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Freeze your peppers for a spicy hot blast of flavor in fall and winter

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“Burn, baby, burn,” I chanted, as dozens of peppers swelled, sizzled, blistered and blackened under my oven broiler.

Charred Tomato and Chile Salsa. Photo courtesy Tribune News Service.
Pepper Spread. Photo courtesy Tribune News Service.
Shishito Peppers and Romesco Sauce. Photo courtesy Tribune News Service.

But soon the tables had turned as my own fingers tingled, throbbed and turned temporarily numb from handling the peppers — hardly tempered in their baptism by fire. And my painful consequence didn’t come from peeling the peppers, merely from tucking them snugly into freezer bags to slumber over the coming months.

It’s been several years since I gave up trying to roast batches of garden peppers and then peel them all before freezing. I used to consider peeling part and parcel to peppers’ preservation. But why, I wondered, spend 30 minutes to an hour slogging through such an unpleasant task? Better to spend 30 seconds during the garden’s dormant season when I had time to spare.

The answer seemed obvious, given that I use hotter chiles usually only one at a time in soups, stews, sauces and dips.

And skins, I began to notice, are so much easier to strip off after roasted peppers

have been frozen.

Here’s how I do it:

Sort peppers by type, size and general shape, which ensures they roast most evenly.

Wash peppers (no need to dry) and line them up on a baking sheet. Poke holes in bell peppers to vent steam. Turn on your kitchen fan to exhaust any smoke and acrid fumes. Slide peppers several inches under the oven broiler (heated to high) and watch for them to blacken, turning every few minutes, until charred on all sides.

Alternatively, roast peppers with great results and keep odors outside by using a gas grill. A smoker at lower heat will produce chipotles from ripe jalapeños. Or roast peppers directly over a gas flame by spearing them with a meat fork and turning as you’d toast marshmallows on a campfire. This is a fine technique for roasting only one pepper; otherwise, it becomes a bit tedious.

If using peppers immediately, pile them into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, which traps steam that loosens the skins. After 10 or 15 minutes, when the peppers are cool enough to handle, strip off the skins and pull out the stems and seedy cores, resisting the urge to rinse the peppers, which washes away sweet, caramelized flavors achieved during roasting. A paring knife can help scrape off stubborn sections of skin.

A word of caution: Even if handling a few, relatively mild peppers, consider wearing disposable, food-grade gloves. Make that mandatory for jalapeños, bird’s eye chiles and habaneros, which have higher levels of capsacin, the chemical compound behind peppers’ heat. To remove capsaicin from fingers, rub on a little cooking oil to break up the residue, then wash hands with liquid detergent.

Some cooks swear by putting roasted peppers into a paper bag and then using the bag, itself, to pull and rub off the skin. But this method really only works well for a couple of peppers before the bag starts to fall apart.

If putting peppers directly into the freezer, enclosing them — still warm — in a resealable plastic bag creates much the same environment as steaming them under plastic wrap. And if you arrange peppers in a single layer and lay the bag flat in the freezer, there’s no need for the intermediate step of arranging peppers on a baking sheet to freeze until solid before packing into bags.

Bags of roasted chiles are available throughout the fall at farmers markets and in some grocers’ produce sections. Or see and smell the spectacle of fresh chiles roasting at Fry Family Farm Store in Medford. The roaster fires up at 11 a.m. Fridays, and cranks out chiles for $6 per pound. Preroasted chiles also are available in the store’s refrigerator and freezer cases.

Beyond whole chiles, several quintessential sauces and spreads freeze particularly well. Basically to peppers and almonds what pesto is to basil and pine nuts, romesco brightens up winter menus alongside raw or cooked vegetables, crackers or bread, tossed with pasta or as an accompaniment to meat and seafood. A lovely addition to cheese platters, pepper spread’s vibrant color is perfect for gift-giving.

Shishito Peppers and Romesco Sauce

8 ounces fresh shishito peppers

1/3 cup roasted, salted marcona or regular almonds

2 large roasted red peppers, stems and seeds discarded

4 sun-dried tomato halves, packed in oil, drained

2 garlic cloves, peeled and degermed (halve and pull out any green shoot)

1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Kosher salt, to taste

Flaky salt, for garnish

If you would like to seed the shishito peppers while retaining their handy stems, use kitchen scissors to snip a T into each pepper. The T’s top sits 1/4 inch from stem and runs halfway around circumference of pepper. Stem of T runs about an inch long. Fold flaps open and pull out seeds. Rinse. Dry thoroughly.

Drop the almonds into bowl of a food processor. Pulse until largest chunks are about split pea-sized. Scrape from bowl and set aside.

Drop the red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and 1 tablespoon chopped almonds into bowl of food processor. Process until smooth, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl as needed. Process again, slowly pouring in the 1/4 cup oil. Scrape into a small bowl. Stir in the vinegar, paprika, cayenne and reserved almonds. Season sauce generously with the kosher salt.

Set a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in 1 teaspoon oil. When hot, drop in half of shishito peppers. Cook, tossing, until fragrant, blistered and browned, for 4 to 5 minutes. Repeat with remaining oil and peppers.

Smooth romesco sauce onto a platter. Scatter peppers over sauce. Sprinkle with the flaky salt.

Makes 4 servings.

Pepper Spread

4 pounds red bell peppers

1 large eggplant, about 1 pound

6 to 10 small thin hot peppers, such as serranos, seeded and finely chopped

2 cups canned crushed tomatoes

1/2 cup olive oil, divided

6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 cup finely chopped, fresh parsley

Salt, to taste

To roast the red peppers, place on a foil-covered baking sheet in a 425-degree oven. Cook until charred and softened all over, for about 25 to 30 minutes. Place in a paper bag and close bag or wrap individually in plastic wrap (after first allowing to cool slightly for a few minutes). Let sit for 15 minutes. You should be able to pull off skins easily with your fingers. Remove stem and discard all seeds.

To roast the eggplant, place it on a grill or a cooking element over a gas burner, turning frequently until charred and softened all over. Or, poke holes all over with a fork and broil it in oven about 8 inches from heat source. Turn frequently until softened all over.

Puree the hot peppers in a food processor, then add roasted bell peppers and eggplant and continue processing until smooth.

In a large pot, combine puree and the crushed tomatoes; bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring continuously, until thickened slightly, for about 10 to 15 minutes. Add 1/4 cup of the olive oil. Simmer, stirring frequently, until sauce thickens and cooks down, for about another hour.

Add remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, the garlic and parsley; season with the salt and continue to cook, stirring, until all liquid has cooked off, for 15 minutes or so. Let cool slightly and spoon into a large, clean glass jar. Let it cool in jar, cover tightly with lid and store in refrigerator. Or portion into smaller jars for freezer storage. Pepper spread will keep indefinitely. Makes about 6 cups.

— Recipe from “The Glorious Foods of Greece,” by Diane Kochilas.

Charred Tomato and Chile Salsa

6 pounds plum tomatoes, cored and halved lengthwise

8 ounces red jalapeño chiles (about 10 small), stemmed and halved lengthwise

2 ounces garlic (about 12 cloves), peeled

1 pound onions (about 2 small), peeled and quartered

1 cup cider vinegar (5-percent acidity)

1 tablespoon salt, or more to taste

2 tablespoons sugar

Wash 5 pint canning jars, lids and screw bands in warm, soapy water. Rinse. Set aside. Place rack in bottom of a canning kettle. Place jars on top of rack. Fill canner with water until jars are covered by about 1 inch. Bring water to a simmer.

Preheat oven broiler to high and position rack about 4 inches from heating element. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil.

Working in batches, put the tomatoes, cut-sides down, on prepared baking sheet and broil in oven for about 10 minutes, until skin is blistered and black in places. Put tomatoes in a large bowl and set aside. Broil the chiles, garlic and onions until blackened.

When tomatoes are cool enough to handle, pull off skins and return only charred bits to bowl. In three batches, put all broiled vegetables in a blender and pulse until just coarsely chopped; transfer to a wide, 6- to 8-quart preserving pan and add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes.

Using a jar lifter, remove hot jars from canning kettle, carefully pouring water from each back into pot, and place them upright on a folded towel.

Spoon hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Use a damp paper towel to wipe jar rims, then put a flat lid and ring on each jar, adjusting rings to just finger-tight.

Return jars to water in canning kettle, making sure water covers jars by at least 1 inch.

Bring to a boil and boil for 40 minutes to process. Remove jars to a folded towel and do not disturb for 12 hours. After 1 hour, check that lids have sealed by pressing down on center of each; if it can be pushed down, it hasn’t sealed and jar should be refrigerated immediately. Label sealed jars and store. Makes 5 pint jars.

— Recipe from “Canning for a New Generation,” by Liana Krissoff (Abrams, 2016).