Dead of winter. It's an apt description for this time of year, when even apples are out of season and virtually every other fruit comes from another time zone, if not another hemisphere.
The cure for a cook's cold-weather blues, however, can be found a few aisles over from fresh produce: Winter is frozen fruit's time to shine. Right out of the bag, frozen fruits are great for snacking, and they are a favored ingredient in breakfast smoothies.
But with a little more effort, they can liven up a cake or a batch of muffins, lend a sunny sweetness to savory dishes.
Picked at its peak
Frozen has some distinct advantages over out-of-season fresh fruit. Bob Barnhouse, vice president of operations for Dole's frozen division, explained that fresh fruit destined for faraway markets often is picked underripe, and can spend weeks reaching its destination. "With frozen," he said, "we pick it at the peak of the season, and then usually process it within 24 hours." The cleaned and sorted fruit is conveyed into a tunnel, where the circulating air is about 30 degrees below zero. Within 20 minutes the fruit itself has been cooled to zero degrees. (This process, commonly known as flash freezing, is called IQF -- individually quick frozen -- in the industry.)
Barnhouse said that strawberries were Dole's top frozen seller, followed by the rest of the berry family, then peaches and other fruits. Ironically, strawberries freeze less well than other fruits since trimming off the stems "opens them up" and leaves them vulnerable to cell damage and water loss. "Most frozen strawberries end up in fruit smoothies and margaritas," he said. "When they're pureed, the textural loss isn't really a problem."
Roland Mesnier, White House pastry chef from 1979 to 2004, is a big fan of frozen fruit, especially flash-frozen mangos, which he uses with fresh apples to make winter charlottes. "Blueberries freeze very well," he added, and could be used in muffins, "or in a cobbler with frozen peaches." His highest praise is reserved for frozen raspberries: He likes to use them -- straight out of the freezer -- as a garnish for almost any dessert.
One of fruit's greatest virtues, of course, is its nutritional benefits. Xianli Wu, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Arkansas Children's Nutrition Center who specializes in the disease-prevention effects of berries, cited the fiber, vitamins and minerals as well as "other nutrients and non-nutritional phytochemicals which have been shown to promote health." Freezing can alter the structure of some of fruits' chemical compounds, he said, but frozen fruit is still a good bet.
Wu, whose primary research deals with blueberries, explicitly rejected the idea of a "super fruit." "Every food contains so many different compounds, each of which contributes differently to your health," he said. "We know very little about these compounds, and we can't really say that one fruit is better than another -- or even that one food is better than another." Blueberries contain a high level of antioxidants, he said, "but antioxidants are just one aspect of nutrition. Cherries may be just as good for you."
BLUEBERRY CORN MUFFINS
These muffins, adapted from Marion Cunningham's "The Breakfast Book" (Knopf, $24), are not very sweet, the better to appreciate the flavor of the berries. You can also substitute raspberries for the blueberries.
1 cup cake or all-purpose flour (see note)
2/3 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup milk, warmed (microwaved for 30
1 cup frozen blueberries, thawed and blotted
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 12-muffin tin.
2. In a small bowl, thoroughly combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt and sugar. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, melted butter and oil until well blended. Stir in the warm milk. Add the dry ingredients to the egg mixture and stir until blended. Fold in blueberries.
3. Spoon batter into muffin tin. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the edges of the muffins are golden and a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the center. Remove from tin and cool a little before serving. Makes 12 muffins
NOTE Cake flour makes lighter and fluffier muffins, but all-purpose flour works, too.
Clafoutis is a distinctive rustic French dessert that's sort of a cross between a souffle and a popover. The recipe is traditionally made with unpitted cherries; as they cook, the pits apparently exude a subtle almond-like flavor. But James Peterson, whose "Kitchen Simple" (Ten Speed, $30) is the source of this easy recipe, lists frozen, pitted cherries as his first choice.
2 cups (about 12 ounces) frozen, pitted cherries, thawed and blotted
1 cup flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup milk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
Pinch of salt
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a shallow, 10-inch porcelain pan or 9-inch glass pie dish. Distribute the cherries in an even layer in the prepared dish.
2. In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar, eggs, vanilla and about half the milk. Whisk to a smooth paste. Work in the rest of the milk, the butter and the salt. Pour the batter over the cherries.
3. Bake about 45 minutes, or until golden brown and puffy. (It will deflate as it cools.) Serve warm or at room temperature, dusted with confectioners' sugar just before serving. Makes 8 servings.
MANGO CURRY CHICKEN
Mango and curry lend this dish a South Asian flavor, though the technique is more Italian than Indian or Thai.
1 (31/2-pound) chicken cut up, or equivalent weight of bone-in, skin-on pieces
1 to 2 tablespoons Thai curry paste (green or red) or Indian curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 to 10 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 to 1 1/2 cups dry white wine or chicken broth, divided
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
2 cups frozen mango chunks (no need to thaw)
1. Place chicken pieces in a large bowl with curry paste or curry powder and 1 teaspoon salt. Massage chicken so it is well coated. (For more flavor, do this in a resealable plastic bag and refrigerate the chicken overnight before cooking.)
2. Film a large skillet (it must accommodate all chicken in 1 layer) with vegetable oil and place over high heat. When oil is hot, add chicken pieces, skin-side down, and turn down to medium-high. Cook until skin is nicely browned, about 10 minutes, but don't move chicken for at least 5 minutes.
3. Turn chicken pieces over and add garlic to pan. When the garlic just begins to color, add 1/2 cup wine or broth. When it simmers, turn heat to low and cover pan tightly. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, until chicken is cooked through, checking periodically to see that liquid is at a bare simmer. If liquid cooks off, add a little more wine, broth or water. Chicken breasts will cook quicker than legs; remove them when they are done.
4. When chicken is cooked through, remove to a platter and cover with foil. Tilt pan to spoon off most of the fat, then place over high heat and add remainder of wine or broth and half the cilantro. As liquid simmers, use a wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add mango chunks to the pan, turn heat to medium and cover for a few minutes so the mango gives up excess moisture. Uncover pan and cook until mango turns a deeper yellow and the sauce becomes a little syrupy. Taste sauce for salt, then pour it over chicken and garnish with remaining cilantro. Makes 4 servings.
MASTER SMOOTHIE RECIPE
Frozen fruit is perfect for making smoothies since it eliminates the need for added ice to achieve a frosty, frothy texture. After the banana and the frozen fruit, this recipe is infinitely flexible: use more or less milk, yogurt or orange juice; substitute soy or rice milk for the dairy products, or agave syrup or maple syrup for the honey.
2 cups any combination of frozen fruit
1 ripe banana, peeled and sliced
1 cup milk
1/2 cup plain or vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup orange juice
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, or to taste
Put all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Makes 2 servings.
TIPS FOR WORKING WITH FROZEN FRUIT
If you're using frozen fruit in a smoothie or for any recipe where it gets pureed, use it straight from the freezer. If it's for a baking recipe -- such as muffins, cobblers or clafoutis -- thaw the fruit and get rid of some of the excess moisture, otherwise it will "dye" your batter purple (blueberries) or red (cherries, raspberries).
Place the frozen fruit in a strainer in a bowl of cold water. Change the water a few times until it is mostly clear. The fruit will defrost in less than 30 minutes. Remove the strainer from the bowl and let it drip dry. Before using, blot with paper towel.