Burned out on cooking? Here's how to make the most of the freezer section

From pizza to DIY dim sum, make the most of the culinary building blocks found in your grocery's frozen food aisles

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published September 19, 2020 5:30PM (EDT)

Shopping in frozen food aisle  (Getty Images)
Shopping in frozen food aisle (Getty Images)

Last weekend, Salon launched "Burned Out," a series for people who love food but are tired of cooking. There are a lot of reasons why you might find yourself feeling a little fatigued: the general stress of the pandemic, restaurant closures, election season anxiety, or just the sight of another sinkful of dirty dishes. 

We've already talked about some of the things to keep in mind while shopping — from buying for snack plates to adding an impulse-ish item or two — but there's one point that that merits expanding upon: embrace shortcut cooking. Essentially, this means taking advantage of pre-made building blocks that line the grocery shelves

The freezer section, especially, is a great place to start. 

While the idea of frozen dinner may conjure images of peeling the plastic off a flimsy black pan of over-salted meatloaf and mashed potatoes, that's not what we're going for here. After all, the point of "Burned Out" is to get you back to a place where you're excited about — or at least not totally dreading — being in your kitchen again.

Making the most of freezer section items means augmenting them with a healthy dose of flavor, often with items that are actually healthy. Here are some ideas to get you started. 

Take your frozen pizza from blasé to gourmet

  • Bake a frozen cheese pizza according to the package instructions and then get into assembly mode: top it with 8 ounces of thinly-sliced prosciutto, a handful of arugula and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. 
  • Update frozen pepperoni pizza by topping it with 2 tablespoons of thinly sliced Calabrian chile peppers, 2 tablespoons of torn basil and grated pecorino Romano cheese to taste. 
  • Thinly slice 1 fennel bulb, 1 yellow onion and 2 tablespoons of roasted red peppers. Sauté the fennel and onion together in a glug of olive oil until just softened, then place them and the peppers on a frozen sausage pizza. 
  • Give a frozen white pizza (both California Pizza Kitchen and Newman's Own have great options) a little more heft by topping it with some smoky mushrooms. Sauté 8 ounces of mushrooms — mixed, porcini or shiitake — in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season with 2 teaspoons of smoked paprika and salt to taste and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and crispy. Add to the top of the pizza about halfway through the recommended baking time. 

Do it yourself dim sum 

About once a month, even when I'm not in the midst of culinary burn-out, I raid the freezer section of one of our local Asian markets and get a few options for DIY dim sum. While a dim sum restaurant will offer up a wide variety of options — typically several dozen — for one sitting, at home I tend to stick to a few dishes: scallion pancakes, soup dumplings, barbecued pork buns and spring rolls. 

But get creative and let your tastes lead you. 

What's great about this small-bite approach is that you can defrost and steam as much or as little as you need for you and your family without too much extra effort. 

Wrap it up — starting with some frozen rice 

Check the freezer section for packets of steamable rice — brown, white, cauliflower — and use them as a hearty base for a satisfying lettuce wrap. Spoon a few servings of rice on a platter alongside the building blocks of the perfect lettuce wrap: 

  • The lettuce: Iceberg and butter lettuce are my go-to picks as the base for the wrap. 
  • Protein: You can go for some other freezer section picks, like frozen grilled chicken strips or even some miniature meatballs. For a vegetarian option, opt for pan-fried or baked tofu cubes. 
  • Vegetables and greens: Shredded carrots, water chestnuts, thinly-sliced cucumbers, mint leaves, Thai basil, thinly-sliced white onion and scallions are all fantastic additions. 
  • Dipping sauces and extras: Soy sauce or a satay-inspired peanut sauce (which we covered in last week's "Burned Out") are great for drizzling and dunking. Toss some extras on the platter as well, like thinly-sliced avocado and crushed peanuts. 

Get your vegetables in(side your pasta)

One of my New Year's resolutions was to incorporate more vegetables into all of my meals. While my resolve has occasionally wavered — especially when I just wanted to carb-coma my way during the pandemic — vegetable-filled pasta is a way to blend my resolution to eat better and my natural proclivity to reach for comfort food.

There are a couple ways to accomplish this: 

  • Blend frozen butternut squash, cauliflower, pumpkin or sweet potatoes with stock and cream to serve as an easy, satisfying pasta sauce. 
  • Saute roughly chopped frozen broccoli with hot Italian sausage and serve it over pasta with parmesan cheese. 
  • Give your boxed macaroni and cheese a nutritional boost by adding some frozen greens — kale, spinach, peas — to the mix (though if you want to toss in a little bacon, too, I say go for it).

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Burned Out Cooking Food Freezer Cooking Frozen Section Recipe