Pickled peppers are a cornerstone of my culinary paradigm, improving many a meal with their beauty and flavor. They are usually employed—or deployed, as the case may be—in an activity I call “co-munching.” In order to co-munch, one takes a bite of a meal, and then takes a bite of the co-munched item, and chews them together. Thus, the co-munched item acts like a sauce. Most co-munched items are acid based.
Acid unlocks the flavor of many foods. Consider oil and vinegar, ketchup and french fries, oysters and cocktail sauce, wine and myriad things, and coffee—my morning vino—with a big greasy breakfast.
Like an aboriginal hunter who utilizes every tidbit of his kill, I use the entire contents of my pickled pepper jar, ensuring that nothing is wasted. After the pickles are gone, the vinegar can liven up a soup or salad dressing. Or, once a jar has been emptied of its peppers, fresh veggies can be packed into the vinegar and left in the fridge to make easy refrigerator pickles.
And when the jar is empty, I wash it, wash the ring, and screw the ring back on the jar to protect it from chipping while I store the jar for next fall, when the year comes ’round and I pack those jars again.
I won’t stop until I have a hundred quarts. I can’t, because I’ll lose about 20 quarts to trading and gifts, and a big feast can wipe out a whole jar on a single night, depending on what’s cooking and who’s eating. So after the dust settles, if I have a jar per week for steady consumption, I’m in good shape.
Not only are these jars a cornerstone of my culinary paradigm, pickled peppers are a microcosm of the year-round project of feeding myself locally and luxuriously. You gotta start studying your seed catalogs in January, order your pepper seeds in February, start them inside in March, transplant in April, plant out in May and then care for them all summer long before harvesting and packing in jars.
If you’re not that hardcore, there are two points where you can shortcut the process by building on the work of others: You can buy your pepper starts in spring, at the farmers’ market or from a plant nursery, or you can buy the peppers during harvest season, when they are ripe, beautiful and plentiful. I grow a token amount of peppers in my home garden—maybe 10 quarts worth—but given the amount of garden space I have, growing enough for 100 quarts is not feasible, so I go big at the farmers’ market.
Most fleshy peppers, except bells, are good for pickling, as are small, thin-skinned hotties. My favorite hotties are the Tabasco-style, of which the Arledge variety grows well around here. For sweets, I prefer round, yellow-to-red, pimento-style, like a Klari baby cheese. Put some Arledge and Klaris in a jar, and you’ve got yourself some Hotties and Sweeties. Another classic mix is jalapenos and carrots—or even onions, oregano, marjoram and cumin for Mexican-style escabeche. Other veggies you can add to pickled peppers include cauliflower and garlic.
The larger peppers should be sliced into rounds. Cut the tops off the littler ones to help allow the brine in. Cauliflower florets are broken into packable sizes; carrots are sliced into whatever shape you like. Keep everything super clean.
The mason jars, lids and rings you use should be sterilized before you pack them with food. This is commonly done with a brief submersion in boiling water, but I do it in the dishwasher (a truly great way to get piping hot, sterile, super-clean jars).
Wide-mouth jars are ideal for easy packing. Start with a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon each of yellow and brown mustard seeds. Pack peppers and veggies into jars as tightly and space-efficiently as possible, and leave a 1-inch buffer for “head space” between the veggies and the top of the jar. If possible, pack in a freshly picked and washed grape leaf, which helps keep your pickles crispy. (Note: The most important way to prevent sogginess is to not overcook the pickles).
When the jars are nearly packed, heat up equal parts vinegar and water. The vinegar part is half cider, half white wine vinegar. Add a cup of sugar per gallon of brine, which will do about eight quarts.
Bring vinegar to a boil and then turn down to simmer. Pour vinegar into jars, covering veggies by a quarter inch, still leaving a half-inch buffer. Wipe the rims, screw on lids and rings, and use canning tongs to place the hot jars into a pot of boiling water, which covers the jars by a half-inch, and boil for 5–10 minutes. Remove and set them aside while they cool.
As you clean up the kitchen you’ll be serenaded by a symphony of “pings,” as your jars seal one by one. This will be followed by the drawn-out slow song of a year’s supply of co-munches.
Ask Ari: Creating kim chi
Q: I want to try making kim chi. I was talking to someone who said they heard you let the Napa cabbage sit a little bit in the fridge or the garage first, and let them break down and rot a little bit before making kim chi. Do you think there is any truth to this?
—Curious About Kim Chi
A: I have attempted my share of kim chi batches. Along the way, I’ve done research and read many recipes, which run the gamut from pretty darn easy to insanely complicated. And while there are some traditional techniques that are quite bucolic, such as burying your fermenting kim chi in a ceramic crock, I’ve never heard of this “pre-rotting” technique, which sounds to me like a crock of another sort.
If I squint my mind, I think I can see the logic behind your hot tip, but it still sounds like a rotten rumor to me. Since kim chi is a fermented cabbage, and fermented is basically the same thing as rotten, or old, then doing a little pre-rotting just gets things rolling. Perhaps it’s the logic of someone trying to put a positive spin on some cabbage they let go rotten, but I can find no information to support my theory.
Of all the techniques I’ve tried, I’m embarrassed to say the one that succeeds with stunning consistency and quality, and happens to be the easiest by far, is Noh brand kim chi powder mix. But mixing your own sauce isn’t necessarily rocket science, depending on the recipe—just be forewarned, many recipes require lengthy marinating. Whether or not you want to deconstruct your head of Napa (or Chinese) cabbage leaf by leaf and massage your sauce into every fold, that’s up to you.
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