Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Pickle Factory

Oh so innocently on my to-do list: harvest and pickle peppers.  With a few free hours, I skipped out to the garden with my scissors and a bowl, and I began picking peppers.  This was to be the end for my Serrano pepper plants.  They produced and produced through the summer, spicing our eggs and tacos and stir fries.  In early September, when pepper production began to outpace consumption, I picked the plants clean and pickled that harvest, making five half-pints of pickled peppers.  We've been enjoying the picked peppers since, and the fresh peppers that the plants kept making.  By the end of October, both of the plants were covered in peppers once again.  Early November brought freeze warnings and the realization that, if I wanted to plant cool-season vegetables in the small garden by the AC unit, I needed to harvest those super-productive pepper plants.

Super-productive, indeed.  I only planted two pepper plants this year, but both of those Serrano plants grew into tall shrubs with extensive root systems over the hot summer.  And quite by accident, by cleaning the plants of fruit just before the rains and cooler temperatures of September, I encouraged the plants to go super-production mode for the fall.  It ended up taking me over two hours to harvest the peppers from those two plants, filling my harvest bowl four times.

This is the point at which I could have done some calculations.  My harvest bowl holds four quarts, or one gallon.  Which means that I picked about four gallons of peppers.  Four gallons equals 32 pints equals 64 half pints, or about 5 cases of half-pint jars, given that the final volume of the pickled peppers will be somewhat less once the peppers are de-stemmed and tightly packed into jars.

But I did not do any calculations.  I was proud of my harvest and figured that I would need another case or two of half-pint jars and a quart of vinegar.  I also figured that I would need, roughly, an afternoon to complete the pickling project.

So yesterday afternoon, with supplies and ingredients gathered, I put Maná in the CD player and started popping the stems off peppers.  Except for a few stubborn receptacles (the caps that hold the stem on the pepper) that I had to pry off, most snapped off easily.  Soon I was working in a quick rhythm, picking up a pepper with one hand while snapping off the receptacle with the other hand, then placing the pepper into a bowl and receptacle/stem into the compost.  But, even with assembly-line efficiency, de-stemming each pepper took a couple of hours.

After de-stemming, I dropped the peppers into the sink for washing.  At this point I had handled each pepper two times - to harvest it and to de-stem it.  I still needed to handle each pepper individually one more time - to cut a slit in each pepper so that the pickling brine could be absorbed into the peppers.  Again, I worked with assembly-line efficiency, holding each pepper still with my left hand while cutting a slit in the pepper with a paring knife with my right hand.  Again, the process took over an hour.  But, finally, the tedium of handling each pepper was over.

While the brine heated and simmered in a saucepan, I peeled and halved garlic cloves.  Then came the fun part, setting up jars.  I lined up all of my clean half-pint jars on the counter and dropped halved garlic cloves, peppercorns, coriander seeds, rosemary leaves, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and caraway seeds into each of them.

Next, I packed peppers into the jars and realized that I did not have enough half-pint jars.  This is where things got a little nuts.  The brine was simmering and ready to use, the hot water bath was boiling, the entire kitchen counter was covered in half-pint jars, and I was holding another bowl full of peppers, wondering where to set it down.  I dug six pint-size jars out of the cupboard, washed them and filled them with spices and peppers, then repeated that process with another five, the last five, pint jars from the cupboard.  I processed half of the half-pints in the water bath while making another batch and a half of brine.  Altogether, I filled 33 half-pints and 11 pints with peppers.  By the time I was done, I had used up every garlic clove, peppercorn, coriander seed, bay leaf, and fresh canning jar lid in the house, and had long ago switched from apple cider to white vinegar.

I'm not sure where the line between project and undertaking is, but I am quite sure that last night, at the point when I was on my hands and knees, cleaning spilled brine and peppercorns off the kitchen floor, and the house smelled like a pickle factory, and the windows were steamed as the third batch of jars jangled in the boiling water bath, and Lee was poking his head into the kitchen wondering if it was safe to approach, that I had crossed that line.  But now that it is over, and the pantry is stocked with peppers to last us through the cool season, I feel a sense of satisfaction that must be written deep into my human genes, the comfort of knowing that I have put away some food for the days to come.  And while putting away food is no longer necessary, I like knowing what happens between the garden and the jar of pickles.

Pickled Serrano Peppers

It is helpful, as I found out the hard way, to calculate approximately how many jars you will be filling before you begin the pickling process.  This will allow you to calculate roughly how many quarts of vinegar, how many bulbs of garlic, etc, you need to have on hand.  One gallon of peppers will yield about 8 pint jars, or 16 half-pint jars, of pickles.  This will require about 8 cups of brine, which will require 4 cups (32 oz.) of vinegar.

Safety note about pickling recipes:  The ratios of the ingredients in the brine are important.  The brine recipe can be halved or doubled or tripled, as long as the ratios are maintained.  Using 5% vinegar, the ratio of vinegar to water should always be 1 to 1, with approximately 1 tablespoon of pickling salt and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of sugar added for each cup of vinegar used.  The bay leaves in the brine and spices in each jar are for flavor, and can be adjusted or omitted based on taste preferences and/or what you have on hand.

1 gallon Serrano peppers

The Brine:
4 cups water
4 cups apple cider vinegar or white vinegar (5% acidity)
3 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons pickling or Kosher salt
4-5 bay leaves

Spices for each Half-Pint Jar:
1 medium garlic clove, peeled and halved
6-12 black peppercorns
4-8 coriander seeds
2 rosemary leaves
pinch of: mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and/or caraway seeds

Pick fresh peppers the day that you plan to pickle them, especially if you are pickling red Serrano peppers.  The red peppers spoil quickly.  Wash the peppers and discard any that are damaged or soft.

Remove the stem and receptacle (the green cap that holds the stem to the pepper) from each pepper.  This is optional - you can safely pickle peppers with their stems on - but I found it easy to slip the green cap off each pepper with my fingers, and I prefer to eat stemless peppers.

Thoroughly wash and dry your canning jars.  Add the garlic and spices to each jar.

Using a paring knife, make a small slash in each pepper for vinegar absorption.  Pack the peppers into the canning jars.

In a non-reactive saucepan, make the brine by combining the water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and bay leaves.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the peppers to cover completely.  Leave about 1/2 inch head space in each jar.  Wipe the rims of the jars clean and seal with clean rings and lids.

Process in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.  If you are new to canning, please educate yourself about water-bath canning before proceeding.  A jar lifter will be very helpful for this!

Store in a cool, dark place for a week before consuming.  Refrigerate after opening.

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