A case for frozen mixed vegetables
By Eric Kim
When Australian pop star Troye Sivan sings the line, “Take a trip into my garden, I’ve got so much to show ya” in his 2018 summer bop “Bloom,” he probably isn’t referring to an icy Eden of corn, carrots and peas. But he should be.
Buried inside freezers all over the United States today, bags of corn, carrots and peas — separate, or all together as “mixed vegetables” — are the workhorses of the home kitchen. A pea (or corn or carrot) flash-frozen at its peak ripeness is a thing of wonder, a reliable standby across cultures. Heat can reanimate the vegetables in a big pan of fried rice, in a burbling pot of vegetable-beef soup or in a luscious chicken potpie.
But frozen mixed vegetables come in especially handy when making shrimp fried rice, not least because the vegetables need only to be thawed by the skillet’s high heat. As you stir them into the shrimpy oil, they cook quickly, lending their gentle bite to the rice and enlivening it with a confetti of yellow, orange and green.
The medley’s staying power might lie in its classic colors, or in its natural sweetness, not to mention its cleverness. (The vegetables’ consistent size means they cook in the same amount of time.) But what makes the medley especially powerful is how it is seamlessly folded into dishes that don’t traditionally call for frozen vegetables.
In Indian cooking, sabzi comes to mind, as do pulao and biryani. Atlanta-based journalist Sonam Vashi makes a tadka of mustard seeds bloomed in oil, into which she blisters frozen mixed vegetables, which she then enjoys with paratha. Vashi said she learned this technique from her mother, who immigrated from India to Greer, South Carolina, in 1971 and was adapting to the groceries that were available to her.
Frozen mixed vegetables also work wonders in a Japanese-style curry rice, matching the sweetness of the gravy while adding color. You could shuck your own corn, peel your own carrots and shell your own peas for any of those dishes or for a Korean gamja salad, or you could reach for frozen.
We can thank Clarence Birdseye for the modern luxury of frozen vegetables. In the early 1900s, while living in Labrador, Newfoundland, Birdseye found that fish frozen quickly in the dead of winter had smaller ice crystals and tasted fresher than fish frozen at a slower rate in early or late winter.
In 1928, he applied this knowledge to an invention that would birth the modern frozen-food industry: the double belt freezer — two continuous metal belts, made very cold with calcium chloride, which pressed and froze packages of food almost instantly.
During World War II, frozen vegetables saw an uptick in popularity. In 1952, Ore-Ida was founded and specialized in frozen corn and French fries, inventing Tater Tots, made with leftover potatoes, a year later. Today, Green Giant, the company that once popularized the canned pea, now also sells frozen spirals of butternut squash and zucchini — and a vegetable mix of their own.
Despite their ubiquity, frozen mixed vegetables can carry a stigma, most likely rooted in bad memories of grade-school peas and carrots, or misconceptions that fresh is always better than frozen. But not only do the fresh versions of these same vegetables quickly languish in the crisper drawer, access to them can be limited (and expensive).
As much as people love to hate frozen vegetables, many have a soft spot for that nostalgic combination of corn, carrots and peas, which lend an uncomplicated sweetness to dishes, something we could all use from time to time.
Shrimp Fried Rice
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed
1 pound peeled and deveined medium shrimp, thawed if frozen
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 medium onion, diced
1 1/2 cups frozen mixed vegetables (any mix of carrots, peas, corn and green beans)
6 cups cooked jasmine or other long-grain white rice, preferably cold and day-old
1/4 cup soy sauce, or to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large eggs
Yum yum sauce, for serving
1. Heat a very large nonstick or cast-iron skillet over high. Add the olive oil and shrimp, and sprinkle with salt and the garlic powder. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shrimp is no longer translucent and begins to turn golden at the edges, 2 to 4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer the shrimp to a plate and set aside.
2. Add the onion and mixed vegetables to the shrimpy oil and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the onion loses its raw edge but is still crunchy, and the vegetables are mostly thawed, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the rice and soy sauce and cook, stirring occasionally, until well combined and the rice begins to crisp underneath where it meets the pan, 5 to 7 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning with more soy sauce as needed.
3. Scooch the rice to one side of the pan, lower the heat to medium and melt the butter on the empty side of the pan. Crack the eggs into the melted butter, break the yolks and stir vigorously to scramble the eggs, cooking just until they have set but are still tender, about 1 minute. Stir the soft scrambled eggs into the rice, add the reserved shrimp and any accumulated juices, then remove the pan from the heat.
4. Let the fried rice sit for a few minutes so that it can continue to crisp in the pan’s residual heat. (If you haven’t already made the yum yum sauce, this is the perfect time to do it.)
5. Drizzle most of the yum yum sauce over the fried rice in the skillet, leaving some back, if desired, to serve in a small dish on the side for dipping the shrimp.
Yum Yum Sauce
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: About 3/4 cup
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon warm water
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup ketchup
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1. In a medium bowl, stir together the garlic powder, paprika and warm water. Add the mayonnaise, ketchup, rice vinegar and sesame oil, and season generously with salt. Stir until smooth.
2. Yum yum sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.