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Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Easy Freezer Meals

I was recently offered a copy of another book to review - actually a choice of several, from the "Complete Idiot's Guide" series. I've always had a certain philosophical objection to these kinds of books - I don't think you have to be an idiot or a dummy to want to read a basic primer on a subject - but titles aside, they can be good introductory books on their respective subject matters.
Although I could've picked any one of a number of recently-published "Idiot's Guides," my conscience wouldn't allow me to select something that wasn't food-related, since it was only because of this blog that I was given the offer.
There was nothing strictly pizza-related, so I opted for the Guide to Easy Freezer Meals. The idea behind this book is that you can spend a day in the kitchen and prepare many days' worth of meals, in order to save time later on. I'm not sure how many of us have the wherewithal to actually do that, but you'll find a lot of useful information in here even if, like me, you're just an occasional food-freezer.
The author, Cheri Sicard, is not a professional chef, but she has a fairly extensive background in both food and writing. She created and edited the FabulousFoods.com website (now owned by SheKnows.com), has taught cooking classes for Williams Sonoma, and is the author of The Low Carb Restaurant Guide, as well as numerous magazine and online articles on a variety of subjects.
The book is written in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner, which is well suited to its purpose; it's not going to win any James Beard awards, but if you're buying an "Idiot's Guide," you're probably looking less for captivating writing than for solid, practical advice, and in that regard, Easy Freezer Meals delivers. Anyone who attempts to prepare a weeks' worth of meals in a day had better be well organized, as Sicard herself appears to be. The first four chapters succinctly cover the basics of freezing food, kitchen equipment, grocery shopping strategies, and advice on making cooking day easier.
Like a well-stocked freezer, those chapters alone pack in a lot of useful information, but the bulk of the book is devoted to the recipes. Again, Sicard's knack for organization is evident, as she progresses from breakfast to lunch to dinner and dessert, interspersed with chapters on appetizers, snacks, breads and sauces. Several appendices include a useful glossary, a list of further resources, a "well-stocked kitchen" checklist, menu planning worksheets, and a list of recommended freezing times for various foods.
What caught my attention, of course, were Sicard's two pizza recipes, for "pizzeria-style" and whole wheat pizza dough. I haven't tried them, but my educated guess is that they'd produce reasonably good, but not outstanding pizza. The recipe for pizzeria-style pizza calls for about five minutes of mixing and machine kneading and a one-hour rise before either freezing or shaping the dough. Frankly, a one-hour rise at warm temperatures is not going to give you a particularly good crust -- better to let the dough rise slowly, even overnight, in the refrigerator.
But it would be unfair to criticize Sicard on that score, since the point of this book is to provide the reader with easy-to-make, relatively quick recipes for freezer-friendly dishes. If convenience is your paramount concern, and your plan is to make oven-ready frozen pizzas in a minimum of time, this will probably do just fine, even if the pizza doesn't live up to Sicard's claim that it'll be "just like you'd get at a pizzeria." But if you plan to freeze individual dough balls, and thaw, shape and top them later as needed, I'd probably give the dough a slow rise before freezing - it'll be just as easy, and the end product will, I think, be superior.
I do take issue with a couple of things in the pizza recipes. First, Sicard recommends using very warm water - 120 degrees. While she's right that the water will cool a bit when it hits the mixing bowl, anything above 110 is a dangerously high temperature for yeast. Even if it doesn't kill the yeast, I've read that a very warm fermentation tends to produce more unpleasant flavors, and in my experience, you'll still get a pretty quick rise if you're water's in the mid-90s.
Second, Sicard simply calls for "yeast," without specifying if she means instant or active dry yeast. She includes a proofing step (mixing the yeast with warm water and sugar and letting it sit for a few minutes until it starts to bubble), which suggests that she means active dry yeast (which requires proofing), but it would've been better to specify. I do think you could substitute instant yeast and skip the proofing stage without any significant effect on the rise time.
OK, enough technical talk. For my pizza making, I'll probably stick with the recipes and methods I've been using, which take a little longer but result in better pizza. Ironically, though, while I will probably never follow the recipes that I was most interested in reading, I found this a very worthwhile addition to my kitchen bookshelf. Though the thought of spending a day in the kitchen making a week's worth of meals may not appeal to you, most of us would still prefer to avoid tossing leftovers in the garbage, and it's a rare home cook who doesn't have occasion to freeze food - fresh or prepared - once in a while. Even if you're not an idiot, Sicard's well-organized, clearly written book is a handy resource when you're looking for some guidance on how to get the most out of your home freezer.
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Easy Freezer Meals by Cheri Sicard. 336 pages. (Alpha 2011.)

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