A Peck of Pickled Delights : Hot and Sweet Peppers Take the Plunge

Question: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?

Answer: Peter Piper picked eight quarts of pickled peppers--but only in a nursery rhyme can you pick peppers pickled on the bush.

It's astonishing to realize that pickled peppers are well-nigh universal in their appeal. Although each cuisine has its favorite pickles, you're sure to find pickled peppers in places where the climate ensures abundant crops.

In Italy, pickled peperoncini --literally, "little big peppers"--are are an essential part of an antipasto. The classic Italian peppers for pickling have a narrow, tapering shape with thin walls, and they are picked at the ivory-yellow stage, two to three inches long. Italian White Wax is a fine specimen of this type because at this point its flesh is mildly piquant.

In Italian, the term for pickled peppers is peperoncini sott'aceto , "peppers under vinegar." You can buy them at most delicatessens, but those you make will be incomparable for their freshness. And they're fun to make. From my 1953 Italian copy of Ada Boni's "Il Talismano Della Felicita," here's the recipe:

Take the amount of peppers that you want to preserve, snip off all but a little of each stem, arrange the peppers in a basket or sieve and expose them to the sun for a couple of days so that as much internal moisture as possible evaporates.

Arrange the peppers in earthenware vessels and pour over them boiling vinegar to which you've added plenty of salt. Leave them for 40 days, then drain off the vinegar, which will have been amply diluted by the juices of the peppers, and replace it with other vinegar of good quality (not boiling).

Cover the vessels. The peperoncini will be good to eat after a couple of months.

Boni assumes that we know to wash the peppers first and that the vessels must be scrupulously clean. Her vinegar was probably homemade and thus a milder strength; use our vinegars straight and you might not be able to swallow the pickle. Try adding one cup water to every five cups white vinegar with a heaping tablespoon of pickling salt. For the 40 days and the two months' curing, keep the vessels refrigerated.

Although you can keep peperoncini in the refrigerator, it may be more convenient to store them in canning jars in a cool dark place. For this, you must process them. Use any contemporary method for fresh-pack pickles. You can also prepare these pickles with any thin- to medium-walled small pepper.

Sweet-cherry peppers are ideal picklers; they're small plum size and picked when crimson. Large Red Cherry Hot isn't very large, but it is very hot. Canada-Cheese is a sweet-pimento type (squarer and flatter), the same size and hue.

In Indonesia, the taste is for blisteringly hot pickled peppers. A favorite is the bird-eye chile, also known as bird pepper. They are tiny wild peppers, native to the southern United States, through Mexico and into Colombia. Their fruits come roundish like peas or wee pointed-tipped ovals.

Some bird peppers are called by names derived from the Aztec chiltecpin, "flea chile"-- chiltepines , chillipiquins , tepins , pequins. When you order these seeds from a catalogue, choose by description. Whether picked green or red, any bird pepper will give you a tingle, head-to-toe.

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In Java, sweetness and heat are frequently balanced in dishes. Here's a fascinating example: Brush a small butterflied chicken with a fine paste of ground onion, garlic and three pickled bird chiles and let it rest for a few hours. Simmer the chicken in its jacket in a little lightly sweetened coconut milk until tender, frequently moistening with the sauce. Finally, grill the chicken over very low coals until brown, then serve.

In India, chiles of the small jalapen~o and serrano types are popular for pickles. One way to prepare them is to slice them crosswise, salt to taste, then toss with lemon juice and hot mustard oil flavored with minced ginger. After soaking in the sunshine for a week, the pickle is ready. Jalapen~o and serrano chiles are beautiful long tapered chiles used in the green and red stages. Jalapen~os are mildly hot and serranos moderately hot.

All over Latin America, the word escabeche means something pickled. From Colima and "Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico," Diana Kennedy invites us to fry whole poblano chiles in hot oil until blistered, peel them, then souse them at the bottom of the refrigerator for a couple of days in lightly diluted wine vinegar with fried garlic and slices of red onion and carrot. After that, stuff them with a mixture of pinto beans, crumbled chorizo sausage, onion, tomato and cheese and serve them on lettuce.

Chiles poblanos are rather heart-shaped, about three inches wide at the top and five inches long. They can be inky green at the immature stage--or the mature stage--or they can be burnt-brick red. They have uncommon depth of flavor at all stages.

In my short-season garden (in the mountains at 5,800 feet), I'm especially fond of chiles because they mature faster and the bushes are more productive than those bearing large peppers.

One of my biggest successes has been with Auroras. From green, they turn lavender, then yellow, then orange and finally red. Measuring only 1 1/2 inches long and half as wide, Auroras are plump little cones of color that sit perkily upright on the branch. In autumn, every color is on the bush at once--early Christmas in the garden. Auroras are bright and hot in the mouth as well. Peppers that look and behave like Auroras but are spicy-sweet are called Sweet Pickles.

Small-pepper plants are incomparable accents in the border, right up front. Another that's especially exciting is Pretty Hot Purple--the peppers color from green to lavender to red, and the leaves, stems and flowers are brushed with purple. Bellengrath Gardens Purple may be the ultimate: Leaves and stalks are shiny purple-green, and new foliage is variegated purple, green and cream. Flowers are purple, the hot, inch-size fruits are pendant on the plant, ripening from greenish purple to purple-orange to red.

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Whether hot or sweet, a kaleidoscope of little peppers pickled in a pint jar makes a pleasing present. Pack clean hot jars with the peppers, leaving a quarter-inch head space. For every 1 1/4 pounds, bring an overflowing one cup white vinegar, 1/3 cup water, two teaspoons sugar and 1/2 tablespoon pickling salt to a boil. Pour over the peppers, observing the head space. Seal and process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Store in a cool dry place, waiting at least two weeks for flavors to develop before serving.

A friend in the South adds garlic, pearl onions and mustard seeds to the vinegar solution.

Peppers are tender perennials--they'll last in a garden for years if there's no frost. If there's frost, either grow them in containers or pot them up at the end of summer. You can ripen peppers indoors in a very warm, very sunny room. Return the plant to the outdoors when the weather turns warm again.

Every pepper grows in the warm summer areas of southern California. Along the cool coast and in the high mountain, most chiles won't have enough heat to grow quickly. They may not even set flowers until August and won't start bearing until October. Here, try Hungarian Wax, a tapered pepper picked yellow, or Espanola Improved, a narrow, pointed chile picked green: Both heat up even in mild climates. In the high mountains, you have no choice but to grow peppers in indoor-outdoor containers from start to finish.

In cool spring climates, sow pepper seeds indoors about eight weeks before you plan to set seedlings in the garden--when the soil is thoroughly warm and nights aren't colder than 55. To germinate, seeds need 85 degrees--I wrap them in damp paper towels, seal these in a plastic bag and set the packet in the oven with a pilot light burning and the door propped open. Pepper fanciers with electric ovens must rig something else. If your soil is warm in spring and the growing season long, you can sow seeds where they'll grow. Some seeds will sprout in days, but chile seeds can be erratic and slow.

Bringing along robust seedlings can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. The more you fuss, the better the likelihood of getting the maximum. But remember that peppers have been growing wild for thousands of years.

Pepper plants need warmth. Give them full sun and a black paper or plastic mulch in cool areas. If your summers are blazing, the plants want a deep newspaper mulch and shade in the heat of the day; they can be grown among tomatoes or bean towers. Soil should be just moderately rich, with enough water to keep the soil moist but not wet. Although most plants stay at a manageable foot to 1 1/2 feet tall, some can reach four to five feet high.

* Sources

Fresh--Most markets, especially those with large Asian and Latino clientele.

Seeds--Ancho, Espanola Improved, Italian White Wax from Plants of the Southwest, Agua Fria, Route 6, Box 11A, Santa Fe, NM 87505.

Assorted pea-size chiltepines from Native Seeds/SEARCH, 2509 N. Campbell Ave., #325, Tucson, AZ 85719.

Pequin, Jalapeno Hot and Serrano from Redwood City Seed Co., P.O. Box 361, Redwood City, CA 94064.

Canada-Cheese and Large Red Cherry Hot from Stokes Seeds, Box 548, Buffalo, NY 14240-0548.

Aurora, Bellengrath Gardens Purple, Hungarian Wax and Pretty Hot Purple from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, P.O. Box 170, Earlysville, VA 22936.

Sweet Pickle from Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, SC 29647-0001.

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