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Before the festive season arrives, smart home cooks will pass a lot of "au-thaw-ity" over to the freezer. If ever there was a season for this appliance, it's now. With house guests coming, meals can be prepared well in advance to languish in the arctic zone until 10 to 12 hours before chow time. That's when the other friendly appliance, the refrigerator, comes into play as the dish safely thaws overnight inside it and not on the countertop. Then, while the thawed meal bakes or reheats in the oven, who gets to sit and enjoy the guests? You've got it.

No matter how much you love them, house guests must be fed at least two meals a day throughout their stay. Some of these meals, or portions thereof, can be prepared ahead of time, with a thawing-and-cooking schedule firmly in place on the fridge door. Casseroles and other one-dish meals are convenient for most days, but on occasions when you will want to impress, it's good to know that the Chicken Kiev is ready for
the oven.

Even if company isn't coming, you'll still want to spend quality time with your own family. So instead of labouring long hours in the kitchen on Christmas Eve, why not join them in watching A Christmas Carol on TV? You'll be able to relax knowing you've got a head start on tomorrow's feast.

However, good meals don't just happen. You need to have a little freezer knowledge to make things work safely and tastefully. Here, then, is some food for "thawght." Don't worry too much about overloading; a freezer operates best when it's full. Just make sure there is enough space for the air to circulate around the food to hasten the freezing process. Foods should be frozen quickly to preserve their quality.

A fresh-baked casserole can be cooled slightly on the counter (no longer than 30 minutes) before placing it the fridge for more serious cooling. After that it can be wrapped in heavy-duty foil for the freezer. Since you may need the casserole dish for other meals, you can line it with foil before filling it, leaving enough overhang to cover the top completely. (If the food is cooked in a pot on top of the stove, plastic wrap can be used as a liner when it is transferred to the casserole dish. The wrap should not go into the oven.)

Place the casserole dish in the freezer for several hours. When frozen, transfer the wrapped food to a freezer bag, seal tightly, label it and return it to the freezer. When needed, remove the wrapping, place the food in the original casserole dish and let it thaw overnight in the fridge before reheating. If the casserole calls for a bread or cracker topping, freeze it separately and add it just before reheating. This will keep moisture out of the dry topping (the same holds true for dessert toppings).

As for breakfasts, it's nice to have pancakes or French toast ready and waiting in the freezer. After cooking, you can stack them with a piece of wax paper between each one and then wrap them in foil or freezer bags. When your guests are ready to break their fast, turn on the oven, toaster oven or griddle and allow a few minutes to heat through. For latecomers or small quantities, let the toaster do the job.

Many foods do well in the freezer, including casseroles, meat dishes, diced ingredients, toppings, chopped nuts and flavoured ice cubes. Each can save valuable time when the crunch of meal preparation is at hand. Soups freeze well and can be placed in a pot over low heat to thaw. If cream or milk is to be added, it's best to do so after the soup has been heated. Whipping cream can be frozen, either in liquid or whipped form, but it does best when it's partially whipped before freezing.

Onions and celery can be chopped and frozen; they'll lose their crispness, but that won't matter if they're going to be cooked. Potatoes don't freeze well unless they're mashed. Rice bears up well in the freezer, and it's best reheated over steam.

Recipes featured in this article

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