Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Preserving: Freezing Bell Peppers

I have some gorgeous bell pepper plants in my garden, tall and strong and covered in blossoms. Unfortunately, they have, to date, produced a third of a pound of peppers. Not cool. While I still have hope for the present vigorous blossoms, a few weeks ago I realized that the days are getting cooler and shorter, so it's time to activate plan B.

As Jeff and I strolled through the Trenton Farmers Market in search of a bushel of peppers to roast, we were drawn to a very large basket of mostly green peppers from Cranberry Run Farm. All those green peppers in the picture above for just $3. We wanted red peppers, but this was too good to pass up. We took the green ones and a small basket of six very red ones from Pineland Farm and went on our merry way. Serious deals, guys.

No, really - think about it. In the winter, at Whole Foods, an organic bell pepper will cost $4-5 a pound, depending on its color. For $5, we just got about twelve pounds of bell peppers that will last into the winter. We got home and immediately prepped them for preservation.

The red peppers and the most-red ones from the green pepper bushel went on the grill to be roasted. The cleaned roasted pepper strips went into a bowl in the fridge and were frozen in batches over the course of the week. In the mean time, I sliced some green peppers into strips which were frozen on baking sheets. As the week progressed, I kept removing the frozen slices to a large gallon freezer bag, then slicing and freezing the next batch. At the end of the week, I was left with a gallon bag of frozen roasted pepper strips and a gallon of raw bell pepper strips (with several peppers left over).

These are both projects that we did last year and discovered that they were some of the most valuable items in our freezer. Roasted red peppers are a great item to have on hand - I don't see any difference between fresh and previously-frozen ones (and if you buy bottled peppers, they often come packed in oil). Frozen bell pepper strips lose a little of their texture (you might not want to add them to salad), but are perfect when cooked. I was adding them to stir fries, curries and chilis until I ran out at the beginning of January (so early!) at which point I tried to avoid recipes with peppers so I wouldn't have to buy expensive imported ones (this didn't really work). This year, I was determined to make enough to last. With a gallon bag in the freezer already and more peppers in my crisper bin, I think I'll make it to March, at least.

So here's the process. The number of peppers is immaterial - whether you have one pepper or a dozen, it works the same way. Just make sure your peppers are ripe and blemish-free. 

Cut your peppers in half down the center. Cut around the cores (and seeds) and remove them.

Cut off the curved portions on each end. (I know, this seems wasteful. When I cut peppers normally, I don't do this and allow them to form whatever funky shapes they'd like. However, because I wanted these to freeze uniformly and lie nicely on the baking sheet, I went with the more technically correct method. I saved the tops and bottoms in tupperwares in the fridge for later use.)

Now that the rounded edges are gone, you can press the pepper halves flat on the cutting board. Then, run your knife across horizontally, removing any white pith that is left over.

Once your peppers are cut and trimmed, slice them into sticks of relatively uniform width. (You choose the width - I probably should have made them a bit wider so I could dice them into nice squares later, but it really doesn't matter. The thinner they are, the faster they will freeze.)

Lay the strips out on a foil-lined baking sheet (make sure the baking sheet can fit in the freezer). Give them some space - if they're too crowded and mashed together, they will freeze in clumps. By spreading them out, you ensure they freeze more quickly, which will keep the texture better (the longer they take to freeze, the more ice crystals can form that will start breaking down the cell structure - or something like that). The strips take 6-8 hours to freeze fully (I generally leave them overnight). When they're fully frozen, they can be removed to a freezer bag and stored for six months (they're good longer, but they are best within six months - make sure you label and date your bag!). Once this batch is out, repeat as many times as necessary. I would just advise not cutting the peppers until you're about to freeze them - even in tupperwares in the fridge, they can start getting moldy and icky after a while. Whole peppers will keep much longer, so it's best to store them that way.

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