One of the problems with not having a garden is that when harvest time comes, you have to get your share of the harvest from the grocery store. Well, that is, unless you have friends with gardens. Most people with gardens end up with way too much food, which is ultimately unloaded upon their friends without gardens. Fortunately, this has happened to me a couple of times already this season. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened with jalapenos, red bell peppers or tomatillos.
Fortunately, these things all seem to be on sale at my local grocery store at the moment. Jalapenos for $0.10/lb? Red bell peppers 10 for $10? Still way more expensive then growing them myself, and certainly more so than getting 'em free, but also much better than the regular price. So I picked up a little over a pound of jalapenos, a few red bell peppers and even a few tomatillos. The problem is, even I can't go through that many at once. I was already planning on certain long-term storage options.
One of the things I really miss from my days living in New Hampshire is diced chiles in the freezer section of the grocery store. They sold green bell peppers like that, as well as a mix of green and red. I was always bummed that they never sold just the red like that, since I'd take red bell peppers over green any day. But now that I'm back in Utah, I can't find either. It's truly a curiosity to me. I miss just being able to grab pre-diced chiles from the freezer to toss into my morning hash browns. There was no prep work involved, and I knew the chiles would actually be fresher than the "fresh" ones they sold in the produce section, because produce picked for processing are usually picked at the height of freshness, because they don't have to make the same kind of journey as those picked to be sold as "fresh".
As you might have guessed, I had freezing in mind. I was going to go for a method known in the industry as IQF, or Individually Quick Freezing. This is a technique originally demonstrated to me by Alton Brown, who had freezer storage in mind for a bunch of strawberries. Mr Brown used dry ice, but it had not occurred to me to pick any up. It occurred to me that liquid nitrogen would be just as effective, but gosh if I'm not just fresh out. You see, the quick freezing is important, because it tends to keep ice crystals from forming as large. The more time it takes to freeze something, the larger the ice crystals in it tend to be. Since a lot of the water that's forming ice crystals tend to be contained in cell walls, and ice crystals have no respect for such a fragile barrier, larger ice crystals tend to damage cell walls. The more damaged cell walls you have, the mushier the veggie will be once thawed. This was something that needs to be avoided.
Having no dry ice or liquid nitrogen available, I was not going to get my veggies as quickly frozen as I would have liked. But that didn't mean I couldn't still get a jump on things. I started by stashing a few sheet pans in my freezer, each with a sheet of parchment paper on it. That done, I turned my attention to seeding and dicing my chiles. Having washed them, I seeded them all first, then cut them into strips, and then cut those strips into squares. I then pulled a sheet pan out of the freezer and, working as quickly as possible, I spread the chiles out into an even layer, and then tossed it right back into the freezer. Using pre-chilled pans would ensure that the chiles weren't waiting for the pan underneath them to get cold before they did. The parchment ensured that they wouldn't stick to the pan itself once frozen.
Now, I processed my red bell peppers like this, my jalapenos, my poblanos and even my tomatillos. The plan was to give each pan a stir every half hour to cut down on stickage, but because the dicing made everything so small, it ended up taking less than an hour. This is definitely longer than the few seconds or minutes it might take with dry ice or liquid nitrogen, but also much less time than, say, freezing ice cubes. With the chiles frozen, I quickly moved them to zip-top bags, marked with the date and the contents of the bag.
The date's important, of course. And when freezing certain things (maybe not chiles, but certain other things) the year gets important too. Plus, I'm just obsessive compulsive and can't handle storing dates without four-digit years. Stupid Y2K. With the chiles bagged and tagged, I quickly moved them back into the freezer. Because everything had been frozen as a single layer, there was minimal stickage between pieces of chile too. This is what the "individual" part of IQF is talking about. When I reach in the freezer, I can just grab a handful of diced chiles without having to worry about chiseling away what I need or letting it partially thaw. Even better, since the size is so small, it takes next to no time to thaw what I do need.
Now making hash browns is going to be a snap. Prep time will consist of pulling out what I need, and only what I need, rather than dicing up a whole chile and then leaving half or three quarters of it in the fridge. Had I set aside strips of chiles, I would be all set for stir fry. Have you ever made stir fry? It takes significantly more time just to do your prep work than it does to actually cook your food. With pre-frozen veggies, you can just walk into your house from a long day of work and get your wok preheated while you pull your veggies out of the freezer. Suddenly, it's one of the quickest meal plans out there. Hmm. Maybe I should think about doing some stir-dry this week.