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In A Stew : Cooking: A batch can last for months when properly stored in the freezer, and it may taste better the second time around.

<i> Roberts is chef</i> -<i> owner of Trumps restaurant in Los Angeles and the author of "Secret Ingredients" "Fresh From the Freezer."</i>

Cool weather turns our tastes to the kind of hearty cooking that is so annoying in warmer months. We begin to crave stew.

By definition, stews require long cooking. But why go through the time-consuming process three or four times a season, when you can do the work just once? Make a huge batch of stew once and then use the freezer for storing. You can keep family portions of stewed beef, veal or chicken and complete the recipe in any of several ways after defrosting. Increasing the quantity during preparation is a fraction of the bother it would be to re-create the dish every time. And, if as the maxim goes, stew is better the second day, then it is even better the second month if you have frozen and defrosted it properly.

There are three general rules to follow when freezing cooked or uncooked foods.

Chill first --Make sure the food is cold before you freeze it. This allows it to freeze faster, reducing the amount of condensation, which sometimes makes frozen food soggy and tasteless. Water expands as it turns to ice, causing food fibers to splinter, resulting in a mushy texture after defrosting. If food is chilled before freezing, the ice crystals that form will be smaller, causing less damage to the fibers and less drip loss during defrosting.

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Freeze small --The smaller the item the quicker it will freeze. Whenever possible, freeze portion-sized quantities of meat and fish. Store other foods in quantities that suit the size of a household.

Wrap well --Completely isolate food from the atmosphere of the freezer. The frigid air of a freezer is dry air. And the air in a self-defrosting freezer is drier than in a non-defrosting one. Air affects food stored in the freezer, changing both taste and texture and resulting in what is called “freezer burn.” Even a small amount trapped inside the package will cause eventual deterioration.

Strong packaging with as airtight a seal as possible is the key. Freezer paper doesn’t form an airtight wrap, but it is useful for wrapping items already sealed in plastic wrap and for protecting items too large to fit into plastic freezer bags. Plastic wraps are messy and the thin ply can crack in the freezer, so use the stronger microwaveable wrap.

Tightly wrap solid items such as cakes, individual items such as pieces of cheese, loaves of bread. Or wrap individual items such as fillets of breaded fish before overwrapping with freezer paper or placing in plastic freezer bags. Foil rips too easily to be of any use and it doesn’t give an airtight seal. Even though it seems to attract ice crystals in the freezer, you can use it to wrap items already sealed in plastic.

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Most recipes for stews begin with similar ingredients. The additional items that make the preparation of beef stroganoff different from a beef Burgundy, for example, are added near the end of the recipe. Here’s how it works: You cook a mother recipe for stewed beef, let’s say, and then freeze family-size portions. When you reheat it, add to the stew whatever flavorings and vegetables the specific recipe calls for. The fresh flavors and crunch of quickly cooked vegetables and herbs accent the mellow flavors of the long-cooked meat and sauce.

The key to freezing stews is to separate the meat from the sauce. When they are frozen and defrosted separately, the sauce remains limpid--clear and attractive--and the chunks of meat retain their shape and texture.

Separate the meat and aromatic vegetables from the sauce while the stew is still hot. This is most easily done in a colander or large sieve placed over a bowl. Then separate any vegetables from the meat. Place the meat and the sauce in separate containers, filling them to within one inch of the top. Let them cool completely in the refrigerator (about two hours for meat, one hour for sauce). Discard the vegetables. Cover containers tightly, label and refrigerate for up to three days or freeze for up to three months.

It’s best to defrost stews slowly and evenly. Try to plan ahead and defrost them overnight in the refrigerator. Or use the defrost setting of a microwave (especially for small quantities). Never defrost by placing a freezer container in a bowl of hot water; the meat becomes stringy and tends to fall apart and the sauce tends to separate.

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To reheat and finish a dish, place defrosted meat in an oven-proof dish along with 1/4 cup chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth. Cover the dish and bake in a preheated 325-degree oven for 20 minutes or in a microwave. Meanwhile, heat the sauce, covered, in a small saucepan over low heat for 10 minutes.

FRICASSEED CHICKEN

2 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chickens, cut up, or 7 to 8 pounds chicken pieces

Salt, pepper

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3 tablespoons unsalted butter or margarine

2 medium onions, peeled and roughly diced, or about 2 cups

2 medium carrots, roughly diced, or about 2 cups

1 celery stalk, roughly sliced, or about 1/2 cup

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4 bay leaves

6 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried

3 tablespoons flour

3 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

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3 cups milk

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pat chicken pieces dry and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Melt butter over low heat in large covered casserole dish or Dutch oven on top of stove. Add chicken pieces, several at time, and cook on all sides without browning, about 7 minutes. Remove pieces to plate when done.

Add onions, carrots, celery, bay leaves and thyme to casserole and cook about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over vegetables and cook, stirring, 30 seconds.

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Add stock, milk and nutmeg. Increase heat to high, cover and bring to boil. Add thighs and drumsticks. Bake at 375 degrees 25 minutes. Add chicken breasts and bake another 15 minutes.

Transfer chicken pieces into large serving dish and keep warm in turned-off oven. Strain sauce through fine sieve and discard onions, carrots, celery and herbs. Place strained sauce in medium saucepan and cook over medium heat until stewing liquid is saucelike and thick enough to cling to wooden spoon.

Ladle sauce over chicken and serve. Accompany with noodles or rice pilaf if desired. Makes 2 entree batches, 3 to 4 servings each batch.

Note: Refrigerate meat and sauce separately up to 3 days. Freeze meat and sauce separately in 2 batches up to 3 months.

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Fricasseed Chicken Variations:

CHICKEN, COUNTRY HAM AND PEAS

1/2 recipe Fricasseed Chicken (sauce separate), freshly prepared or thawed

1/2 cup milk

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Dash ground cloves

1/4 pound Virginia ham or prosciutto, cut in 1/2-inch dice

1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas

Chopped parsley

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Arrange chicken pieces in casserole or Dutch oven. Cover and bake at 375 degrees 10 minutes.

Combine fricassee sauce, milk and cloves in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and pour through fine strainer.

Replace liquid in clean saucepan and add ham and peas. Place over medium-high heat and cook until liquid is saucelike and is thick enough to coat wooden spoon. Pour sauce, ham and peas over chicken and continue to cook 5 minutes.

Arrange chicken and sauce in serving bowl or deep serving platter. Sprinkle with parsley. Accompany with hot pasta or rice if desired. Makes 3 to 4 servings.

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PAPRIKA CHICKEN AND ROASTED PEPPERS

1/2 recipe Fricasseed Chicken (sauce separate), freshly prepared or thawed

1/2 cup all-purpose broth or canned low-sodium chicken broth

4 large sweet red peppers, about 1 pound

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2 tablespoons paprika, preferably Hungarian sweet paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Arrange chicken pieces in casserole or Dutch oven. Add broth, cover and bake at 375 degrees 10 minutes.

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Place peppers over flame of gas stove, place under preheated broiler and scorch peppers until completely black. Place in paper bag when done. Close bag tightly and let rest 5 minutes. Rinse peppers under cold running water, rubbing to remove all blackened skin. Split peppers with thumb, lengthwise, remove seeds and stem and cut into thirds. Add peppers to chicken and cover.

Heat fricassee sauce in saucepan over medium heat. Stir in paprika, coriander and tomato paste and cook until reduced to saucelike consistency and thick enough to cling to wooden spoon.

Uncover chicken and peppers, strain sauce over top and bake another 5 minutes. Serve with buttered noodles if desired. Makes 3 to 4 servings.


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