When was the last time you really looked at the frozen vegetables section? New Zealand's wallets are under pressure from inflation. It's time, say many, to embrace frozen veg as a cheap way to cut costs and eat better.
But what if you hate frozen veg? Especially the diced ones with carrots and corn? Perhaps you ate them every day in your university flat, and never again.
My own university horror story involves a toga-wearing fellow student doing a 360-degree helicopter vomit in the Auckland University Quad. Comedian Billy Connolly was right when he once quipped: "Here's a thing. Have you ever wondered, why every time you're sick, there's diced carrots in it?"
With everyone's budget stretched in 2022, however, it was time to assign that to history and put my taste buds on the line for New Zealand's wallets. The frozen veg project was born.
Friends, family and colleagues all got the: "do you eat frozen mixed veg?" question from me. A Japanese friend said they used a lot of mixed frozen veg because "it's all about nutritional value for cost". Even my children had eaten them at friends' houses, to my surprise.
Herald business editor Duncan Bridgeman pointed out that he always had a bag of the stuff in his freezer for his children's sports injuries.
Countdown reports that its sales for frozen veg has grown by 30 per cent over the past 12 months. Not all for sports injuries, I hope.
Although a good cook, I'm not a culinary queen. I turned to New Zealand school of Food & Wine owner Celia Hay, who was a good sport, even if the air of horror in her initial email reply was palpable.
Hay's first tip was: stop overcooking frozen veg, New Zealand. And add some seasoning.
"Most frozen vegetables have been parboiled as a part of the process," she says. "They're really something that should be added to say a pot of boiling pasta at the last minute and blanched [only]."
The conversation turned to transforming peas into something sophisticated. Cooked, pureed, and perhaps flavoured with fresh herbs from the garden, they make a great bed for a chicken or fish dish, says Hay. They can also be blended with mayonnaise and herbs to create a dip or salsa.
Despite buying peas, edamame, and fava (broad) beans, Hay would never have mixed diced vegetables at home, and asked not to be quoted on what she thought they were useful for.
This did bring me to the question of why so many of us are turned off by these most humble of frozen veg offerings. The mix of colours that isn't appealing to the human eye, says Hay.
The real point of frozen veg, says AUT food scientist Don Otter, is that it can be processed and distributed more easily frozen rather than fresh. It also allows us to eat vegetables out of season. Who even knows when the pea season is?
The uniform shape of mixed frozen veg that is so unappealing makes the different vegetables roughly the same size, meaning they freeze in a similar time frame, says Otter.
Not all that cheap
Hay pointed out that in-season produce is cheaper even at the farmers' market she goes to at Britomart. I'd add Chinese and Indian supermarkets to that. Just don't waste what you buy.
Hay's comment along with Otter's thoughts led to a comparison exercise at Pak'nSave in mid-July. A $2.99 cauliflower, weighed 1.6kg. If you eat the leaves as well, which Jamie Oliver recommends, there is no waste there. Over in the freezer aisle, cauliflower was $4kg.
Most of the supermarkets I visited stock the darlings of the diet industry: broccoli and cauliflower "rice", which cost around $9kg. Ouch. Make your own, I say.
Potatoes, kumara, onions, carrots, and pumpkins bought somewhere sensibly priced are cheaper fresh than frozen all year round. The day I visited Pak'nSave Wairau, fresh kumara was $1.60kg.
On the subject of not-being-cheap, marketers have found ways to sell us humble frozen veg at premium prices. Wattie's "Steam Fresh" veg with extra plastic (grrrr) cost $4.50 for 320g at Countdown. The same supermarket had a similar quality 700g pack of Wattie's Pick of the Crop rainbow mix for $4.50.
Another mental note was that although frozen spinach and kale is reasonably priced, the kale and spinach plants in my garden live longer than cockroaches, and are virtually free because they keep growing year after year.
Perusing the frozen vegetable aisles does throw up some interesting surprises tucked in between the peas, carrots and corn.
That included frozen Fruzio avocado at Pak'nSave Māngere. Sliced leek is super convenient, but I didn't cost it out compared to fresh.
Frozen capsicum sounds like a mighty fine idea. Compared to $4 per fresh capsicum, a 1kg bag of Fruzio sliced mixed peppers at $5.99 seems like a good deal. Countdown has 500g of sliced capsicum for $3.50 in its Prep Set Go range.
The only bag of frozen courgette I spied on my travels had a serious case of freezer burn. This was a problem I found more than once at Asian/Indian supermarkets as well, although there are some mighty interesting frozen veg options such as parwal, tinda, suran, guvar, tindora, jackfruit, dudhi and snake gourd.
One of the cheapest frozen veg options turned out to be frozen cassava at $5.49 for 2kg at Pak'nSave. Boiled, then roasted, it reminded me of trips to Brazil, back in the pre-Covid days.
Also down at the helicopter-style mixed frozen veg price, is broad beans, which were $2 for 500g at Countdown.
Pak'nSave's freezers launched much creative cooking in the Clement/Brown household. A 454 bag of frozen Mama San Lotus Slices was $3.69, and a 900g of whole baby okra for $6.19 also grabbed my attention. Both surprisingly cheap for exotic veg.
The food miles involved in this are problematic. One bag of cauliflower I bought had come from Belgium.
An evening spent googling frozen vegetable recipes revealed some promising leads and I started the project modestly with recipes to pimp up ordinary boiled or steamed mixed veg.
The key, says Hay, is to add a teaspoon of lemon juice or zest, some olive oil or butter, and toss them through at the last minute. A dash of vinegar in green veg such as frozen peas or spinach keeps them green. I also experimented with mustard and fresh herbs from the garden.
Some of the more successful recipes in the exercise were thanks to the flavouring more than the frozen veg. My stir-fried frozen veg and tofu received rave reviews from Mr 19. But it turned out to be the simple, but flavoursome, sauce that piqued his taste buds.
Another winner was roasted frozen veg, although it requires quite a significant amount of olive oil for a tasty outcome.
A bit of lateral thinking led to mashed and pureed frozen veg, which lost the Billy Connolly diced look instantly. With the help of Google, and the right mixes of herbs and spices, mash can become hash browns, vegetable waffles, rissoles, burger patties, samosas, enchilada fillings, calzone, a layer in a lasagne and more.
One of the most successful recipes was a Chelsea Winter vegan pasta sauce from Supergood, which uses a mix of pureed cauliflower and alternative milk white sauce as a base.
I swapped the fresh cauliflower out for frozen mixed veg and can report that it only changed the colour. I contacted Winter to see what she thought about my butchered version of her recipe but was met with radio silence on that one.
One of the most unusual recipes arose when a last-minute cake was needed for book club. On the group chat, I joked that I'd find a mixed frozen veg cake recipe. I didn't. But I did find kale cake, to howls from some quarters.
Speed matters when cooking at home and I'll probably keep buying a few of my new-found favourites. Using ready-frozen vegetables has after a lifetime of slow cooking sped up the evening meal. It's such a shame I didn't discover this when feeding a household of my own and visiting teenagers.
10 lessons from the frozen veg project
You aren't going to slay the inflationary dragon by just eating frozen veg, although it will help.
Frozen chips are very cheap and potato is a vegetable
With careful cooking, frozen veg doesn't have to be soft and mushy.
You can freeze your own and save $$$.
Always follow cooking instructions.
1kg bags offer the best value.
It's worth paying a fraction more for better-looking chunky veg.
Fancy marketing can make vegetables eye-wateringly expensive.
Buying veg in plastic bags makes you feel guilty, but has other environmental benefits such as reduced waste.
Cooking frozen veg is only constrained by your imagination.