Pick a peck of peppers

Flash in the Pan

Pepper season is here, which means angular, shiny fruits will adorn pepper plants in every color of the rainbow through September.

As nutrient-rich as they are delicious, the hotter pepper varieties pack the added bonus of triggering an endorphin rush in your brain that’s chemically similar to runner’s high or heroin’s kick—with, arguably, less pain involved.

Yes, the pepper is truly a friend of the people. In return, the people have spread the peppers worldwide from their native South America.

I like to eat peppers every day of the year. And I like my peppers local—criteria which require that I find a way to stash away a year’s supply. So before pepper season whizzes by in a capsicum haze of chile verde, fresh salsa and ema datse (a Himalayan chili pepper dish), I must stock up.

Thin-skinned varieties, like cayenne, New Mexican, or Jimmy Nardello, can be preserved by stringing them together and hanging until dry. The fleshy varieties, meanwhile, are best preserved by pickling – especially by me.

Yeah, I don’t often brag, but at the same time it’s important to be truthful. And the truth is, my pickled peppers rock, which is partly why they’re an integral part of my year-round cooking and eating experience.

Me without my pickled peppers would be like Eddie Van Halen without his guitar. But being a pickled pepper star isn’t all groupies and glory. It takes a year of work to amass a year’s supply. Pepper seeds, ordered in winter, seeded in spring, take all summer to mature.

Alternatively, you can go to the Farmer’s Market and load up there. I have to do this, because my garden can’t supply enough material for 100 quarts of pickled peppers every summer. One hundred quarts might sound like a lot of peppers, but it’s not uncommon for my guests and I to go through a whole jar at a single feast.

When I say pickled peppers, I actually mean a mix of pickled vegetables which must include peppers but can also include carrots, cauliflower and garlic. These non-pepper items absorb the flavor of the peppers while releasing their own flavors into the mix.

Pickled peppers are at their best when they are “co-munched”—which means chewed together with your food. In this context they provide an acidic counterbalance to whatever you’re eating, especially rich foods. A bite of food, a bite of pickle … now chew! The same principle is at work in combinations like wine and cheese, lemon and fish, or catsup and fries. The acid cuts through the fat in you mouth and tingles the tongue.

The vinegar remaining after the pickles are gone is valuable as well. A pour of pickled pepper vinegar improves almost any marinade, salad dressing, or soup.

In addition to the assorted veggie style of pickled peppers, I also like to make a combo I call hotties and sweeties. Perhaps not surprisingly, this mix contains hot peppers (like Arledge, Serrano or jalapeño) and sweet peppers (like Klari Cheese, Round of Hungary, or lipstick).

If you don’t have these particular varieties of pepper at your disposal, don’t despair. When I give you a recipe, what I’m really offering is the truth behind the recipe. It’s your job to play with this truth (calling “bullsh!t” when appropriate) and tweak it to your liking. There are a lot of peppers out there, and much research to be done. Ideally, the hotties should be fleshy and fully ripe, while the sweeties should be sweet and juicy, never green.

The only drawback to hotties and sweeties is the fact that the minute you crack the lid, the contents fly out of the jar and into the mouths of ravenous bystanders. There is currently no known way of preventing this from happening.

In addition to your peppers and veggies, you will need the following gear:

- A large canning pot

- Mason jars, quart or pint, with lids and rings

- Vinegar (I like cider vinegar, or a 50/50 blend of cider and white wine)

- Sweetener (sugar, honey)

- Yellow and black mustard seeds

- Canning tongs to remove jars from the water.

Wash the peppers, et al. On a clean cutting board, cut off the pepper tops just below the stem. Small peppers can be left whole, and larger peppers cut into halves, quarters or slices. Cauliflower should be broken into florets, garlic peeled, and carrots cut into whatever shape you want.

Start with a tablespoon each of yellow and black mustard seeds, and a teaspoon of salt, in each sterilized quart jar. Then pack peppers, et al., into the jars, leaving about three-quarter inch of “head space” between the top of the peppers and the rim of the jar.

Everything must be super-clean. And if you’re unfamiliar with canning, or any of these terms, read the directions that come with the lids.

Meanwhile, combine your vinegar of choice with an equal amount of water in a pot, and bring it to a simmer. Sweeten the brine (I use evaporated cane juice) until it takes the edge off of the vinegar and almost tastes sweet. Pour the hot brine into the jars, covering the peppers but still leaving one-half inch of head space.

Wipe the rims, screw the lids and rings on the jars, and put them in a boiling water bath—fully covered—for 10 minutes. Remove, cool and store in a cool dark place.

Repeat 100 times. Then you too will rock.