Put a Lid on It 

Stashing away peppers for winter.

As nutrient-rich as they are delicious, hot peppers also trigger an endorphin rush in your brain that's chemically related to runner's high and heroin's kick. Yes, the pepper is truly a friend of the people. Consequently, the people have helped spread peppers from their native South America to everywhere else, especially Asia.

I like to eat peppers every day of the year. So before the summer season whizzes by in a capsicum haze of chiles rellenos and ema datse, I must stock up. This annual effort to squirrel away my yearly pepper needs has led me to something very special: the pickled pepper.

Me without my pickled peppers would be like Eddie Van Halen without his guitar. But being a pickled-pepper star isn't all groupies and glory. It takes a year of work to amass a year's supply. Pepper seeds, ordered in winter, take all spring and summer to mature. Garlic must be planted in fall for inclusion in next year's pickled-pepper jar.

Alternatively, you can go down to a farmer's market and get what you need there.

As our native predecessors prided themselves on using every part of their kill, so too do I use the entire contents of that pepper jar. The peppers themselves, whether garnished or co-munched (chewed together with your food), provide savory acidic counterbalance to the rich, fatty foods we love. Sometimes I pickle carrots in the jar with peppers, and those carrots are great for co-munching too, having picked up the heat from the peppers. A bite of food, a bite of carrot now chew!

Meanwhile, many a great meal begins with chopped bacon in a pan, followed with chopped pickled peppers. And a pour of pepper-jar vinegar, tangy and sweet and speckled with floating mustard seeds, improves almost any marinade.

My current darling jar is a combo I call hotties and sweeties. It contains hot, red Arledge chili peppers and sweet Klari Baby Cheese peppers, which look like orange tomatoes and taste like candy. The only drawback of the hotties and sweeties is the fact that the minute you crack the lid, the contents fly out of the jar into the mouths of ravenous bystanders. You must guard them with your life.

If you don't have these particular varieties of pepper at your disposal, don't despair. When I give you a recipe, what I'm really offering is the truth behind the recipe. It's your job to play with this truth and tweak it to your liking. There are a lot of peppers out there and much research to be done. Come January, you can order your Arledge and Klari Baby Cheese seeds from FedcoSeeds.com.

In the meantime, there are many hotties and sweeties you can substitute for my choices. Hotties should be red, with the stocky, fleshy build of a jalapeno. Sweeties should be vine-ripened and juicy, never green.

In addition to your peppers, you need the following things to pickle them:

A large canning pot

Mason jars, ideally quart or pint,

with lids and rings

Cider vinegar

Sweetener

Yellow and black mustard seeds

Garlic

Wash the peppers. On a clean cutting board, cut off the tops, just below the leafy collar. Hotties and small sweeties can be left whole. Cut the larger sweet peppers into halves, quarters, or slices. Put the peppers in a big bowl and sprinkle with salt -- about three tablespoons per gallon of peppers. Stirring and draining occasionally, let the bowl sit for a few hours in a cool place while the salt pulls moisture from the pepper flesh.

Pack your peppers into clean, sterilized Mason jars, with a few raw cloves of garlic per jar. Leave about 3/4 inch of "head space" between the top of the peppers and the rim of the jar. Add a tablespoon each of yellow and black mustard seeds per quart.

Meanwhile, bring a 50/50 mixture of cider vinegar and water to a simmer. I like cider vinegar because it makes the best-tasting pickles. Sweeten the syrup with sugar, until it tastes a little sweet. Pour the hot syrup into the jars, covering the peppers but still leaving 1/2 inch of head space.

Wipe the rims, put the lids and rings on the jars, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove, cool, and store in a cool dark place.

Repeat until you have over 100 quarts. It still won't be enough. •

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