by Laura Fieselman
Tomorrow is the new moon, and for those who plant by tradition the Farmers’ Almanac indicates it’s time to set out the very first plants of the season (which would be peas). But this year it seems like the frosts just keep on coming and coming and coming … we’re sharing a post by Laura Fieselman harkening back to that first frost of winter, reminding us that no matter the season, you’ve got to plant and pick by the weather. — Deborah Miller, Editor, NC Food.
What does one do when heaps of frost-is-coming-and-I-must-pick-them-all peppers spill across the counters and onto every available flat surface in the kitchen? Pickle them. And when one has surpassed their seasonal allotment of vinegar-based pickles? Delve into the mysteries of salt-based fermentation.
My first experiment: lacto-fermentation. Internet searches assured me that the protocol is simple, that I too could successfully have all the health-giving probiotic benefits of lacto-fermented veggies in just a few short days. I wondered if peppers are an appropriate specimen for this type of pickle. I wondered if I could mix and match varieties and if I could include peppers at various stages of ripeness. I wondered if I could kick-start the batch with the dregs of a previous fermentation experiment. These were all good questions and, in retrospect, I should have attended to them closely.
But I didn’t. I see now that the sheer number of peppers to corral with this fermentation experiment blinded me to the finer points of the endeavor. The provenance of these peppers, you see, was a beautiful backyard garden in Carrboro, North Carolina where I’ve been helping weed, transplant, and tend a range of beautiful fresh produce. And the peppers were the one vegetable last season that surpassed all expectations of success (there seems to be one of those vegetables each season, no?). Hot peppers, wax peppers, bell peppers. Peppers so mild I’d been eating them like apples and peppers so menacing their aromas nearly crippled us as we fried them for lunch with eggs.
These were the peppers in question, the peppers I eyed as I failed to ponder the finer points of lacto-fermentation. All I did was follow the basic protocol: pack the vegetables in a salt-water brine and leave them for a few days. The particulars of my experiment, bounded largely by the parameter that I get as many peppers as possible into one half-gallon mason jar, included layers of red and green bell and banana peppers interspersed with bay leaves and peppercorns, topped off with the aforementioned dregs from my previous experiment, and one week on the counter.
I waited patiently, embarking upon my second pepper preservation adventure while the first was working its magic. Captured by a photo of sliced peppers that look desperately hot, I followed an Andrea Reusing (Lantern in Chapel Hill, NC) recipe for salt-cured chilies. I sliced the chilies from the harvest and mixed them with generous amounts of coarse salt and retired them to the refrigerator. One week later they went into the blender with a few other basics to become an astoundingly delicious hot sauce. Reusing recommends the sauce for raw oysters or rice and beans; I find it most delicious on eggs and for dipping spring rolls and for New Year’s collards and beans. It’s the perfect foil to most meals actually. Spicy but not too hot and sweet but not cloyingly so, the sauce lured my sister to abandon the conventions of modestly seasoning her dinner bit by bit as she instead poured a veritable pool into the center of plate. I am ear-marking the recipe (and including it below for you).
The results of the lacto-fermentation experiment, however, were not nearly so fortuitous. The pickles are slightly off-tasting and soggy. I tried them as part of an appetizer plate. No good. I tried them finely chopped in beans and rice. Less noticeable, but still not good. I left them in the fridge for a few months, half-heartedly hoping the ferment would improve with age. Definitely disgusting. I wallow in the loss of all those beautiful peppers, trying to find a bit of solace in the idea that they will nourish my compost pile. Such is life when you experiment with pepper preservation.
Salt-Cured Chiles inspired by Cooking in the Moment by Andrea Reusing
2 pounds fresh red chilies, preferably a semi-hot variety, sliced into rings
1/2 cup kosher salt
In a large bowl, combine the chilies and salt and mix well. Leave at room temperature for 24 hours and then refrigerate. Mix the chilies once a day for 5 days, skimming off any impurities that form at the surface as the chilies soften and submerge in their own liquid. Puree with cider vinegar, garlic, and a little sugar in ratios to taste for an irresistible hot sauce.
Laura Fieselman is a graduate student in the Folklore program at UNC-Chapel Hill and co-founder of Raleigh City Farm. She likes exploring the forests and rivers of North Carolina and delights in all things edible. Strawberries and fried okra top the list of her favorite foods.