Almost exactly a year ago today, I was walking across the stage at my college graduation: folding up my cap and gown, moving out of the tiny Midwestern town I’d loved for four years, trying to pull together all the trappings of what I believed would be an ~*adult*~ life (a thing that many people have written about on TFD, better and clearer than I ever could).
But in this past year, I’ve found that the funny thing about becoming an adult is that it just kind of happens to you. One day you just start sorting your mail and automating transfers and paying all your bills on time. You change your own lightbulbs, make yourself a cleaning schedule, take yourself out to happy hour on Fridays and do the New York Times crossword by yourself at the bar, just because. Your pipes freeze and flood your kitchen on New Year’s Eve and you vacuum the water and hose the drain, because your building’s maintenance office is closed for the holidays and every plumber in the city is handling someone else’s winter flooding. And in what feels like the biggest step, you figure out how to see people — really see people — outside of classes and weekend parties and a college campus a mile and a half wide.
A central part of looking for ways to spend time with the people I care about has been rediscovering new dialects of food as a love language. Since I was little, the truest way I have communicated has been by cooking for the people I love: brownies from a Duncan Hines box at first, then little cucumber and cream cheese tea sandwiches at my middle school lunch table, chocolate chip cookies for my freshman floor in college, a 23rd birthday cake modeled after BB-8 from Star Wars for one of my best friends.
These days, it often takes the form of dinner parties: planned or impromptu, with three people or thirteen, always with the door open for any friends or friends-of-friends who want to drop by. As these parties have become a more regular occurrence, my freezer has become my best friend — for housing prepped ingredients, keeping my compost bin odorless, and making sure I always have back-pocket dishes handy. My mom likes to call them the “just-in-cases”: simple, prep ahead-able things that are guaranteed to make a day/a meal/a conversation a little more special. So whatever else might be in my freezer, these are the top four things that I always keep on hand.
I’ve found that even if the dinner itself falls to minor disaster, there is nothing that is quite as showstopping as a tray of cookies warm from the oven. Even if it’s just a classic slice-and-bake tube from the fridge aisle at the grocery store, there’s something magical about freshly baked cookies. For me, whenever baking inspiration hits, I’ll just double the recipe and keep extras in the freezer. Sometimes it’s an old favorite I’ve made a million times, often it’s something from a new issue of Bon Appetit or a recipe a friend recommended: a roll of craggy, pecan-studded brown butter shortbread, balls of toffee-chocolate chunk cookies, sparkling sugar-crusted gingersnap disks. Recently, these fudgy, chocolate-peanut butter cup cookies from Deb Perelman have been making a regular appearance.
2. Garlic bread
I grew up on Texas Toast’s frozen slabs of garlic bread — and if I’m being honest, I absolutely still have a soft spot for it. But garlic bread is one of those things that is almost always better when you make it at home and is so handy as an easy appetizer/pre-dinner snack/salad-accompanying carb for a group. I like to buy day-old baguettes from my local grocery store for a dollar, halve them, spread them with a little soft salted butter and minced garlic, and stick them in the freezer until the next time I’m hosting dinner. Then I just pop them under the broiler for a few minutes with a little dried parsley sprinkled on top, or parmesan, if I’m feeling fancy. So, so easy — so, so good.
3. Vegetable scraps/parmesan rinds
Unless they look like they’ve already started composting themselves, I like to keep vegetable scraps in a giant bag in my freezer, along with any parmesan or romano wedges that have been used down to the rind. Whenever a friend gets sick, or a winter day gets particularly cold (AKA all of winter in Minnesota), I throw them all into a pot for an hour (or longer, if I have the time) and then strain out the used vegetables. Then, I just toss in a few cups of rice or a box of pasta, some greens, and maybe a little miso or tomato paste. Honestly the best soup to turn around a sick/chilly/long day.
4. A pan of some sort of baked pasta
I do recognize that this is kind of weird, but I almost always have some sort of baked pasta dish in my freezer. My company always has a ton of empty large tin foil trays after catered lunch meetings, so often, I’ll take them home and wash/reuse them as disposable baking trays for this. But I also have a cheap 9×13 pan that I picked up from a Goodwill that I’ve designated for freezer meals. This is often just a pan of mac and cheese or lasagna, but I’ve also done this baked pasta with cauliflower and chard, or this eggplant parmesan-inspired orzo. This has come in handy more than once — when a friend got into med school and we threw an impromptu surprise party; when an afternoon movie turned into a snowed-in dinner. (It’s also nice to have a backup plan ready in case, say, the chicken you were roasting for dinner accidentally sets on fire. As a completely random example.)
Cooking is something that I really love, so it’s something I build into my budget. A $75/month line item that I let myself spend on making something for the people that I care about, whether it’s for an “I’m sorry your sick!” pot of soup or a “congrats on the new job!” batch of cookies. So these are my freezer’s “just-in-cases”! But maybe yours is a pint of locally made ice cream, or chilled glasses for after-work martinis, or a box of Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants. All they are, really, are the things in your life that make it just a little easier to make the people you love feel special.
Julie Zhou is a writer, editor, and born-and-bred Midwesterner. She loves unreliable magazine quizzes, cast-iron pans, and the Oxford comma. She hates the question, “No, but where are you *really* from?”
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