How to Use Ice Cube Trays for Recipe Prep

By Sally Sampson

My life changed one day when my basil plants were in dire need of trimming and I made a big batch of pesto.  As soon as my five and a half-year-old daughter caught wind of this, she announced that she wouldn’t so much as eat a thimbleful and that from now on, she would only eat tomato sauce on pasta.  My four-year-old son, listening intently, announced that he wouldn’t touch tomato sauce, and would only dine on pesto. 

Instead of getting angry, I got inspired.  I put the pesto in ice cube trays and proceeded to make a batch of tomato sauce which I also put in ice cube trays.  Voila! The next night, with literally no effort on my part, save that of boiling water and throwing noodles in, I was a short order cook with two happy children. The idea of this intrigued me so much I became ice cube crazy.  I now freeze cubes to top grilled fish, steak, chicken and vegetables; to swirl into pasta, risotto, polenta and soups and to add to cold drinks.  In addition to the recipe below for watermelon cubes, I freeze coffee for iced coffee and tea and lemonade with crushed mint leaves for iced tea.

There is still no question that fresh is best but – – it’s just not always feasible to whip up a sauce at a moments notice.  And the incessant summer heat makes turning on the stove both unnerving and formidable.  Sometimes just the thought of having to think about dinner does me in.  Ice cubes are a vacation. A haven.  A virtual Shangri-la. 

The secret is to immediately transfer the frozen cubes to Ziploc bags, in order to keep them as fresh as possible and to give you empty trays to start all over with.  Some cubes come out easier than others, some stick a bit.  Pesto sticks and if you want, you can lightly grease the trays.  You can adjust how high you fill the cubes.  A full cube of pesto is too much for one person, too little for two; about 2/3 full is just right for most people.  You will need to experiment; cube size and quantity vary from tray to tray. Most cubes hold about 3 tablespoons and most trays have 12- 16 cubes which translate to about 2 ½-  3 cups of sauce per tray.  

Do not defrost the cubes until you need them; if you are feeding children, you can add the frozen cubes directly to hot pasta; they will cool it to the perfect temperature.

Now that some time has passed for me to figure out what my children will and won’t eat and my freezer is awash with cubes of all kinds, my daughter has decided to eat pesto and my son has decided to eat tomato sauce.  And it’s no problem.

Watermelon Cubes 

Use instead of ice cubes in iced tea, lemonade or orange juice. Or simply return to the blender and process into slush.


3 cups cubed and seeded watermelon


1. Place in a blender or food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until blended. 

2. Transfer to ice cube trays and freeze.


Pesto is great mixed into pasta and grains, as a spread on sandwiches, burgers, tofu, fish, and chicken, or dolloped on chili and soups. It has a strong taste, so a little goes a long way


2 garlic cloves or scallions, peeled and sliced

1 1⁄2 cups packed fresh herb leaves: basil, parsley, mint, or cilantro (or a combination)

1⁄3 cup raw or lightly toasted almonds, pine nuts, walnuts, or pecans

1 cup grated Parmesan, Romano, or Asiago cheese, or shredded cheddar, or crumbled feta or goat cheese

3⁄4 cup olive oil

1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt


1. Put the garlic, herbs, and nuts in the bowl of the food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until well chopped.

2. Add the cheese, oil, and salt and process until smooth, stopping from time to time to scrape down the sides of the bowl with the spatula..

3. Transfer to ice cube trays and freeze.

To toast the nuts, put them on a small baking sheet in a 350-degree oven until they are fragrant and look a shade darker, 5-20 minutes depending on the nut.

Tomato Sauce 

This all-purpose tomato sauce is also excellent with meatballs or on polenta, rice, or barley, or as a pizza sauce. It can even go on burgers instead of ketchup!


1 tablespoon olive or canola oil

2 garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried basil

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 (28-ounce) cans diced tomatoes, including the liquid

1⁄4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese


1. Put the skillet on the stove and turn the heat to low. When the skillet is hot, add the oil. Add the garlic, dried basil, and oregano and cook until the garlic is just golden, 1-2 minutes.

2. Add the tomatoes, raise the heat to medium-high, and cook until the mixture just starts to boil. Turn the heat down to low and cook 15 minutes. Taste the sauce and add a pinch of salt if you think it needs it. Leave as is or mash it a bit to make it less chunky.

3. Transfer to ice cube trays and freeze.

Pepper Cilantro 

Add to chicken, steak or tuna, salmon, swordfish or shrimp.


4 yellow or red bell peppers roasted 

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves 

1- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger root

1 teaspoon kosher  salt

½ teaspoon black pepper 

3 tablespoons olive oil 


1.Place the peppers, cilantro, ginger, salt and pepper in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until well chopped.  While the machine is running, gradually add the oil.

2. Transfer to ice cube trays and freeze.

Asparagus Butter

Swirl into polenta, pasta, risotto, soups or top salmon, swordfish or chicken or roasted vegetables.


¾ pound asparagus spears, stems peeled, chopped, and blanched, tips set aside 

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup chopped fresh basil leaves


1. Place the asparagus, butter, and basil in a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process until smooth.  

2. Transfer to ice cube trays and freeze.

Sun-dried Tomato “Pesto”

Great on steak or chicken or swirled into pasta, polenta, risotto or soups.  Also good with toasted pinenuts added as a garnish to any of the above.


3- 4  garlic cloves

½- 2/3  cup fresh basil leaves

1 cup sun-dried tomatoes

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

½ teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup olive or canola oil


1. Place the garlic, basil and tomatoes in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade and pulse until the tomatoes are well chopped.  

2. Add the water, vinegar, pepper and salt and pulse until combined.  

3. While the machine is running, gradually add the oil and blend until emulsified.  

4. If necessary, stir with a spoon before transferring to ice cube trays.

5. Transfer to ice cube trays and freeze. 

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