15. Packing Heat

Picking Peppers to Pickle

A few weeks ago our goddaughter was over for backyard pizza and she asked if I had any of my hot sauce to spare. Apparently I had given her some in the past; she loved it and always wanted more. It must have been some time ago because I haven’t made hot sauce in years and have absolutely no memory of giving her any. But I must have, because typically what I do after I make hot sauce is give it away.

The first foods that I can remember being hot for hot’s sake were the “three-alarm” chili kit my sister and I bought for my father one Christmas and the Buffalo wings that started becoming popular in Toronto in the mid-1980s. From there I moved on to Pad Thai at the BamBoo and sausage sandwiches topped with incendiary peppers from Gert’s Deli in the St. Lawrence Market. I have a distinct memory of meeting my sister on her lunch break and sitting in St. James Park, weeping in pain as the heat from the peppers would not relent, but going back in until the sandwich was gone.

Somewhere along the line I stopped being able to eat very hot food. Or more precisely, I could still eat it, just at my peril. In the past decade, there have been times when I haven’t even realized that what I am eating is terribly spicy. It doesn’t register in my mouth, but suddenly there is sweat pouring from the crown of my head and my glasses fog up. And when that happens I know I am doomed.

Thankfully, (for me and for you, dear reader) my suffering only amounts to some stomach pain; it feels like I’m trying to digest a shuriken, a ninja throwing star. It’s enough to keep me from sleeping and the next day I often feel like I’ve been beaten up.

When I started gardening, I was fascinated by all of the super-hot seedling varieties I could grow. Ghost peppers were the hot (ha!) thing during the first summer. Then Trinidad Scorpions and Carolina Reapers. But also Chocolate 7-Pots and Nagas.

A post shared by @the_mkt

The year after the peppers above was the last year I made hot sauce. Ultra-hot peppers, as the name implies, are on a whole other level than the hottest habanero you can pick up at the grocery store. Tasting them to find the right blend with salt and vinegar was impossible for me. Taste. Blend. Taste. There’s no difference. I could dump in a litre of vinegar and all there would be is pain. There was no way I could ever enjoy what I’d made, so I gave it away to people who could enjoy it.

And so I stopped. (I also lost the dropper lids for the case of hot sauce bottles I’d bought, which meant the only doses that could be dispensed were lethal ones and I couldn’t afford the liability insurance.)

I don’t remember ever giving our goddaughter one of those bottles. I would like to think I had more sense than to give that kind of sauce to a child. Maybe I gave it to her father and he shared it. That seems more likely.

Anyway, when Bea asked about getting more hot sauce, I decided it was time to try making some again, just not with peppers rated at over a million Scoville units. And as I hadn’t done any fermenting since the start of the pandemic, it seemed like a good opportunity. You can also make hot sauce by emuslifying chiles with salt and vinegar, but I prefer the more complex flavours that fermentation produces.

I ordered a pound each of peppers I could both taste repeatedly and afford. ($17+/lb for Thai chiles seemed too much, especially because they usually do a number on me.) My plan was to ferment each type separately and then blend them to find the best mixture.

A colander full of just-washed, very large Padron peppers
Enormous Padron peppers from my sister. They’re usually a little bigger than a man’s thumb. I wasn’t going to get a chance to cook with them, so they are fermenting as well. I’ve never heard of Padron sauce. We’ll see how it goes.

I tossed each variety into the food processor with 5% of its weight in salt. That’s enough to prevent any bad bacteria from growing without also killing the good bacteria, especially in this hot weather and for the month or so I plan to let them sit. Each type of pepper went into their own separate, sterilized jars, topped with some plastic wrap and a glass weight in order to keep everything submerged in the brine, drawing the water out of the peppers. Then I tucked them away in a fairly cool and dark space for their controlled rot into deliciousness.

But I regretted not having more red chiles for the sauce. Everything aside from the habaneros looked and tasted very green. A few days later I was walking through a nearby Fortino’s and spotted some fresh looking red chiles that were just labelled “Long hot peppers.” The price was right, so I grabbed about a pound and half and processed them into a salty mash as well.

Now there’s nothing much to do but wait. The jars are behind my desk in the basement. I’ll try to take a look at them each day to see how the fermentation is progressing and to make sure nothing nasty gets a foothold. In a future issue I will take you through the steps of blending and bottling. Hopefully those drip-tops will turn up in the meantime.

If you’re interested in fermenting your own peppers or other things I write about in future issues, I’m going to start posting those details to my Instagram Stories and Highlights. You can check them out here.

( And, of course, you can also comment below or email me and I will do my best to respond promptly. )1

What I’m consuming…

  • Chicken Yassa We were listening to an episode of The Sporkful podcast and Dr. Jessica B. Harris, the author of High on the Hog, began describing one of her favourite dishes from Senegal, Chicken Yassa. It’s chicken marinated in lemon juice, onions, and Habanero. The chicken is first grilled to give it colour and then simmered with the onions and marinade, along with more Habanero, Dijon mustard, carrots, and green olives before being served over rice.

    None of those ingredients are new to me, of course, but I have never had them in this combination. It was very bright and the habanero added a tolerable amount of heat. Grilling the chicken, instead of more typically browning it in the pot, added a terrific layer of flavour. Of course, I have no way of knowing how close I got to the real thing. I guess I’ll just have to try to find it in the city.

  • Waska Peruvian Chicken Speaking of tolerably spicy chicken, we ordered last week on Ambassador from this pop-up using the kitchen at Dovercourt House. A very nicely spiced rotisserie chicken is the backdrop for a trio fantastic sauces: Chimichurri, Huancaina, and Rocoto Pepper. My knowledge of Peruvian food is non-existent (although I did have a very memorable meal at Astrid y Gaston’s since-closed Mexico City branch), but I do know when I like the taste of something. The use of chiles like Aji Amarillo in the Huanacaina sauce was excellent—flavourful without being overwhelmingly hot. Both beef and cheese empanadas were also terrific, as was the single, tiny Alfajor (shortbread cookies sandwiching a layer of dulce de leche) for dessert. Their menu seems to be adding new items regularly.

  • Priya Krishna’s article about the ethnic aisle. Lots to unpack about why it exists and whether it should. I came into it thinking I knew how I felt and finished it much less sure.

What’s on the Menu…

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For even more details, check out Tim Chin’s article at Serious Eats, which helped me to fill some gaps in my knowledge.

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Unless it doesn’t turn out well and I have to scrub this item from the archives and convince you it never existed.