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

October 05, 1995|SYLVIA THOMPSON

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.

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