Everything may be available 24/7, but the taste of fresh produce is unbeatable.
It’s amazing how all summer we bemoan the cucurbits, “water in dirty form”, using the telegraphese “tinda-tori” generically for ghiya, lauki and kaddu, seetaphal. And now after a long winter, I’m fed up of the same old gobhi-mooli-sarson. But come a blazing summer’s day and the prospect of one more meal of the same old gourds — even if karela has been painstakingly cooked and added that day — and I’ll be grateful for the crucifers. And I don’t mean other winter vegetables like peas, which everybody likes, as Safal knows well. Though I prefer home-frozen peas, bought and packed at the height of the season, when they’re small and sweet. When I was a girl, though, I couldn’t understand why my mother bought maunds of tender green peas and the routine of the household came to a standstill while she mounted a military operation to shell, blanch and freeze them. Back then I felt that the freezer space could have been put to much better use. Kababs and bacon, for instance, but now… I think age is telling. So vegetables are stored in the freezer — the kind I’m not going to find easily in the shops in summer. I know that now everything is available 24/7 and 30/12, but the taste of fresh produce, frozen in time (and Westinghouse) is inimitable.
I like to freeze vegetables the day they’re bought. Ideally the job should be done the moment they’re plucked, but since there’s no vegetable farm in my neighbourhood, I shop and freeze on the same day. This morning, a friend phoned to ask how to blanch spinach, and I got to thinking about the word. Blanch means to turn pale, whiten, lighten, fade. And putting our vegetables through the process does the opposite: their colour gets intensified. Though the reason we blanch veggies, rather than freeze them straight away, is to prevent ice from forming and then damaging the texture when they’re thawed, an icicle effect. But some vegetables, even if not destined for the freezer, benefit from blanching by making them tender without stripping them of colour. I’m sure there are nutritional benefits too, but imagine cooking a simple vegetable like green beans directly in a pan. By the time they get tender, their colour is khaki. Blanching them first keeps them deep green. And veggies like spinach lose the almost bitter astringency they sometimes have. But then blanch also means to scald or boil briefly.
But how brief is brief? That depends on the vegetable.
First, one must select fresh, tender vegetables. Old, mature vegetables lose texture on freezing, and salad vegetables like lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers do not freeze well at all. They should be washed in cold water, peeled if necessary, and cut into uniform size or pieces. Whatever the amount of vegetables, about twice the volume of water should be heated in a very large pan. Once it comes to a rolling boil, immerse the vegetables all at once for the required amount of time. Start counting time immediately and, if reusing water, return to boiling point before another batch is put in. When the time is up, the vegetables should be upturned at once into a colander and refreshed with cold water, but not left to soak. When completely drained and cool, they should be packed in freezer-safe, clean, moisture- and air-proof containers: polythene bags, metal or plastic boxes. Vegetables should not contain seasoning or liquids. All packages should be labelled — all green leaves look the same when chopped and squashed into a container, and you don’t want to discover you’re eating mooli leaves when you were expecting spinach. Nor that the vegetables are ancient, so including a date is essential.