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Flash in the Pan

The art of flavor: Packing your pickled peppers



Just as physicists search tirelessly for a unified theory of matter and energy, Chef Boy Ari searches for the fundamental equation of flavor. Them scientists may have better funding, but CBA looks better in a pocket protector. And, to quote Sir Isaac Newton, he isn’t afraid to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” To wit: the Asian dogma that treats acid, sweet, sour, and salt as the primary flavors, from which all others are derived. That’s a good start. Then there is my friend Stew, who says “Fat is flavor.” Now we are getting warmer. Warmer still would be if we add a little hot action, such as pepper or garlic. Research continues.

All of these factors should be in place upon chewing. They can be added during cooking, as a condiment, or to an already chewing mouth. For example, put mayo on for added fat. Or take a bite of raw garlic in between mouthfuls of pasta. And so on. Today I’m going to discuss one of my favorite flavor-component delivery systems, the pickled pepper, a versatile product that can be used in all three ways.

Whatever the details of your personal food theory, the pickled pepper can be factored in. Within that jar, all of the aforementioned acid, sweet, sour, and salt flavo-types are represented, as vinegar, sugar, mustard seeds, and salt. Hot pepper and garlic are present as well. The only flavor component not present in the pickled pepper jar is fat. But we have our ways, don’t we?

I like to pickle hot peppers and carrots in the same jar. The carrots pick up heat from the peppers, and the vinegar gets spicy, too, remaining a valuable ingredient long after the peppers and carrots are gone. I use pepper vinegar for cooking all the time. It’s practically a one-stop marinade. And you can add it to soup, stir fry, salad dressing, or just drink it out of the bottle—with a bite of smoked fish in your mouth, perhaps?

Unfortunately, growing peppers in Montana in the quantities that I require is more than just a full time job. It’s a way of life. In our moving-target-of-a-growing-season, it takes an early start, a good greenhouse, and a thumb as green as a jalapeno to make it happen. So I wait until the peak of pepper season, and then I load up at the farmers’ market.

Last week I cornered Pepper Lady of Paradise, and asked her for a forecast of the incoming pepper season. She spoke in high-speed monotone, like the helicopter traffic guy on WBCN, Boston: “Well, the peppers are just starting to come in now let’s see we’ve got Anaheims, Poblanos, Jalepenos, Cherry Bombs, and Hungarian Wax. Pretty soon we’ll have Firecrackers, Bulgarian Carrot, Thai, Cayenne, Serrano, Scotch Bonnet, Orange Blossom, Sweet Bananas, Corno de Toro, and red, yellow, and purple Marconis.” Another pepper pro, Blue Eyed Dixie, has, among other varieties, the Artledge—sometimes called Louisiana—pepper, one of the finest picklers there is. Yum. Bottom line: Pepper season is from now until first frost. After that, only greenhouse peppers will survive. So, to quote Lady Janis Joplin, “Get it while you caaaaaan!!!”

Go buy an assortment of hot peppers, such as Jalepenos, Artledge, Hungarian Wax, Cherry Bombs, etc. Bring them home, rinse, and cut off the stem. This leaves a hole in the top of the pepper, which lets the vinegar in, so the peppers don’t float like balloons at the top of the jar. Then, soak the peppers for a few hours in saltwater, about one cup per gallon. This will make them crispier. While they are soaking, wash some fresh carrots and chop them into two-inch sticks, no more than 3/4 inch thick. Rinse the peppers and pack them with carrots into mason jars—which were sterilized along with the lids for three minutes in boiling water—with a few cloves of garlic mixed in each jar. You can also add cucumbers, cauliflower, onions, and other veggies. The contents should sit below the neck of the jar. Add a tablespoon of mustard seeds, and a teaspoon of salt to each jar. And if you really want to put Martha to shame, add a tablespoon of olive oil. The oil will float on top, and every item you pull out will get a thin coat, adding a taste of fat.

While you are packing your jars, your vinegar brine is heating to a boil. If you are like me, then your vinegar brine is one part cider vinegar and one part water, with sugar to taste. I like just enough sugar to take a little edge off the vinegar, but not taste sweet. Pour the brine into each jar so it covers the contents, with at least half an inch of airspace below the rim. Wipe the rim, put on the lids and rings, and process in a waterbath for 10 minutes. Remove from the water, and relish the ping ping of lids sealing. As always, don’t dive into canning without the help of someone who knows how to can, or a good book on canning. And if you know anything about the fundamental equation of flavor, let me know!

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