoons canola oil
1/2 pound shelled and deveined large shrimp
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
3 scallions, white and pale green parts, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons dry sherry
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped roasted, unsalted peanuts
  1. Make the sauce: In a glass measure, combine the orange juice, 2 tablespoons of water, the soy sauce, rice vinegar, cornstarch, sesame oil and red pepper flakes, and whisk to blend.
  2. Heat 1/3 cup of water in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the frozen vegetables and cook just until tender. Drain the vegetables, transfer to a bowl, and wipe the skillet dry.
  3. Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a large skillet, stir-fry pan or wok over medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Add the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil to the skillet. Add the ginger, garlic and scallions and cook for 1 minute, stirring often. Add the sherry and cook until it almost completely reduces, 30 to 60 seconds. Add the vegetables and cook for 1 minute, stirring often.
  5. Give the orange juice mixture a quick whisk, stir it into the shrimp and vegetables and bring to a gentle boil to thicken the sauce. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle with peanuts and serve immediately.
Mediterranean Vegetable Frittata
 
This all-purpose frittata is great as a main course served with a mixed green salad, as a side dish to roasted pork or chicken — or try it for breakfast or brunch. Even the leftovers are delicious.
Serves 4 to 6
 
1 cup frozen chopped asparagus or green beans
1 cup frozen chopped carrots
3 ounces baby arugula (about 4 cups)
4 large eggs
5 large egg whites
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
  1. Steam the frozen vegetables according to the package directions or just until tender. Add the arugula for the last minute, steaming until just wilted. Remove the pan for the heat and set aside.
  2. Preheat the oven to 375° F. In a bowl, whisk the eggs, egg whites, cheese and a large pinch each of salt and black pepper until well blended.
  3. Heat the oil in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until just softened, about 2 minutes. Add the thyme and the vegetable mixture and cook, stirring, until heated through. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.
  4. Pour in the egg mixture. Tilt the skillet to evenly distribute the eggs and cook over medium-low heat until set around the edges, about 3 minutes.
  5. Transfer the frittata to the oven and bake for 5 to 7 minutes or until just set. To serve, invert the frittata onto a plate and let cool slightly, then cut into wedges.
Kathy Kingsley is a food writer and cookbook author.

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