Recently, I found myself sitting at a long kitchen table in a building near Chester being served an impeccably healthy Mediterranean-type feast by top chef Neil Nugent. I tucked into peppers stuffed with quinoa and vegetables, roast cauliflower and chargrilled tenderstem broccoli, griddled prawns and salmon, veggie and lobster burgers on buns spread with avocado purée. But this was no multi-starred restaurant: I was in the product development kitchen at Iceland Foods and most of the ingredients came straight from the freezer including, amazingly, the avocados.
Confession: I’ve been guilty of being quite snooty about using frozen foods (with the exception of peas and broad beans), due both to nutritional value and taste. As nutritionist Fiona Hunter says, ‘We tend to assume that any processed food contains fewer nutrients than fresh; but with frozen vegetables and fruit, the vitamins are locked in, whereas with fresh ones, the nutrients deteriorate with storage.’ In one study comparing vitamin retention in eight fruits and vegetables, the vitamin content of the frozen samples overall was ‘comparable to and occasionally higher than fresh’.
Fresh is a relative term. Unless fruit and vegetables come straight from your garden or a local source, produce can take days or weeks to get from the supplier to your kitchen. Once there, it may sit in your fridge for another spell. It’s the same with fish and shellfish, as Neil points out: ‘All the fish you buy will have been frozen unless it’s been caught locally and sold immediately. Even Michelin-starred restaurants prepare and freeze big batches to use on a daily basis – I know because I’ve done it.’
Like many people, I believed that freezing compromised the taste but new technology, incorporating flash-freezing, has improved this dramatically. ‘Produce is harvested in peak condition and often has more flavour because it’s not grown for storage or appearance,’ comments Fiona. Even the texture is almost indistinguishable from most items that haven’t been frozen as I found at my taste test, although Neil admits that watery plants such as courgettes or mushrooms are still a problem.
Frozen foods avoid waste, are often cheaper and can be a godsend if you don’t have shops on your doorstep – especially if hordes of hungry teens, often veggie or vegan, descend suddenly. (Interestingly, Iceland’s current top seller is its No Bull Burger based on soya and beetroot.) ‘You can whip up a healthy meal such as a stir-fry in less time than it takes to call in a pizza,’ says Fiona. Her freezer staples are vegetables, prawns, herbs and berries.
No one is saying we should all live off frozen foods but, as Fiona points out, ‘While many people want to follow a healthy diet, they’re often defeated by finding the time for planning and preparation; a well-stocked freezer can help you eat well by supplementing freshly bought and store-cupboard foods.’
Neil’s tips on cooking from frozen
- Defrost fish and meat in the fridge overnight, but frozen prawns can go straight in a stir-fry or curry – just make sure they’re cooked through.
- Cook vegetables from frozen. Steam peas, beans, carrots and spinach to keep flavour and nutrients. Spray cauliflower or tenderstem broccoli lightly with olive oil and chargrill or roast.
- For barbecues, spray foods (including veggie burgers) with a half-and-half mix of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar for an amazing flavour and glaze.
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Website of the week: swimming.org
Around 400 people drown in the UK every year and, globally, it’s one of the most common causes of death in children under 14. Learning to swim, or improving, is a great thing to do over the summer holidays, both for safety and for health and family fun. Swim England offers a Learn to Swim companion for parents and learners, which includes where to fin your nearest pool offering swimming lessons.
Feature by Sarah Stacey