It’s starting to really feel like fall here in the hills of Mendocino. Over the course of two weeks, we’ve transitioned from hot, dry, sunny September days to chilly October mornings where the fog hangs thick over the vineyards in the valley.
Even though we’re transitioning into winter, it still feels oddly like spring… after months of staring at dead grass and star thistle, it’s like a breath of fresh air to look at the ground and see actual green stuff coming up:
Around now, I try to be vigilant in keeping all of the vegetables in the garden ultimately picked. It could theoretically frost at any time, and these days the farm is way too big to wait until a frost warning to start picking everything.
Also, if there’s a frost warning, it’s probably chilly as hell and I’d rather pick peppers on a sunny afternoon than in the dark, bundled up in winter clothes with mittens and a headlamp.
I’m yearning for the post-frost relaxation that’s just around the corner. I’m way too busy for really complicated preserving projects, so I had to deal with these peppers in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Here’s everything I’ve learned in my years of preserving about how to get it done.
THE FREEZER IS YOUR FRIEND
Hot peppers freeze really, really well. In general, I try to stick to one method of preservation, meaning that I don’t like canning out of the freezer. In my experience, canned goods taste the best when you get the produce from the field to the jar in as little time as possible.
Hot peppers are my exception, though. The advantage of freezing hot peppers (other than the time) is how much easier they are to work with when they’re frozen.
- To freeze the peppers, either vacuum seals them or put them in thick Ziploc bags designed for the freezer. Label and date and throw ’em in the freezer.
- When you want to use them, don’t thaw them first. They’re much easier to seed and mince while they’re still rock hard, and since they’re so small they often thaw right on the cutting board when you’re working with them. To seed the peppers, cut the stem end off first, then slice the pepper in half lengthwise, and then run a (gloved) finger down each half to brush the seeds out.
- All hot pepper varieties freeze well, whether they’re thick or thin-skinned.
- Note: Frozen peppers will lose a lot of their crunch, so the only project you won’t really be able to do later makes pickled peppers.
Thin-skinned red chilis dry very well, and look wonderful strung into ristras. I love having all my projects hanging in the kitchen: garlic braids, bouquets of bay laurel and flowering marjoram, a few different varieties of dried pepper ristras, and maybe some edible flowers for tea like pineapple weed or calendula.
If you’re growing your own peppers, the seed catalog often specifies if the varieties are good for drying. If not, look for varieties like cayenne or thai.
Steer clear of jalapenos and other green chilis or any of the mild Italian frying peppers- their flesh is too thick and will mold before it dries. Shopping at a farmers market, keep your eyes peeled for piles of red chilis. This time of the year, you can usually get ridiculous deals for huge amounts of peppers.
For this project, you’ll need a relatively sturdy sewing needle and some fishing line.
Please note: This is not the traditional style of braided ristra from New Mexico, but rather the infinitely simpler and faster Busy Preserver Method.
Measure out an arm-length or so of line.
Push the needle through the top of the chili.
Gently move the chili to the other end of the line, leaving a few extra inches.
Tie the fishing line in a loop around the top of the chili so it stays in place. Now just thread the rest of the chilis onto the fishing line until you get a length that you like.
Once they’re fully dried they should last a year or more. I put the dried peppers in all kinds of soups, stews, salsas, and sauces.
If you want to rehydrate them, place the chilis in a bowl and cover them with boiling water. Let them sit for 20 minutes, and they’ll be soft and ready to cook.
ITALIAN PICKLED PEPPERS
Remember the thick-skinned peppers that don’t dry well? And all of those mild Italian frying peppers? This is a super-fast pickle that you can make if you don’t want to freeze them.
This is my dad’s recipe, and it reminds me of sitting at the kitchen table with him while dinner was cooked, drinking red wine, eating cheese and crackers and these pickles.
They look lovely on a big antipasti plate with salami, prosciutto, marinated artichoke hearts, and cheeses.
You’ll need: a few pint jars
- Any peppers you have that you don’t want to freeze or dry: a combination of colors, shapes, and heat levels is nice for this. (Jimmy Nardello works particularly well in this pickle)
- 2-3 peeled garlic cloves per jar
- 3-4 green olives with pimento per jar (just snag a few from an open jar in the fridge. No crazy stuff like green olives stuffed with blue cheese! Just plain old martini olives)
- whole black peppercorns, 2-3 per jar
- Vinegar to cover all this, either apple cider or white vinegar, or a mixture of the two
Bring boiling-water canner to a boil—Wash lids and jars in hot, soapy water.
Put some vinegar in a non-reactive pot and bring it to a boil. ((Yes, you have to estimate how much you’ll need to cover the peppers.) Wash your peppers.
Once the jars are sterilized, pack the whole peppers into hot jars with olives, garlic, and peppercorns.
Cover the peppers with boiling vinegar, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Use a chopstick to poke around and remove the air bubbles. Adjust the headspace. Wipe rims clean and put on the lids. Process 10 minutes.
A DIRTY, DIRTY TIME-SAVING SECRET: I make these almost every year and have never – not ever- processed them the way the USDA tells you to to make sure they’re safe.
I sterilized my jars in the oven, put the peppers in the jars, cover the peppers with boiling vinegar, put the lids on, and call it done.
The lids seal if you put them on while the vinegar is still piping hot. Technically this should be a refrigerator pickle and not a shelf-stable canned good, but we’ve been making it for years in my family and never had any problems… Crazy. The USDA would say I’m going to die, but the pickles are crunchy and delicious every year.
P.S. There is a distinct lack of picture for this recipe! I haven’t made them yet this year but I will update the post with a picture when I do.
LATER… HOT PEPPER JELLY
I use almost all those frozen peppers for hot pepper jelly. If you haven’t had it before, you must. It’s sweet, spicy, tangy, and delicious.
Try it with cream cheese and crackers. I like making breakfast quesadillas with scrambled eggs, hot pepper jelly, cheddar cheese and cilantro.
You can put it in a pot of chili and on warm cornbread with butter.
You can turn it into a dipping sauce by melting it down and adding some chopped fresh herbs.
You can brush it onto steak for fajitas.
You can stir-fry green beans and tofu with it. Pretty much anywhere you’d use hot sauce, you can use hot pepper jelly instead. It’s that amazing.
If you want a nice low-sugar pepper jelly, I would recommend Pomona’s, natural pectin available at most health-food stores.
All of the pectin boxes call for a certain amount of sweet bell peppers and a certain amount of hot peppers, but I adjust it for how I want the finished product to taste.
The important part is that the recipe in the box will call for a certain amount of prepared peppers (e.g. 4 1/2 c.) and you need to match this amount with whichever types of peppers you decide to use.
Don’t decrease or increase it, keep the ratio of peppers/liquid/sugar the same as what the original recipe calls for.
The possibilities are endless using the different pepper varieties and heat levels available. Make it fresh if you want, but pulling the frozen peppers out in December to make jelly for holiday gifts makes for a really great afternoon project.