Saturday 17 September 2011

Preserving the Sunshine

Wash, dry, slice, slice, slice.  Slice, slice, wash, dry, slice, slice, slice.  That was the rhythm of my morning. 

I was fortunate enough to get a great many field peppers this week.  As you can see from my photo, they were really beautiful—many coloured and interestingly shaped.  I wanted to make a painting of them and took a lot of pictures so that I’ll be able to do that later.  Today, though, I concentrated on getting them into my freezer.

Sweet bell peppers are a favourite of mine.  I love to cook with them, but they can be expensive.  The mild, often damp, climate here means that local peppers are almost invariably greenhouse grown.  Our greenhouse peppers come in three colours, like traffic lights:  red, yellow, and green.  They rarely cost less than $1.97/lb.  In winter and early spring, they can cost as much as $5.00/lb.  On our food budget, this makes them a luxury.

When we lived in the Okanagan, mid-September was the time of year to buy peppers.  Farmers, anxious to get them out of the field and sold before the arrival of the first frosts, would offer them very inexpensively but you had to be right there at the farm to get them.  We would buy huge bags of them, in every colour available.  I would arrange them in bowls like floral arrangements before putting them by for the winter months. 

Since moving back to the island, I’ve rarely seen Okanagan peppers in our markets or grocery stores.  I was delighted to find them this week.    

Culinarily speaking, bell peppers are a gift to cooks for the sweet, high note they add to dishes.  Nutritionally speaking, they are a treasure trove of vitamins and minerals.  Bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C at 175 milligrams per cup (that's more than twice the amount of vitamin C found in a typical orange) and a good source of another antioxidant vitamin—Vitamin E.  They’re also an outstanding source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.[1]

Because I love their flavour and value their nutrition, whenever I’m fortunate enough to get a quantity of affordable bell peppers I preserve as many as I can. There are lots of ways to put peppers by.  They are commonly dried but I don’t have a dehydrator and air drying them in our humid climate can be a hit or miss operation.  Peppers can be pickled too—and I enjoy them that way—but there’s a limit to how many pickles the two of us will consume in a year’s time. 

This year, I used some of my peppers to make a batch of Jean Anderson’s sweet red pepper paste.   (  I froze the paste in four ounce containers; a perfect amount of dipping sauce, or spread, or topping for the two of us.  The rest of the peppers I froze in strips, on parchment covered cookie sheets, and then transferred to freezer bags.

The trick to using frozen peppers is to add them to the pot directly from the freezer:  thawing them before use results in an unpleasant, watery texture.  If I need diced peppers for a recipe, I can dice the frozen strips.  A very few minutes at room temperature softens them sufficiently to do this, and a sharp knife makes quick work of chopping them before they have a chance to thaw completely. 

Just as a frozen green bean will never be as fine in texture or flavour as a fresh green bean, a frozen bell pepper will never yield that sweet crunch that a pepper fresh from the field provides.  But when the winter weather has set in and summer is but a memory, adding some frozen peppers to a dish can bring the flavour of sunshine to our dinner plates. 

My bags of frozen peppers are now resting at the top of my freezer; rainbow coloured promises of good things to come.  I’m so glad I took the time to put them by!

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