You and me and spicy

Dear taste buds,

We need to talk. It’s an uncomfortable topic for all of us, and I’m not entirely sure how to raise it. But you and me, we can talk about anything, right? So I’m just going to come out and say it:

Spicy foods.

I think you know where I’m going with this.

I wouldn't even mention it if you weren't such absolute champs. Bitter things, sour things, oddly textured things – you embrace them, one and all. You do not complain. You let me suck lemons and chew on boiled kale! You let me slurp bone marrow, you wonderful creatures, you! Then along comes some heat and you’re through. All I want to know is why.

Maybe it was that time at Chi-Chi’s back in 1987 when I accidentally flicked a speck of hot sauce into my eye. Remember? Dad scooped me up from the booth and jostled me over to the bar, filled a shot glass with water, pressed its rim against my eye socket, and dipped my head all the way back into the crook of his arm. That was traumatic. But taste buds, you have no eyeballs. You’re safe.

Or maybe it was the tamale that took me by surprise at a family reunion in St. Louis, the single fiery mouthful and the well-meaning cousin who told me to drool into my napkin for relief. It was not our finest hour.

You and me and spicy, we've had a tough run. But you know what? I think we can do better. I know we can. Now, rest assured: I’ll never shove an entire wad of wasabi into my mouth, or chomp pepperoncini from their stems in a single bite, or some other stunt like that. You are not my circus monkeys. It’s just that I fear we’re missing out. Spicy’s kind of a thing right now. All the cool kids are doing it which, I know, is never a respectable reason to do anything, but in this case the cool kids are the smart kids. Smart kids who cook! And they’re making some really good food. Pizza with Padróns, Sriracha on everything. I want in. I think we should try. I've made something to help us along.

Pickled peppers, the jalapeño and hot wax kind. You know, the ones that come in our farm share every year and pile up in the crisper drawer until one day we man up and slice into one, consume a brave quarter of an inch, and then stand helplessly by, fanning ourselves and recovering for the next week while the rest of it turns to mush. Those. Pickled, these peppers keep a long, long time. No rush to sweat our way through them; no risk of waste. And sliced into rings they’re far less daunting. We can fish them out one at a time. We can call one ring a “serving.” We can take things nice and slow.

Taste buds, are you with me?


Pickled Peppers (Jalapeño and Hot Wax)
Adapted from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan

I told you a bit about Marisa and her lovely book earlier this month and now I bring you a recipe from it. These pickled peppers are a “blank slate” (as Marisa puts it) by design. There are no herbs or spices here – just the simplest brine and the peppers – which makes them wonderfully versatile. So far, I've tucked them into grilled cheese sandwiches and chopped and scattered them over all kinds of things: scrambled eggs, lentils and rice, baked fish, tortilla chips with melted cheese. Marisa suggests slicing the peppers in half lengthwise and canning them just like that. I sliced them into ¼-inch rings. You don’t want to go much thinner than that or your pickles might lose their crunch.

A note about the boiling water bath: To keep your pickles crisp, you boil the filled jars for only five minutes. So, to make sure your jars are sterile, Marisa has you boil the empty jars for at least ten minutes, and remove the jars from the water bath right before you’re ready to fill them.

If you’d like to pickle peppers but you’d prefer not to can, these work as refrigerator pickles, too. Just fill your jars with peppers and brine and keep in the fridge.

About pickling salt:  If you’re having trouble finding it at supermarkets in your area, try the hardware store. That’s where I found mine, in the aisle with canning supplies. Or, you can buy it on Amazon.

Here’s Marisa on substituting other kinds of salt for pickling salt.

2 cups distilled white vinegar (5% acidity, which most commercial vinegars are)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 pound hot peppers, like jalapeño, or hot wax, or cherry, sliced into ¼-inch thick rings

Remove the rings and lids from your jars and set them aside. Place a cooling rack, or silicone trivet, or whatever you’re using to shield the jars from the heat, in the bottom of a big pot, and put your jars on top. Fill the pot with water to cover the jars, and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring them to a simmer over very low heat to soften the sealing wax. No need to heat the rings.

Bring the pot of jars to a boil and let it bubble away for at least 10 minutes (see note, above).

Meanwhile, combine the vinegar, water, and salt in a medium pot and bring to a boil over high heat.

When the jars are ready, remove them from the pot and set them right side up on a clean towel on the counter, pack them with peppers, and fill with the hot brine, leaving ½-inch of headspace. Gently tap the jars against the counter, then stir with a wooden chopstick or Popsicle stick to loosen any air bubbles. Check the headspace, and add more brine if necessary.

Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and return to the hot water bath. Bring to a boil, and process for five minutes. Then, remove the jars, set them on the counter, and listen for the ping of the lids sealing.

Let cure for at least a week before opening, and store opened jars in the refrigerator.

Yield: 12 4-ounce jars.


Amy said...

Oh, Jess, you are funny! The form of this post, you directly addressing your taste buds, cracked me up for a moment on a packed and stressful work afternoon!

A Plum By Any Other Name said...

Good luck with this spicy new journey you're on ... I don't think you'll regret it. ;)

shari said...

i'd like to have a good talk with my taste buds about seafood!

too bad our peppers didn't do so well this year or else i'd be all over this pickled pepper recipe. fingers crossed that more spicy foods are in your near future.

Sina said...

You're hilarious. I must say I grew up in a home where spicy was in everything! Sriracha is sweet for me. But you'll get there, tastebuds are forgiving, they'll catch up.

Anna said...

I usually stay away from spicy things, too, and had been thinking about making some pickled jalapenos just to incorporate a little spice. I gave up thinking that I would never use them but you've inspired me to give it a try.

Jess said...

Amy - So happy to make you smile! "Just drool into your napkin..." Memories! xo.

A Plum By Any Other Name - I'm making my way, slowly, slowly. So far, so good! (With the occasional "ow, ow, OWWWs!" when I bite off more than I can chew.)

shari - Hi, friend! Seafood? All kinds? Huh. That's rough. I'm a big fish fan. Maybe my buds could talk to your buds, and they could ease up on spiciness and seafood, respectively. Sorry about your peppers. Just canned some more tonight - hot wax and cherry - and I do believe I'm in a position to help! (Also, oooof, do I owe you an e-mail.)

Sina - Sriracha is sweet?! I've been adding just a dab to omelets and stir fries here and there and that's plenty, for me. The main issue for me, by the way, isn't even the discomfort of the heat. It's that the heat itself has a flavor to me, one that I don't like, and it overpowers whatever other subtler flavors might be there. Hoping I can get past this with practice.

Anna - Yes, do it! It's such a quick and simple recipe (skip the canning and store them in the fridge if you want to make it even quicker and simpler). I love that I now have plenty of long-lasting peppers that I can move through at my own pace.

Amrita said...

I'm Indian...so you can guess how or what I feel about spicy food. But then, I find that somehow spicy food makes me feel more aware of the fact that I'm nuts for food! Does that sound weird?

Jacqui said...

My taste buds have one word for your taste buds: Tabasco.

I, too, have a wimpy tolerance for spicy foods. But I'm getting there. I am currently in the "put Sriracha on everything" camp. And it all started with Tabasco.

megan said...

Dear Jess,
I have a confession to make. That thing about the taste? I taste it too and I don't know how to ignore it: kind of metallic and weird and too much on the back of the tongue and I'd rather have some bread and butter when that happens. But it seems like spicy food is like an automatic coolness locator...like cigarettes used to be? Maybe it will turn up there is some terrible unknown side effect of spicy food and we can promote a national campaign to un-cool spicy food! (Or maybe we should just train our tastebuds...Looking forward to trying these at Christmas or the New Year or whenever we can make it happen.)

Miss you,

Megan Gordon said...

Oh, spicy foods. I had an epiphany this week. Padron peppers in CA are generally mild, especially when they're larger in size. You can go to town with them (as I do/did). Well apparently in Seattle, this is not the case and the larger ones are fire-hot as heck. Whoa, baby. Just a small padron fact spanning states for you :) I learned my lesson the hard way.

hydrolagus said...

Pickled peppers go stunningly well with eggs. It's not just the heat but the sour--put those together with the umami/fat/salt flavor of yolk and a lovely synergy happens. Chop 'em up smaller than rings and you can adjust how much pepper you get per bite.

alanachernila said...

Oh, Jess! This makes me want to sweep you up and take you to New Mexico! Where beautiful big-hipped women will smother your dinner with love and chile, and the tears will be from happiness. But in the mean time, pickled peppers will do...

Eva said...

"Taste buds, you have no eyeballs," is absolutely a favorite line, and I had a hearty chuckle at that one. Hi Jess! I read your blog and am always, interested, impressed, and amused. Hope to see you around Boston!

Jess said...

Amrita - Nope, that doesn't sound weird at all! In fact, I sometimes fear the reverse: What kind of a food lover am I if I can't handle the heat?? I love Indian food, by the way, though I always have to go with the milder curries.

Jacqui - Tabasco, yes! I started there too! I actually remember when I bought my first bottle in the spring of 2010. Proud moment. It's mild enough that if I use juuuuuust a bit, I can detect an actual flavor, sweet and tomato-y. Still, I like to have a hunk of bread nearby in case I get a mouthful with too much kick.

megan - Ha ha! Wait -- Christmas or New Year's? Is that in the works?? YES!!!

Megan - Ah yes, Padróns. Sneaky, sneaky, tricky, tricky Padróns. The trouble is, you never know what you're going to get! I'm sure that's part of the fun for lovers of heat. Not so for my poor taste buds.

hydrolagus - Yes, I've been doing just that! Chopped pickled peppers on scrambled eggs. Delicious.

alana - Ooooo, sweep away! How could my taste buds refuse a beautiful big-hipped woman?? xo.

Eva - Glad to give you a laugh! Thank you, my fellow Bostonian, for the kind words.

Anonymous said...

Found you blog ans had to look up all your recipes. Course I Couldn't resist reading the one for Linzer Torte, since I'm from Austria. Just wanted to say that most recipes I know use blackcurrent jam or similar (more tart than apricot jam)

vanilla bean blog said...

This is lovely, and hilarious. I, too, cannot handle spicy foods. All I taste is a hot mouth of fire. I guess I'm not a cool kid, alas. {it's my first time here, and, your blog is wonderful!}