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.

Pickled Peppers, by the Pint or by the Peck

Whether you’re planning an Italian dinner or an American Thanksgiving, pickled peppers are essential on the appetizer platter. They are not only quick and easy to make one jar at a time; they’re also a good choice for a first canning project.

Your peppers can be green or ripe, hot or sweet or in between, and formed in any shape a pepper comes—round, conical, blocky, or long and skinny. Find one or more glass jars that will hold your peppers attractively. If you’re using long peppers you’ll want to pack them vertically, so compare the height of the jar to the length of your peppers; the jar should be a little taller than the peppers once their stems are trimmed. If you want to can your peppers, use pint, 3-cup, or quart mason jars.

If you’re canning your peppers, you’ll also need a jar lifter—available for a few dollars at most grocery stores—and a boiling-water canner, which can be any big pot with a rack or towel at the bottom. Fill the pot about halfway with water, and begin heating it just before you begin filling your jars. Or you could instead use a steam canner, in which case a potholder will serve well enough in place of the jar lifter, and the heating won’t take as long, because you’ll use much less water.

Now start with seasonings. I use two small cloves of garlic and half a Mediterranean bay leaf for each pint. If you live on the West Coast and harvest native bay laurel leaves (Umbellularia californica), which have a much strong fragrance than Mediterranean bay, use a smaller bit of leaf in each jar. You might also try other spices, such as two or three black peppercorns or allspice berries per jar.

Before putting peppers into jars, I trim the stems to about ¼ inch. Then I make a short vertical slit in each pepper; this keeps it from floating. I pack each jar tightly, leaving a little more than ½ inch headspace at the top. Placing each pepper upright may waste some space but allows the stems to serve as handles for withdrawing the peppers from the jar.

Once you’ve packed the jars, make the pickling liquid. In a stainless-steel-lined saucepan, heat ½ cup each water and 5-percent vinegar along with 1 teaspoon salt for each pint jar. I prefer wine vinegar or cider vinegar over distilled. If you’re going to keep your peppers in the refrigerator, you might instead use rice vinegar, which is usually diluted to between 4.0 and 4.3 percent acid.

I always use pure, fine salt, which comes labeled as “canning and pickling salt” or sometimes, in bulk, as “sea salt.” Sea salt that isn’t white, because it contains other minerals besides sodium chloride,  is usually fine to use, too, but don’t use table salt, which has additives that could make your brine cloudy, or salt to which clay, charcoal, or other colorings or flavorings have been added. Kosher salt is a good substitute for pickling salt, but because it is coarser and therefore less dense you may want to use a little more of it.

If you like a little sweetness to balance the sharpness of a pickle, add a little honey or sugar to the liquid in the pan.

Bring the liquid to a boil, and then pour it over the peppers in the jars. Wait while the peppers take in liquid through their slits, and then add more liquid to the jars as needed, keeping the headspace of slightly more than ½ inch. Now add 1 tablespoon olive oil to each jar. The oil will coat each pepper deliciously as it’s withdrawn from the jar.

If you’re not canning your pickled peppers, just close the jar tightly, and you’re done. Let the jar cool, and then store it in the refrigerator.

If you are canning your peppers, make sure you haven’t dripped any oil on the jar rims; a film of oil could keep the lids from sealing. Clean any oil from the rims with a paper towel dipped in vinegar.

A mason jar cap has two parts: a flat lid, replaced with each use, and a metal ring that holds the lid in place. The flat lids don’t need to be boiled or even soaked in hot water. Just wash them lightly before you put them on the jars and screw on the rings.

Now use your jar lifter to transfer the closed jars to the hot (but not yet boiling) water in the canner, allowing a little space between the jars. The water should cover the jars by at least an inch. Add more hot water if needed, put a lid on the canner, and bring the water to a boil. Hold it at a gentle boil for 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat and remove the canner lid. Before withdrawing the jars with the jar lifter, wait 5 minutes; this will keep the jars from leaking. Then set the jars on a rack or pad to cool.

Whether you’re storing your pickled peppers in the pantry or in the refrigerator, you’ll want to give them at least three weeks to develop their full tart, spicy flavor. So pickle your peppers soon, while they’re fresh from the farm or garden, and they’re sure to be ready in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

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.