A Hot Pepper for Cool Climes

When my faithful correspondent Sheila offered to send me seeds of a pepper variety called hinkelhatz, I didn’t bother to ask what a hinkelhatz pepper was. Every pepper variety, I figure, is worth trying at least once. As I laid the seeds on damp paper towels and later planted the sprouted seeds in pots in the greenhouse, I wondered what the fruit would be like, but I didn’t bother to research the question. And when I set the little plants out in the garden, again, I was too busy to look up a description.

It wasn’t until I idly picked and bit what I took to be an extra-small shishito that I learned what I’d planted. I screamed, spit, and tore to the house, drooling all the way, to salve my burning tongue with a big spoonful of sour cream. Hinkelhatz peppers are hot!

I grow many varieties of peppers, but with our cool summer temperatures of the past few years the chiles have sadly developed little heat. And our summers are simply too short for most reliably fiery varieties, such as habanero, to produce mature fruits. So the hinkelhatz was a big surprise.

Because it has been grown for well over 150 years by a small group of Pennsylvania Mennonites, the hinkelhatz has been added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste. The name of this pepper—“chicken heart” in Pennsylvania Dutch—aptly describes its size (1½ to 2 inches long) and shape (somewhat conical but blunt-ended and slightly furrowed). The hinkelhatz starts out the same pale green color of the slighter longer—and never hot—shishito. Some Pennsylvania Mennonites grow a yellow hinkelhatz, but the commoner type, which I had, ripens orange-red. This description may remind you of the habanero, but the hinkelhatz has none of the habanero’s characteristic aroma. Just the heat.

When the first frosts came in early October, very few of my hinkelhatzes had ripened. I stored them in a box in our unheated guest bedroom, and I waited.

In mid-November, a few of the peppers had begun to rot; it was time to use the rest. Many were still fully green, so I put them in brine to ferment. About a third had ripened. These I would use in the way that Slow Food says the Pennsylvania Dutch do, as pepper vinegar.

The term pepper vinegar usually refers to vinegar that’s flavored by stuffing a jar full of hot peppers, pouring vinegar over, and letting it slowly draw out the peppers’ fire and flavor. Pepper vinegar of this sort is a common condiment in the West Indies and southeastern United States.

But Slow Food describes the Pennsylvania Dutch pepper vinegar as made from cooked and puréed peppers. So I created what might be better called a pepper sauce, in this way:

Hinkelhatz Pepper Sauce

1 pound ripe hinkelhatz peppers, tops cut off
½ cups cider vinegar (5 percent)
1 teaspoon fine salt

Grind the ingredients together in a blender or food processor until the peppers appear minced (not puréed).  In a saucepan, simmer the mixture for 10 minutes. Press it through the fine screen of a food mill. Funnel the sauce into a bottle, and store it in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1 pint

The sauce turned out a beautiful vermilion and, as expected, quite hot. It seems strange that Pennsylvania Dutch folks, with their sugar- and vinegar-rich but otherwise bland cookery, would favor hot sauce of any kind, much less this kind. According to Slow Food, the Mennonites who grow hinkelhatz peppers sprinkle pepper vinegar on their sauerkraut. I wish someone could tell the story of how this pepper arrived in Pennsylvania, presumably—though probably not directly—from Mexico, and how it came to be treasured and passed on through generations in a community of Mennonite farmers.

I thank those farmers for passing the hinkelhatz on to the rest of the world.  Seeds for the red type are now available from many garden seed companies, which you can find with a quick Internet search.

Surprisingly Delicious: Fermented Tomato Salsa

Following my post on thick salsa made from baked sliced tomatoes, a reader asked about making fermented salsa. I grimaced as I considered how easily tomatoes rot. Cutting them up and leaving them to ferment would be asking for trouble, I figured. But I do sometimes brine tomatoes whole, in the Russian tradition. So I suggested fermenting whole tomatoes with other vegetables and then grinding them all together afterward.

In early October, Mother Nature had spared us the usual late-summer to early-fall rains but hit us with early frosts instead. So my entry hall was filled with boxes of tomatoes, all still beautifully free of disease. I had so many tomatoes and peppers both that if a crockful rotted I’d never miss them. In particular, I had plenty of Hard Rock tomatoes, one of my favorite paste varieties. So I came up with this recipe for—

Fermented Tomato Salsa

3 pounds flawless, firm, meaty tomatoes, ripe or semiripe, washed but left whole
1 pound green jalapeño peppers, tops sliced off
1 ½-pound onion, peeled and quartered
6 garlic cloves, peeled
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
¼ cup lime juice
5 tablespoons pickling salt
2 quarts water

Mix the tomatoes, peppers, onion pieces, garlic, and cumin together in a gallon crock or jar. Add the lime juice. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the vegetables, and weight them. Cover the crock or jar, and keep it at room temperature for at least a few days, after which you can move it to a cooler place if you prefer. Check the crock or jar for yeast and mold and skim off any that appears.

After three weeks, cut a pepper vertically to be sure it has completely changed color, from bright green to olive. If it has, gently remove all the vegetables to a bowl, taking care not to burst the tomatoes, which will have swelled. Coarsely grind the vegetables in batches in a food processor or blender. You should have about 7 cups salsa.

My fermented salsa had a good, thick consistency, a pleasantly dark red color, a mild tartness, and a complex fermented taste that grew on Robert and me so fast that we ate a whole pint at a sitting. The only thing that could have improved the experience is fresh cilantro.

I tested the pH of the salsa as 4.3—low enough for safe boiling-water processing, but high enough that I’d advise testing each batch or adding more lime juice before canning. I brought the salsa we hadn’t eaten slowly to a boil and then processed the jars for 15 minutes.

If you want those fermentative bacteria to work in your gut, of course, you will store the salsa in the refrigerator instead. If you do, please let me know how long it keeps.

Return of the Rains

Goodbye to the summer beauties. If we don’t eat them, the fruit flies will.

 

This is a post from five days ago that somehow ended up in my drafts folder. Today there’s not a cloud in the sky, though leaves are flying past my office window.

I’ve had to don fingerless woolen gloves to type this.

I started out the morning by making a big batch of salsa, marveling at the flawlessly beautiful tomatoes I’d picked from frost-blackened vines. In October! I’d never before seen blight-free tomatoes in western Oregon in October. Though summer had started late, it had run dry and long. We were still awaiting the first fall rains.

I was both disappointed and relieved that today’s mushroom hike had been canceled. We wouldn’t have found any mushrooms, and anyway rain was expected. We might have gotten drenched.

This thought led me to take a hard look out the window as I lifted the salsa jars out of the canner. I’d thought the rain wouldn’t come until mid-afternoon, but the leaden sky told me otherwise. Our sweet Mediterranean holiday was over. Though pleased to have finished digging the potatoes yesterday, I had a lot of work to do before the god Huracán de Oregón came lurching home to weep and moan for the next seven or eight months.

I was immediately out the door. I took down the hammock and the bamboo shade for the deck, covered the burn pile (bramble cuttings and wild carrot with seedheads), and began rolling up Reemay row covers as the first drops started to fall. Oregon storms always bring more wind than rain, and the wind would surely knock down the ripest fruits in the orchard. I picked the Seckel pears, ran indoors to throw my long red raincoat over my wet clothes, and dashed back out to pick all the Seuri Asian pears. Hurrying to the vegetable garden to behead the sunflowers, I remembered the beans, or what the deer had left of them. The pole beans might continue to ripen and dry, but the bush beans would rot in the rain. I cut the stems at the ground and threw them into a wheelbarrow to spread on the shelves in the greenhouse.

After stuffing my pockets with green tomatoes and a few odd forgotten peppers and tomatillos, I returned to the house shivering and fatigued in a way I never feel in summer. I hadn’t drunk a cup of hot tea in months, but that was exactly what I needed now.

This afternoon I’ll make another batch of salsa and some greengage jam, and maybe some Asian pear jam, too. After my hair dries, if the rain stops for a while, I’ll start a wood fire in the kettle grill on the deck and roast a few pecks of peppers. And then I’ll come back in and sip tea, and listen with only half an ear while Huracán rages. All winter long.