My dad and stepmom had a bumper crop of Thai bird chiles this year. Thai birds are a mouth-punching terror of a chile, so we figured it out quickly when Lucas came in from their garden screaming and wiping frantically at his mouth, Jacob hot on his heels calling “He didn’t listen to me when I said that it wasn’t a tomato!”Suffice to say that Lucas, clinging to me like a monkey and wailing, consumed a big scoop of ice cream in a cone, a glass of milk, and half a loaf of challah bread before the tears slowed.
Thai birds are not for everyone. It remains to be seen if Lucas (who actually likes spicy food very much) ever tries them again. For now, his memory serves: when he saw one on the counter last weekend, he grabbed my arm. “Mommy,” he said.
“That is not a tomato.”
“No Lukey. It is not.”
Alana wrote recently about preservation as a way to stretch things, a way to make them last just a little bit longer, so that they don’t go to waste. Chiles are here in droves now, and they are cheap: the fifteen serranos that I put into this jar cost me less than $1 at the market on Saturday morning. That plus a half hour in my kitchen and a repurposed marmalade jar, and suddenly we are ready to enliven our eggs, our beans, our sandwiches – and last night’s leftovers, too. In fact, I’d submit that if you’re a spicy pickle person, then a few of these pepper-pickles tossed on just about anything can turn it into something like a celebration.
I’ll probably do a few more jars in the next few weeks, to last us through the winter – and perhaps to gift to a friend or two. Chopping, freezing, saucing, pickling; preserving what we can, celebrating as we go.
“What you preserve is the cheeriest memento mori. It is a way to say and mean: of everything that passes, this is what I choose to keep. It is a clear reminder, there for the tasting, of where and when and how you have lived.”
Inspired by Tamar Adler and An Everlasting Meal (specifically, Chapter Eighteen)
You can use any chile you love here; we used serranos. Serranos have a warmth to them, pleasant and a little tingly. It’s not a kick so much as a big squeezy hug of heat. Their slightly bigger size (and less catastrophically spicy seeds) also makes them easier to slice (and seed, if you want to). Left to sit in vinegar, with a pinch of sugar and another of salt, the chile slices pick up an acidic brightness that I find downright addictive. These are not shelf-stable, but will last in the fridge for several months. Over those months, the chiles will continue to mellow under the vinegar’s bright influence, while their brine gets continually spicier. As Adler says, “pickles aren’t just this season’s vegetable, but the vegetable recharged by vinegar.” May it be so!
(Note: any chile will work with the recipe below, but if you do decide to use Thai birds, you can – and probably should – leave them whole.)
Rinse and dry your chiles. (In these photos I used 16 serranos to fill one repurposed Bonne Maman marmalade jar.) Slice them into rings if you want to keep the seeds and their heat, or halve and seed the peppers and then slice them (as I did). Pack the pieces tightly into a clean jar with a tight fitting lid. Once they are packed in, add a pinch of sugar and another of salt, then fill the jar with warmed white vinegar, enough to cover the peppers. Put the lid on tightly, and keep them in the fridge. You can start eating these right away, but they do get better after a few days to think about it.