Here comes the Rocky Mountain pepper season, that sweet and fiery window of late summer flavor. In the coming weeks, legions of angular, shiny fruits will adorn pepper plants in every color of the rainbow.
As nutrient-rich as they are delicious, hot peppers also trigger an endorphin rush in your brain that’s chemically related to runner’s 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.
This columnist likes to eat peppers every day. 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 the apex of my culinary universe: 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. And garlic must be planted in fall for inclusion in next year’s pickled pepper jar.
Or 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 put carrots in the jar, which are great for co-munching. Many a great meal begins with chopped bacon in a pan, followed with chopped pickled peppers. Meanwhile, a pour of pepper-jar vinegar, tangy and sweet and spotted with 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, 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 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 jalepeno. Sweeties should be vine-ripened and juicy, never green.
And if for some strange reason you really want to be just like me, then track down Patty Fialkowitz in Dixon. She grows Arledge and Baby Cheese peppers. But with her new baby, Patty doesn’t have enough hands to pick ’em. So, if you go out there and hold little George, she might pick you some. Closer to home, the folks at Biodynamics in Missoula have 31 varieties of pepper plant in the ground. Check them out at the Farmer’s Market, or call 543-3624.
Now. Cut off the tops of your peppers, just below the leafy collar. Small peppers 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.
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. I sweeten my pickles with sweet cider syrup from Cherry Apple Farm in the Bitterroot Valley (363-6139; or at the Missoula Farmer’s Market). I dump three shots (as in: full shot glasses) of cider syrup into each quart jar before pouring enough hot vinegar water to cover the peppers, still leaving 1/2 inch of head space. You can also sweeten with sugar or honey—just add it directly to the vinegar, to taste.
Wipe the rims, put the lids and rings on the jars, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Repeat until you have over 100 quarts. Then invite me over.