Ding-dong. It's the neighbors wishing you a happy Thanksgiving. • Knock-knock. Your teenager's soccer pals are descending. • Yoo-hoo. Now it's Aunt Birdy stopping by before her annual girls-only holiday party. • Unexpected guests can throw off your game when the cupboard is bare. But you can say, "It's so nice to see you" and actually mean it if you've got a freezer stocked with quick-cooking appetizers. • Make time now to prepare a few nibbles for the busy season ahead. Oh, and take down your Halloween decorations, too. It's turkey time.
If you're in a quandary about which foods freeze well, stroll down the freezer aisle at the grocery store. You'll see nearly everything can survive a deep freeze. Meatballs, mini-quiches, cheese balls, baked hors d'oeuvres and even some dips take well to the freezer. Make sure they are well-stored or risk freezer burn. Hardly a fine how-do-you-do.
Things that don't freeze well, according to Deborah Taylor-Hough, author of Frozen Assets: Lite & Easy (Champion Press, 2001), are egg-, milk- or cream-based sauces, instant rice, raw salad ingredients, dishes with dried toppings (store the toppings separately), mayonnaise unless it's mixed in and used as part of a sauce, cottage cheese, hard-cooked eggs and fried foods, which will lose their crispness.
That leaves a lot of possibilities.
How to freeze food
Cooked food needs to be cooled quickly and completely before freezing. All food develops ice crystals when frozen but the ice crystals are larger in warmer food. This means when the food thaws, it will have a higher water content. Excess water dilutes flavor and changes the properties of food.
The size of the completed dish — say a pot of soup compared with mini-quiches — will determine how to cool it. Something small can sit on the counter for 15 minutes. A larger dish, such as the soup, should be refrigerated. To facilitate the cool-down, a pot of something hot can be placed in a larger container filled with ice.
Baked or unbaked hors d'oeuvres should be frozen on baking sheets uncovered for an hour or two and then placed in the airtight containers. This prevents smooshing. Hot food should be cooled uncovered to let steam escape. Covering it will increase the moisture.
Many items, such as meatballs and sauces, can be stored in freezer bags, which helps save space in the freezer. More delicate items, such as the formed appetizers that accompany this story, need to be stored in a container. To keep frozen nibbles from sticking together, separate with wax or parchment paper.
Always label containers. You may think you'll remember what's in them but it's easy to confuse key lime juice with chicken stock, or accidentally thaw a raw chicken breast wrapped in foil instead of the cheese log you so lovingly made a week ago.
Frozen food maintains its integrity for three to six months. Sure, we all have the yearlong science experiment languishing in the back reaches of the freezer. But do you really want to serve that to guests?
Handy to have
You'll always have something to offer guests if you have crackers and cheese, nuts and dried fruit on hand. A platter of these items is an adequate repast for unexpected guests. White and red wine, plus sparking juices, are gracious offerings, too.
For this story, we've tested a few recipes that will up your hosting game. All can go from freezer to table in about 20 minutes, including the time it takes to preheat the oven.
Blue Cheese-Walnut Cheese Twists, and their variations, are formed and frozen uncooked, as are the Mexican Crab & Cheese Croustades and Spinach Phyllo Triangles. This ensures they aren't overcooked when you finally bake them.
Frozen puff pastry is the blank canvas for the cheese twists, and the variations for flavorings, from savory to sweet, are endless. The twists are best eaten soon after they come from the oven, so only bake as many as you think you'll need.
It may seem odd to assemble the Mexican Crab & Cheese Croustades before freezing but it works wonderfully. Within an hour, the bite-sized appetizers are frozen on a baking sheet and can be transferred to a storage container. No need to thaw to bake. They are done when the cheese is bubbly and golden.
Spinach Phyllo Triangles are also versatile appetizers. Nearly any fairly dry, cheesy filling could be used, including the crab and cheese mixture for the croustades. If you haven't used phyllo dough before, this is a good recipe to experiment with. You'll find it's not difficult; just make sure you keep a clean cloth over the exposed phyllo sheets so they don't dry out.
Unlike the other appetizers included here, Chicken Nut Puffs are baked before freezing since they tend to be gooey without that final step. Reheat gently in a low-temperature oven to re-crisp.
Being armed with these frozen treats will embolden you to swing wide the door when unexpected guests come calling. This year, your welcome mat is telling the truth.
Karen Pryslopski of the Times contributed to this report. Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.
The guest list
Stock your pantry and refrigerator with these items and you'll have something to offer unexpected guests:
• Crackers, chips, pita or bagel chips
• Block cheeses
• Dried fruit and nuts
• Pickled vegetables, including marinated artichokes or roasted red peppers
• Flavored cream cheese to spread on cucumber slices
• Frozen cooked shrimp with cocktail sauce (or ketchup mixed with horseradish and lemon juice to taste)
• Frozen phyllo cups can be filled with tuna, crab or egg salad. Or fill with flavored soft cheese and half a marinated artichoke.
• Hummus or tabouli
• Hot pepper jelly and cream cheese to make a spread for crackers
• Boursin cheese for crackers or as the filling for rolled sliced salami
• Pick out a few emergency appetizers from the freezer case such as mini-quiches, mozzarella sticks or popcorn shrimp.
Spinach Phyllo Triangles
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 1/2 cups (6 ounces) crumbled feta cheese
1 egg, beaten
12 sheets phyllo dough (14 by 9 inches)
Butter-flavored cooking spray or melted butter for brushing
In a nonstick skillet coated with cooking spray, cook onion and garlic until onion is tender. Stir in spinach and oregano; cook over medium-low heat just until spinach is warmed. Drain. Remove from the heat; stir in feta cheese and beaten egg and set aside.
Spray one sheet of phyllo dough with butter-flavored cooking spray or brush with melted butter. (Keep remaining phyllo covered with plastic wrap and a damp towel to prevent drying.) Add a second sheet, spray or brush and repeat with a third sheet so you have three layers of dough. Position the phyllo horizontally and cut it into six strips.
Place 1 tablespoon of spinach mixture on lower corner of each strip. Fold dough over filling, forming a triangle. Continue folding, like a flag, until you come to the end of each strip. Spray with butter-flavored cooking spray or brush with butter, making sure all edges are sprayed and sealed. Repeat with remaining phyllo and filling.
Place triangles on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake at 375 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove to a wire rack. Serve warm.
To freeze: Place on a baking sheet in a single layer and freeze for at least 1 hour. When frozen, place in an airtight container with parchment or wax paper between layers. Bake the same way as instructed above — no need to thaw — but add several minutes to time.
Source: Janet K. Keeler
Mexican Crab & Cheese Croustades
1 cup crab (canned, frozen, fresh or imitation)
4 scallions, sliced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
1/2 cup sour cream or more, to taste
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Juice of 1 lime
At least 32 thin slices baguette or prepared croustades
Combine all filling ingredients in a mixing bowl. Set aside.
If using a baguette instead of pretoasted croustades, bake the bread slices in a 250-degree oven in single layer for 10 to 15 minutes. Cool.
Mound about 1 tablespoon of the filling on toasted baguettes slices. If serving right away, bake in a 425-degree preheated oven for 8 to 10 minutes.
To freeze: Place prepared croustades on a baking sheet and slip into the freezer for at least an hour. Once appetizers are frozen, place gently in an airtight container with parchment or wax paper between layers. They will keep about 3 months in the freezer. Bake frozen for 10 to 12 minutes at 425 degrees.
Makes at least 32.
Source: Adapted from Fast and Flashy Hors D'Oeuvres by Michele Braden (Acropolis, 1988)
Blue Cheese-Walnut Cheese Twists
2 (9- by 9 1/2-inch) sheets frozen puff pastry, thawed
1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup minced walnuts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Lay 1 sheet of thawed pastry dough on lightly floured surface. Sprinkle evenly with blue cheese, walnuts, salt and pepper. Place remaining pastry on top. Using a flour rolling pin, press the sheets together and roll into a 10-inch square.
Using a sharp knife, cut the square into 12 equal strips, then cut those strips in half. You will have 24 (5-inch) strips.
Gently hold each strip at the end and twist. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper about 1 inch apart. Bake until golden brown; about 10 minutes.
To freeze: Place the baking sheet with the twists on it in the freezer for at least one hour. When twists are frozen, store in an airtight container, separating layers with parchment or wax paper, for up to three months. Add 2 to 3 minutes to the cooking time for frozen twists.
• Cheddar-Adobo Cheese Twists: 4 ounces (1 cup) shredded cheddar, 1 tablespoon minced chipotle chile in adobo sauce, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.
• Parmesan Twists: 2 ounces (1 cup) Parmesan, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper.
• Everything Cheese Twists: 2 ounces (1 cup) Parmesan, 1 teaspoon sesame seeds, 1/2 teaspoon poppy seeds, 1/2 teaspoon dehydrated minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds.
Source: Adapted from The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook (2006)
Chicken Nut Puffs
1 1/2 cups finely chopped, cooked chicken meat
1/3 cup toasted and chopped almonds
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 teaspoon seasoning salt
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
Combine chicken and almonds and set aside. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
In a large saucepan, combine the chicken broth, vegetable oil, Worcestershire sauce, parsley, seasoning salt, celery seed and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil. Add flour all at once; stir mixture until a smooth ball forms. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes.
Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Beat until smooth. Stir in chicken and almonds. Drop by heaping teaspoonfuls onto greased baking sheets. Bake in preheated oven for 12 to 14 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm.
To freeze: Cool completely and store in an airtight container, separating layers with parchment or wax paper, for up to three months. To reheat, place in single layer on baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 10 minutes.