Here comes pepper season, that sweet and fiery window of late summer flavor. In the coming weeks, legions of angular, shiny fruit in every color of the rainbow will adorn pepper plants.
As nutrient-rich as they are delicious, hot peppers also trigger an endorphin rush in your brain that's chemically related to runners' high and heroin's kick. Yes, the pepper is truly a friend of the people. Consequently, the people have helped spread peppers from their native South America to everywhere else, especially Asia.
I like to eat peppers every day of the year. And I like my peppers local. So before the season whizzes by in a capsicum haze of chiles rellenos and ema datse, I must stock up. This annual effort to squirrel away my yearly pepper needs has led me to something very special: the pickled pepper.
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, take all spring and summer to mature. Garlic must be planted in fall for inclusion in next year's pickled pepper jar.
Alternatively, you can go down to the Farmer's Market and get what you need there.
As our native predecessors prided themselves on using every part of their kill, so too do I use the entire contents of that pepper jar. The peppers themselves, whether garnished or co-munched (chewed together with your food), provide savory, acidic counterbalance to the rich, fatty foods we love. Sometimes I pickle carrots in the jar with peppers, and those carrots are great for co-munching too, having picked up the heat from the peppers. A bite of food, a bite of carrot ... now chew!
Meanwhile, many a great meal begins with chopped bacon in a pan, followed with chopped pickled peppers. And a pour of pepper-jar vinegar, tangy and sweet and speckled with floating mustard seeds, improves almost any marinade.
My current darling jar is a combo I call hotties and sweeties. It contains hot, red Arledge chili peppers and sweet Klari Baby Cheese peppers, which look like orange tomatoes and taste like candy. The only drawback of the hotties and sweeties is the fact that the minute you crack the lid, the contents fly out of the jar into the mouths of ravenous bystanders. You must guard them with your life.
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 and tweak it to your liking. There are a lot of peppers out there and much research to be done. Come January, you can order your Arledge and Klari Baby Cheese seeds from Fedco Seeds. (Johnny's Seeds catalog has a great selection of peppers too, with photos.)
In the meantime, there are many hotties and sweeties you can substitute for my choices. Hotties should be red, with the stocky, fleshy build of a jalapeo. Sweeties should be vine-ripened and juicy, never green.
In addition to your peppers, you need the following things to pickle them:
A large canning pot
Mason jars, ideally quart- or pint-size, with lids and rings
Yellow and black mustard seeds
Note: As with all kitchen endeavors, it is recommended that you wash your hands after using the restroom. With peppers, it is recommended -- especially for men -- that you wash your hands before as well as after. That pepper juice can really sting.
Wash the peppers. On a clean cutting board, cut off their tops, just below the leafy collar. Hotties and small sweeties can be left whole. Cut the larger sweet peppers into halves, quarters or slices. Put the peppers in a big bowl and sprinkle with salt -- about 3 tablespoons per gallon of peppers. Stirring and draining occasionally, let the bowl sit for a few hours in a cool place while the salt pulls moisture from the pepper flesh.
Pack your peppers into clean, sterilized Mason jars with a few raw cloves of garlic per jar. Leave about 3/4 inch of "head space" between the top of the peppers and the rim of the jar. Add a tablespoon each of yellow and black mustard seeds per quart.
Meanwhile, bring a 50/50 mixture of cider vinegar and water to a simmer. I like cider vinegar because it could be local, even if it isn't. And, it makes the best-tasting pickles. Sweeten the syrup with sugar until it tastes a little sweet. Pour the hot syrup into the jars, covering the peppers but still leaving 1/2 inch of head space.
Wipe the rims, put the lids and rings on the jars, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove, cool, and store in a cool, dark place.
Repeat until you have over 100 quarts. It still won't be enough.
Chef Boy Ari writes and gardens in Missoula, Mont.