October 2014
The Herb Farm

Comedy of Errors or Just Kismet?

  “What am I?” Clue: Tabasco pepper plant and what? Last month’s WAI: The vases the pansies are in are small glass vials that contact lenses are shipped in.

This year I planted 128 pepper plants in the main front yard beds, interplanted with flowers of all sorts for a variety of colors. With the almost perfect growing weather and temperatures, they were producing wonderfully all season long. There were two big harvests, plus fresh bells, sweet bananas and jalapeños daily!

At the beginning of August, the peppers were just about ready for the third big harvest. The jalapeños were almost ready for the next big pickling harvest where I would have some red-ripe ones to mix in with the green ones. The sweet banana peppers had been putting on so many fruits that, even with daily harvests, sharing and freezing a few along the way, they were ready for another big pickling harvest in order to make sweet relish and other sweet pickle toppings. (Some folks call it chow-chow, but I never liked that term for such a fine condiment. Makes it sound like dog food.)

Even the habanero chilis were ready for their third picking. I only use those to flavor or heat up my hot chili paste. The Tabascos (and there’s a story there for another time) had been producing so many that I just let most of them turn red-orange ripe before harvesting.

Yes, sir. It was a fine year for the peppers.

Then one morning (or two or three) around the end of August, the local deer herd ran out of apples to forage and started eating the hostas. Then they ate the eggplants and tomatoes! That wasn’t such a big deal as they had started to wane in production.

But, when they started eating the tops out of my chili plants, it really got me going! This was the best pepper growing season that I could remember for several years. These were my prizes … and the deer were eating them! Some of this year’s crop could have been in the county fair! I was proud!

The Squeezo is set up to mill the chilis. It’s a wonderful invention. The cooked chilis go in the top hopper, seeds and skins come out the end and the sauce/paste goodness flows into the bowl.  

There wasn’t even a remedy, short of exterminating them, that could stop these bandits. But, I watched and learned about their eating habits. It was interesting that they enjoyed the foliage and stems, but weren’t interested in the fruits. At first, I thought I could deal with that and just let them enjoy all the leaves they wanted, as long as they left the fruits to mature. Even considered growing more peppers for the deer to enjoy. It seemed to be a good idea just to let them top-prune the plants for me. That, in theory, would make the plants bush more and produce more fruits.

Well, that was one of the best short-lived bad ideas I’d had in a long time.

The deer, and their non-selective foliage pruning, prompted an early third harvest. The Alabama summer sun isn’t kind to chili fruits without some foliage to shade them at least part of the day. More than 200 red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers had to be harvested right away with spots of sun-scald on their tops. Those, along with nearly 100 mature cow-horn chilis and several others of that size, were picked immediately. The smaller peppers were harvested before the sun got to them. Besides that, all of them had to be processed within 24 hours in order to prevent rapid over-ripening and rotting, so you know I was busy!

The bell peppers were quickly prepared for freezing by cutting away the sun-scald spots and coring them to remove stems and seeds. (Reminds me of a [R.I.P.] Jesse Winchester song – "Twigs and Seeds.") They were sliced into rings and chipped pieces, and laid out on baking sheets and stacked in layers on wax paper. Then the single-level layers of prepared peppers were placed into the freezer until frozen.

(Hint: Remove the frozen peppers and place them in freezer bags. Since the pepper rings are individually frozen, you can remove as many as you need for cooking without having to thaw a whole bag.)


  The seeds and skins are dried on jerky sheets in the dehydrator to make pepper flakes/sprinkles.

There was little time for the rest, so I gave all of the ripe jalapeños to some friends down the way. The remaining chilis had to be processed for sauce/paste in a hurry. They were prepared by removing blemished areas, stemming, removing seeds from the seediest ones (such as cayenne) and then chopped into about one- to two-inch pieces.

After the remainder of the hot peppers were prepped for the next step, they went into a 20-quart stainless-steel stock pot, where I covered them with cold water and added about 2 cups of granulated sugar, ¼ cup kosher salt, ¼ cup minced garlic and a pinch of ground nutmeg. The mixture was then stirred thoroughly and placed into the refrigerator to macerate for about 6-7 days.

Next, it’s time to cook it down. This is usually my favorite part because I do it in the late evening, outdoors on the propane cooker, after all the chores are done. Sometimes a neighbor will come over with a new dish or drink he/she has prepared and we’ll just watch the pot.

The mixture cooks at a high boil for about two hours with the pot lid cocked to one side to prevent boil over. Then the pot is watched for rapid cook down. The volume goes from 20 quarts or 5 gallons to about 8 quarts at the end. The final hour of the four-hour cooking process is most critical, especially the last 30 minutes. Stirring is essential! Do not at any time allow the chilis to stick to the bottom of the pot or scorch. That will ruin your season’s harvest and you’ll have to wait until next year.

You will want to reduce the volume and allow the peppers to truly pot-roast in order to pick up the chipotle flavor without roasting the chilis before creating your chili-wort.

When they have cooked down, the chilis will be soft and the liquid will have a brownish-red tint to it. You should then be able to smell the roasting in the pot.

Smell that? It’s ready. Let the pot cool to room temperature, then place your cooked chilis into a glass or stainless container. Cover and refrigerate overnight. (You actually have about a three-day window to complete the process as long as the peppers are kept refrigerated.)

The final process from this point has changed due to unforeseen circumstances.

In a perfect world: Place portions of the prepared chilis into your blender and puree until … well … pureed. I mean pureed until the last seed piece and skin have become undetectable in your paste mixture. It should all be consistently the same. If it’s too thick, add a little vinegar (1 teaspoon at a time). You will want the consistency to be somewhere between tomato paste and humus. After you have processed all of your chilis, taste your creation. Does it need salt? Sugar? Now is the time to adjust.

My experience was very different this year. From the time I planted to the harvest and final processing, it was all just weird. The plants were beautiful and grew magnificently all season long. So what about the deer issue just before the third harvest? I dealt with it and the sun-scald, too. The plants grew their foliage back and started blooming again and a fourth harvest is expected before frost.

The last major issue in the chili saga of 2014 is this: I put a portion of the chilled mixture into my blender and it started to whine. Then it began to clunk. Then it began to smoke! I unplugged it at about the time it had drawn enough amperage to blow the 15-amp breaker and create a small fire within the housing of the appliance. I extinguished the small flame by removing the critical carafe of many hours of loving-labor and placing the housing, by its unplugged cord, into the sink.

R.I.P. to my 35-year-old harvest gold Hamilton B—ch blender.

After the ozone smoke cleared, with the breaker reset, I found my newer model Osterizer (1989 or so) and transferred the mixture into the new carafe.

I guess it had become lonely and felt unloved, because the blender didn’t catch fire. It just quit working altogether after about a minute of use. I’ll take it apart later and try to determine if it’s fixable.

Change of plan: I set up the wonderful gadget, Squeezo, and processed the lot manually. The only difference is a slight flavor change because of the elimination of seeds and skins.

No matter. I dried the skins and seeds to make pepper flakes for pizzas, etc., and the chili sauce is hot and yummy! I shall call this batch, Herb’s Hurt Paste/Level Hell-3. It’s hot! Perfect for your Halloween celebrations! Try it on cheese and crackers, or use it to heat up a Bloody Mary!

Be sure to pressure can this product for storage the same way you would can potatoes.

I don’t hunt or kill, but I do eat. My neighbors across the street have an open permit here to harvest as many as our freezers will hold (deer, that is).

It’s spook-and-boo season and I’m ready for some pumpkin pie!

Until next time, remember to watch your salt and sugar, drink plenty of pure water, and breathe in and out!

Thanks for reading!

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