The evening before the first frost threatened, a couple of friends and I converged on the Borrowed Farm gardens to do what we could to preserve and protect the still-bountiful harvest.
Typically, there will be at least a couple of weeks of warm, congenial weather after that first early freeze. It’s a different story if you can dodge the frosty bullet until mid-October–at that point and this latitude, you might as well call it a season.
But, when the first advisory comes even before the middle of September, it’s not worth clearing out the whole garden when there’s so much juvenile fruit still sizing up, and so much warm weather yet to come.
Because the predictions had us hitting a low of around 27, we hedged our bets–a temperature that low can kill off tender plants even under their snuggly covers, so we picked everything that was mature and/or ripening and then tarped and blanketed as much as we could of what was left. We worked ’til the sun was setting, and the temperature was 47 degrees and dropping.
It turned out that Borrowed Farm didn’t come even close to that predicted low temperature, though there was some spotty damage to un-tarped plants–especially melons and other ground-sprawling tender crops. But it wasn’t a killer.
Still, it was worthwhile doing the picking and tarping–it’s a lot nicer doing the hindsight, “what if?” session from the perspective of having been cautious than the perspective of having made a foolish wager.
But if you’re thinking we were smug about it, think again. Because we now had a couple hundred pounds of produce in the house without an extremely clear plan of what we were going to do with it.
In particular, we had (2) twenty gallon storage tubs chock full of green bell peppers. I had sixty-seven plants out there–most of which were leftovers from about a dozen flats-full I was handed with the mission of giving them away.
You might not know this, but it’s actually kind of hard to convince people they need at least ten or twenty sweet pepper plants when they think they only need one or two.
People around here don’t like to take more than they need (even–and maybe especially–when it’s free), and they also don’t like to be responsible for wasting something. And I guess I must fall into that camp, too, because I couldn’t stand to waste them, either. So, I stuck in the ground what I couldn’t give away.
It turned out to be a very good year for peppers.
I’ve had abundant pepper harvests before–there was a Flying Tomato Farms CSA season that ended with two huge marine coolers plus a fifty gallon tub-full sitting in my living room. After that, I tried to be a little more restrained in my planting and a little more proactive in my marketing.
But, what I learned from that season is that it’s not such a terrible thing to have an abundance of full-sized green peppers sitting around because full-sized green peppers ripen into lovely sweet red peppers given a little time.
While it seems widely known that full-sized tomatoes, picked green, will ripen over time, it’s not as widely known that peppers will do the same.
First off, green bell peppers are simply a full-sized but unripe version of the pretty (and expensive) red, yellow, and orange peppers you see in the grocery store. Hot and sweet peppers also come in other unripe and ripe colors–but bell peppers in their unripe green stage and ripe red, yellow, or orange stage are the most common in supermarkets.
You do not have to uproot the whole plant to get your peppers to ripen indoors. So long as they’re at their full, mature size, they’ll ripen for you off the plant just as well as on.
The night of the frost advisory, we picked (2) twenty gallon tubs of full-sized green peppers. A little less than two weeks later, this is what they look like. I go through the tubs every couple of days, emptying both bins and transferring the ripening peppers from the green bin to the ripening bin and the red-ripe peppers to the “ready to use” crate.
Of course, if you like green peppers, you can certainly use them, too. I like to keep a couple bags of chopped “Christmas peppers” in the freezer.
What do we do with all those lovely sweet red peppers? We eat them, of course. And we chop and freeze them (no blanching required!). And we also roast, skin, slice, and freeze them on trays lined with wax paper before bagging and labeling them for later use.
We line up eight peppers in two rows on the pan and set them under the broiler. As each side blackens and blisters, we turn the peppers with tongs to do the next side. Once all four sides are nicely charred, we remove them to a paper bag to steam. This helps loosen the skin further.
After the peppers are cool enough to handle, it’s easy to peel off the skins and expose the deep red flesh beneath. We strip out the cores and skins and slice them into strips, laying them on the wax paper-lined trays. It’s a lot easier to get frozen peppers off wax paper than icy metal, and you run less risk of breaking the strips as you remove them.
The full trays go into the freezer until the peppers are solidly frozen, so the strips won’t stick together once they go into bags.
Alternately, you can layer the red pepper strips in a sterilized jar and pour a vinegar, water, and salt brine over them and store them in the fridge. They’re especially good in sandwiches and with crackers and goat cheese as an amuse-bouche. Pour a thin layer of olive oil over the top, so each pepper gets a coating as it’s taken out of the jar (see my post from last year).
The process is somewhat time-consuming, but you end up with a product that is very high value. Roasted red peppers are expensive in the grocery store, and sweet bell peppers are also on the pesticide-laden Dirty Dozen list. Why not take an afternoon to lay in the local harvest of peppers from your garden, or from a farmer you know and trust?