Flash in the Pan: Pickled peppers
Vail CO, Colorado
Pickled peppers are a cornerstone of my culinary paradigm, and a year-round umbilical cord to the bounty of summer. Delivering spice, acid, sweetness and the subtle earth tones of my local terroir, my pickled peppers are employed ” or deployed, in the case of extra-hotties ” in a technique I call “co-munching.”
With this technique, the pickled pepper becomes a kind of chewed-in sauce. To co-munch, one takes a bite of the meal, then a bite of the co-munched item. Both are then chewed together so they dance on your tongue. This is co-munching.
Most co-munchables are acid-based, and best paired with rich, fatty foods to take advantage of the age-old principle of acid/fat combinations, such as oil and vinegar, catsup and French fries, oysters and cocktail sauce, wine and, well, many things, and coffee ” my morning vino ” with a big, hot, greasy breakfast.
Like a hunter who utilizes every tidbit of his kill, I use the entire contents of my pickled pepper jar, ensuring that nothing is wasted. After the pickles are gone, the remaining vinegar can liven up a soup or salad dressing. Once a jar has been emptied of its peppers, fresh veggies can be packed into the vinegar and left in the fridge to make easy refrigerator pickles. The vinegar-soaked mustard seeds at the bottom can be used as a spicy, coarse mustard.
When the jar is empty, I wash it, wash the ring and screw the ring back on the jar to protect the rim from chipping while I store the jar for next fall, when the harvest comes ’round and I pack those jars again.
I won’t stop packing until I have a hundred quarts. I can’t stop, because I’ll trade or give away 20 quarts easy, while a big feast can wipe out a whole jar on a single night. After the dust settles, I’ll consider myself in good shape if I have a jar per week for steady consumption.
Depending on how hardcore you are, pickled peppers can be a year-round project: Start studying your seed catalogs in January, order your pepper seeds in February, start them inside in March, transplant them in April or May, and tend them all summer before picking and packing them in jars.
If you’re not that hardcore, there are two stages of the process where you can shortcut months of work by building on the work of others: You can buy your pepper starts in spring, saving months of seedling responsibilities, or you can buy the finished peppers during harvest season, when they’re ripe, beautiful and plentiful. I grow a token number of peppers in my home garden, maybe 10 quarts’ worth, but given the amount of space I have, growing 100 quarts’ worth is not feasible, so I buy big at the farmers market. The plants I do grow are from purchased starts, because raising seedlings isn’t my strong point.
Most fleshy peppers, except bells, are good for pickling, as are small, thin-skinned hots. My favorite hots are the Tabasco-style peppers, like the Arledge or Louisiana varieties. For sweets, I prefer round, yellow-to-red, pimento-style peppers like Klari baby cheese. Put some Arledge and Klaris in a jar together and you’ve got yourself some Hotties and Sweeties.
The only drawback to Hotties and Sweeties is the fact that the minute you crack the lid, the contents fly from the jar and into the mouths of ravenous bystanders. There is no known way of preventing this from happening.
Part of the beauty of pickled peppers is that every year is different, and you roll with what’s available. This year, alas, my Klari crop was a bust, so I paired my lipstick-red Arledges with a charismatic assortment of small fancy French carrots, left whole.
Another classic mix is jalapenos and carrots ” with onions, oregano, marjoram and cumin, if you want Mexican-style escabeche. Other veggies you can add to pickled peppers are cauliflower and garlic.
Big peppers have to be sliced into rounds; cut the little ones’ tops off close to the stem to allow the brine in. Break cauliflower florets into pack-able sizes; cut carrots into whatever shape you like.
Keep everything super-clean. If you’re unfamiliar with canning, or any of these terms, read the directions that come with the lids.
Your mason jars, lids, and rings should be sterilized before you pack them with food. This is commonly done with brief submersion in boiling water, but I use the dishwasher (truly a great way to get piping hot, sterile, super-clean jars).
Wide-mouth jars are best for easy packing. Start with a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon each of yellow and brown mustard seeds.
Pack peppers and veggies into jars as tightly and space-efficiently as possible, and leave a 1-inch “head space” between the veggies and the top of the jar. If possible, pack in a freshly picked and washed grape leaf, which helps keep your pickles crispy (though the most important factor in maintaining crispness is to not overcook the pickles).
When the jars are nearly packed, heat up equal parts vinegar and water. The vinegar half is equal parts cider and white wine vinegar. Add a cup of sugar per gallon of brine, which will pickle about 8 quarts.
Bring the brine to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. When the jars are packed, pour vinegar into the jars, covering the veggies by a quarter inch, but leaving the 1⁄2-inch head space. Wipe the rims, screw on the lids and rings, and use canning tongs to place the hot jars in a pot of boiling water, which must cover the jars by at least half an inch. Boil for five minutes, remove, and let the jars cool at room temperature.
As you clean the kitchen, you’ll be serenaded by a jazz concert of pings as your jars seal one by one. This music will be followed by the long, slow song of a year’s supply of co-munchies, a song that, to me, goes something like this:
“My night longs for stars
like my steak wants wine
like my butter needs a squirt of lime
my rose is dull without its prickles
and I need you, my peck of pickles.”
Ari LeVaux writes a weekly food column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this column to email@example.com.
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