I have a friend — I’ll call him Grasshopper — who used to appear in my kitchen whenever pickled peppers were being served. That is, at every meal, since almost anything you eat can be improved with a nibble of pickled pepper. And if there wasn’t a meal to eat the peppers with, Grasshopper would simply delve into my jars with fork or fingers, rapidly transferring the contents to his mouth. He could polish off half a jar in one standing.
Grasshopper’s hunger for pickles only grew, reaching the point that for any obligation I owed him he wanted payment in full quart jars. I grew nervous about the fact that, if given the chance, Grasshopper would eat all of my precious pickled items.
So I convinced him to make his own damn pickled peppers. Just cut the tops off the peppers, slice them if you wish, pack them in sterilized quart jars to which a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of mixed yellow and black mustard seeds have already been added. If you want to add carrots, cauliflower, or garlic to the jars, go ahead. Heat up a 50/50 mix of water and cider vinegar, adding enough sugar to the heating brine to blunt the taste of the vinegar. Pour this brine into the jars, and process 10 minutes in a boiling waterbath.
Grasshopper took my advice and ran with it, augmenting my teachings with recipes gleaned in books and online. Then he began branching out into other areas of food preservation, and doing quite well at it. I’d stop by his house and get treated to deer jerky, morel paste, plum sauce, oyster-mushroom chowder and, of course, an endless selection of pickled products. Now he was making me nervous for different reasons. I was looking over my shoulder at the bar that he was raising.
One day I got a call from a distraught Grasshopper, who had made about 15 quarts of pickled peppers but had forgotten to add sugar to the brine. I told him he had three options: (1) do nothing; (2) open up all the jars, add sugar to each one, and then re-waterbath them: or (3) simply add sugar to each jar upon opening it.
The problem with option No. 1 is that they won’t taste so good. Option No. 2 sucks because the extra cooking will make the pickles soggy. Option No. 3 isn’t so great either, as the sugar won’t have time to permeate the pickled items. He was F-ed, we realized.
Then I got another phone call, telling me to come over immediately. When I arrived, Grasshopper greeted me with a jar of “Seven Dragon Sauce,” a hot sauce he made by pouring off the vinegar from his half-pickled peppers (he estimates there were about seven varieties of pepper in his jars) and putting the peppers in a blender with sugar. The resulting paste was fantastic, spicy and flavorful, truly a triumphant rescue of a mistake. But for Grasshopper this was just the beginning.
“I wanted peanut sauce,” he explained.
With a quart of Seven Dragon Sauce in a pot (he’d already canned the rest), he proceeded to add 2 to 3 pounds of fresh-ground peanut butter.
“It was pretty solid at this point,” he explained, “so I added water to loosen it up. Then salt and brown sugar to taste.”
He then added three cans of coconut milk, a whole bottle of soy sauce, three chopped onions, and a large piece of chopped ginger that he’d sautéed together in peanut oil.
When it was bubbling like a Yellowstone mud puddle, Grasshopper tasted his sauce and found it slightly lacking, so he added two more cans of coconut milk, then some chopped cilantro and mint. He added water, making it “too thin” in consistency, before cooking it down slowly until it was “just right.”
He sent me on my way with a sample, about half of which I ate with my fingers as I drove home. The other half I took hunting last weekend. During a midday break I tossed it, along with some minced raw garlic, into a batch of boiled rice noodles. I took full credit for the recipe, and I was a star camp that day.