But first, Blanch!
If you’re interested in freezing summer produce to enjoy during the winter, it’s important to talk about blanching – that is, parcooking vegetables in boiling water, then plunging them into ice water to immediately stop the cooking process. Doing this kills the enzymes in vegetables that can cause them to discolor and turn soggy when frozen. Blanching times vary from vegetable to vegetable – spinach takes far less time than broccoli, for example. But you shouldn’t blanch any vegetable until completely soft. “Tender-crisp” is perfect. Once blanched, drain the vegetables from the ice water, pat dry with paper towels and arrange them in a single layer on a parchment- or wax paper-lined baking sheet. Freeze solid before transferring to labeled and dated resealable plastic freezer bags for storage. Frozen vegetables are good to use for up to a year.
Generally speaking, most vegetables benefit from blanching – especially those that will stand on their own in a dish, like broccoli or asparagus. But for vegetables that are part of a larger recipe, like onions, it’s okay to skip the blanching step and put them right into the freezer.
• Choose bundles with spears that are bright green in color and aren’t shriveled or limp. The spears should be bright green with dark green or purplish tips – be sure the tips are tightly closed and not yellowed, splayed open or at all slimy.
• Thick vs. thin spears is a matter of preference, not quality, but do look for bundles that have spears that are roughly the same size so they all cook at the same rate.
• Remove the woody ends (bend the spear at the base to snap off the tough end) and store the spears upright in a tall plastic container with a bit of water in the bottom. Loosely drape a plastic bag over the spears (thin produce sacks from the grocery store are perfect) and store in the fridge. The asparagus will keep this way for 4 or 5 days (change the water every day or two).
• Blanch asparagus for freezing by cutting into pieces or blanching whole spears in boiling salted water for 45 seconds. Cool, drain and freeze as instructed above.
• If you have rock-hard avocados on hand, ripen them quickly by storing them in a paper bag with an apple. The gas emitted by the apple helps speed ripening of the avocado.
• You know an avocado is ripe when it gives to slight pressure when squeezed and the little “knob” at the top of the fruit where it attached to the tree is easily pried off.
• If you have a ripe avocado but don’t have plans to eat it right now (because we all know how quickly avocados go from almost ready to over the hill), store the fruit in the refrigerator.
• To prevent avocados from turning brown after cutting, toss the flesh in a little lemon or lime juice.
• When making guacamole, use a potato masher or hand-held pastry blender to mash the avocados.
Bell Peppers & Hot Chiles
• To freeze fresh peppers, first cut the flesh into strips or chunks and then blanch briefly for 45 seconds. Then spread the pieces in a single layer onto parchment-lined baking sheets, freeze, then transfer to containers. Thawed frozen peppers won’t be crisp but are fine to use in sauces, soups, braises and stir-fries.
• To add another layer of flavor, place whole peppers on a grill over medium-high heat and roast, turning often until the flesh is charred. When cool enough to handle, peel off the charred bits, then remove the seed core and chop into chunks or strips before freezing in resealable plastic bags or containers (don’t forget to label and date them). Mince roasted, peeled hot chilies, like jalapeños, and freeze by the tablespoon on a parchment-lined baking sheet (transfer to bags when frozen) or in ice cube trays.
Broccoli & Cauliflower
• Trim broccoli into florets and blanch as directed above for 60 to 90 seconds. Freeze and store in bags to use in casseroles, pasta or soups.
• Prepare cauliflower in the same way to use in side dishes or soup
• Choose ears that are green and moist with silk that is sticky and brown, not dry.
• Shuck the ears, removing as much of the silk strings as you can (a soft-bristled brush is helpful), then cut the kernels off the cob. To do this, stand an ear upright on a rimmed baking sheet (to help keep bouncing kernels corralled) and shave the kernels off the cob using a sharp knife.
• Blanch as directed above for 30 to 45 seconds, drain well and freeze. Store frozen corn to use in chowder or main dishes.
• If cooking corn on the cob for a crowd, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the shucked ears, cook for 5 minutes, then turn off the burner. Let stand, covered, in the pot – the ears will stay warm for at least an hour!
• Trim the beans and blanch as directed for 45 to 60 seconds. Freeze and store in bags to use in main dishes (remember, add them toward the end of cooking; no need to thaw first) or casseroles.
Onions & Leeks
• Chop onions and refrigerate (or freeze for longer storage) in measured increments (ie., ½ cup) in containers. Frozen onions won’t be crisp when thawed but will work great for soups, stews and braises.
• To clean the sand from the layers in leeks, chop them according to recipe instructions (use the white and light green parts only), wash well in a sink of water then spin dry. Store in containers in the fridge or freeze to use in soups or baked side dishes.
• Ripen tomatoes off the vine by placing them in a paper sack and leaving them to sit at room temperature. They’ll turn red in a few days.
• When tomatoes (regular or cherry) are coming in fast and furious and you can’t use them quickly enough, freeze them whole in plastic freezer bags. When a soup or stew recipe calls for fresh or canned tomatoes, just drop a couple of frozen tomatoes into the pot and simmer until thawed, breaking them up with a spoon.
• Slice tomatoes (and other smooth-skinned vegetables, like eggplant) easily with a serrated knife.
• To remove the skin from tomatoes, bring a large pot of boiling water to a boil. Use a paring knife to cut an “x” in the bottom of the tomatoes, then plunge them into the boiling water for 20 to 30 seconds (not too long or the flesh will start to turn mushy). Lift the tomatoes out of the pot with a slotted spoon and transfer immediately to a bowl of ice water. When cool, peel the skin off with your fingers, starting at the “x” you made in the bottom.
• Cut zucchini into slices or chunks, then blanch as directed above for 30 to 45 seconds in unsalted water (salted water will cause it to turn soggy) and freeze. Use it to make soup or add to vegetable side dishes – keep in mind that it won’t need quite as long to cook, so add frozen zucchini toward the end.
• Don’t forget that zucchini makes a great substitute for noodles in soups – sometimes exploring new uses for common ingredients can breathe new life into the vegetable!
Use a spiralizer tool or use a vegetable peeler to shave long strips of zucchini, then cut the strips into noodle-like strands.
Although summer is quickly coming to a close, it’s not over yet! There’s still time to take advantage of all of the season’s good stuff from the garden and preserve it for chilly fall and winter suppers. You’ll be so glad you did.