I’m still a novice at many things, but pickling is not one of them. My progression through the pickling learning curve began with cucumbers before I swung into a beet phase. A flurry of visits to some Mexican restaurants in North Portland turned me on to the jalepeño/carrot combo, a course I’ve held to this day, though I often substitute cauliflower for carrots, and now pickle a whole range of hot and sweet peppers. And more and more, the jars contain only peppers.
I have a friend—I’ll call him Grasshopper—who used to appear in my kitchen whenever pickled peppers were being served. That is, at every meal. Almost anything you eat can be improved with a nibble of pickled pepper. And if there wasn’t a meal to eat the peppers with, Grasshopper would simply delve into my jars with fork or fingers, rapidly transferring the contents to his mouth. He could polish off half a jar in one standing.
Grasshopper’s hunger for pickles only grew, reaching the point that for any obligation I owed him he wanted payment in full quart jars. Any item he possessed that could possibly have been of value to me, he tried to trade for pickles. I grew nervous about the fact that, if given the chance, Grasshopper would eat all of my precious pickled items.
So I convinced him to make his own damn pickled peppers. Just cut the tops off the peppers, slice them if you wish, pack them in sterilized quart jars to which a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of mixed yellow and black mustard seeds have already been added. If you want to add carrots, cauliflower or garlic to the jars, go ahead. Heat up a 50/50 mix of water and cider vinegar, and add enough sugar to blunt the taste of the vinegar. Pour this brine into the jars and process 10 minutes in a boiling waterbath.
Grasshopper took my advice and ran with it, augmenting my teachings with recipes gleaned in books and online. Then he began branching out into other areas of food preservation, and doing quite well at it. I’d stop by his house and get treated to deer jerky, morel paste, plum sauce, oyster mushroom chowder and, of course, an endless selection of pickled products. Now he was making me nervous for different reasons. I was looking over my shoulder at the bar that he was raising.
One day I got a call from a distraught Grasshopper, who had made about 15 quarts of pickled peppers but had forgotten to add sugar to the brine. I told him he had two options: open up all the jars, add sugar to each one, and then re-waterbath them, or simply add sugar to each jar upon opening it.
The problem with option #1 is that extra cooking will make the pickles soggy. Option #2 isn’t so great either, as the sugar won’t have time to permeate the pickled items. He was F-ed, we realized.
Then I got a phone call, telling me to come over immediately. When I arrived, Grasshopper greeted me with a jar of “Seven Dragon Sauce,” a hot sauce he made by pouring off the vinegar from his half-pickled peppers (he estimates there were about seven varieties of pepper) and putting the peppers in a blender with sugar. The resulting paste was fantastic, spicy and flavorful, truly a triumphant rescue of a mistake. But for Grasshopper this was just the beginning.
“I wanted peanut sauce,” he explained.
With a quart of Seven Dragon Sauce in a pot (he’d already canned the rest), he proceeded to add 2 to 3 pounds of fresh-ground peanut butter.
“It was pretty solid at this point,” he explained, “so I added water to loosen it up. Then salt and brown sugar to taste.”
Using three different recipes for peanut sauce that he found online, mixing and matching according to his taste and the ingredients on hand, he then added three cans of coconut milk, a whole bottle of soy sauce, and three chopped onions and a large piece of chopped ginger which he’d sautéed together in peanut oil.
“It’s vegan,” he pointed out, proudly. “I wanted to have at least one vegan thing in my house.”
When it was bubbling like a Yellowstone mud puddle, Grasshopper tasted his sauce and found it slightly lacking, so he added two more cans of coconut milk, then some chopped cilantro and mint. He added water, making it “too thin” in consistency, before cooking it down slowly until it was “just right.”
He froze most of his peanut sauce in sour cream containers, but sent me on my way with a sample, about half of which I ate with my fingers as I drove home. The other half I took hunting last weekend. During a midday break I tossed it, along with some minced raw garlic, into a batch of boiled rice noodles. I took full credit for the recipe, and I was a star at hunting camp that day.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Laying the groundwork
Q: Dear CBA,
I grew a garden for the first time this year, and it was pretty good. Now that the season is winding down, I was wondering if you could give me a few pointers about how to prepare my garden for winter.
A: Dear 101,
Your question makes me painfully aware of the fact that the very advice I’m about to give you is going blatantly unheeded outside, right now, in my own garden. So here I am in the middle of a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. Yuck.
The best thing to do, if you have the energy, is to pull all the weeds, turn over the soil, and plant a cover crop, like buckwheat, which will hopefully make a little headway before being killed by the cold. Alternatively, you could weed and turn over your garden and mulch it with straw. Either way, as you turn the soil now is a great time to add manure—most people use horse, llama or cow, the more aged the better. Turning in manure like this will fill your soil with whoop-ass, and you’ll feel like a rock star when spring hits and your crops are 10 feet tall.
The other hugely important thing to do, which I’m ashamed to admit that I have not done yet, is plant garlic. To do so, find a spot in your garden that didn’t have garlic last year, weed and turn over the soil, but don’t mix in manure. Plant individual cloves of your favorite garlic in rows, scab side down, with the tip about an inch below the surface, about 6 inches apart. After planting and covering it up, add manure on top of the planted rows, and cover the whole thing with about 4 inches of straw mulch.
Send your food and garden queries to firstname.lastname@example.org.