Archives For Kasey Bersett Eaves

Are you staring at the glorious color wheel of peppers at your local grocer or farmers’ market and salivating over your peppers growing at home?

If so, you are a pepper lover, and while you hold yourself back from buying every type you see on the shelf, you also know that this feeling is fleeting.

PHOTO: pickled peppers.

Savor the flavor—pickling lets your harvest last longer and tastes amazing.

Those beautiful colors and unusual varieties are in their prime now, when the hot summer days and good strong rains are perfect support for a fruiting pepper plant. In just a month or two, the number of varieties will start to dwindle and your hot spicy recipes will taste bland again.

Fear not! You can preserve that color and flavor easily with pickled peppers! But even Peter Piper couldn’t pick a peck of them. You have to pickle them yourself. Luckily, pickling peppers is perfectly painless.

PHOTO: Use gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Play it smart! Wear gloves when seeding hot peppers.

Note: Be careful when handling hot peppers; don’t rub your eyes as the capsaicin will migrate and can really irritate them (and be detrimental to contact lenses). One way to avoid this is to use disposable gloves. Wash your hands thoroughly after removing the gloves as well.

Hot or not:

Just how spicy do you want your peppers? Go ahead and take a bite. If it’s too hot, it’s not too late. Before you pickle, core your peppers (removing the seeds and inner ribs). This removes some of its spiciest elements. You can also run them under water once they are cored to lessen the heat.

PHOTO: Coring peppers removes some of their "heat."

Coring and removing the ribs and seeds takes a lot of the heat out of the pepper. Like the pepper hot? Leave them in.

If you like it hot, leave your peppers whole. Just poke or slit holes in the side of the pepper to expose the inside to the pickling liquid.

Be sure your pickles are tender, firm, crisp and not showing any spots, wrinkled skin, or decay. Also, wash them well before pickling.

Skin off:

Pickled pepper skin can be unpleasant and rubbery. If you are thinly slicing your peppers (or your peppers are very thin-skinned), you may choose to leave the skin on. However, if you are pickling your peppers whole, remove the skin now by blistering the outside of the pepper on the grill, in the oven, or with the broiler. Once the skin is blistered on all sides, let the pepper cool and the skin will slide right off.

If you don’t want to heat up the kitchen on a summer day, use a vegetable peeler to remove the skin (preserve as much of the flesh as possible).

PHOTO: peppers on a roasting rack.

A brief roast will blister the skins of your peppers, making them slide right off when cool.

PHOTO: skinning peppers with a vegetable peeler.

You can also skin peppers with a peeler.

Sterilize your jars and make pickling liquid.

Use glass jars that can vacuum seal (Mason® or Ball® jars work great). Wash them well, then heat them in the dishwasher or fill with boiling water until the glass is hot. Pour out water just before you fill them with peppers and brine.

A basic brine for a 1 pint jar contains the following:

  • 2 cups vinegar (white distilled vinegar preserves the pepper colors best)
  • 1¼ teaspoons canning or pickling salt
  • ½ tablespoon of sugar or honey (*may be left out if you prefer)

PHOTO: Ingredients for pickled peppers.

Dill, onions, garlic, and peppers: this is going to be awesome.

What to add?

Onion, garlic cloves, peppercorns, mustard seeds, dill seeds, sesame seeds, bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and many other spices can add flavor to the brine. For a true Chicago hot dog, add two garlic cloves and a pinch of mustard seed. For a sweet approach, add 2 tablespoons of honey and some chopped onion. For Thai Chilies, add sesame seed for richer tasting pickles.

TIME OUT TO TASTE TEST!

Take a sliver of your pepper and a bit of your pickling liquid and set to the side. Let the liquid cool and then taste them together. Hold your nose—the vinegar will be strong! This is not exact, but gives you can idea to the flavors you’ve mixed. Adjust your spices as you may need.

PHOTO: packed jars ready for pickle brine.

Leave space to pour the brine in, and for the jars to seal properly.

Pack your jars:

Bring the brine to a boil; reduce heat and cook just long enough for the salt to dissolve in the vinegar (about 2 minutes). Pack your garlic cloves, extra dill, or other ingredients with your peppers into the hot jars, leaving 1 inch of air (called headspace) in the top of the jar. Then, ladle the hot pickling brine over the peppers until the brine is ½ inch from the top of the jar.

Put on your lids and rings and close gently. Don’t turn as tight as you can—you want the lid to be easy to loosen later.

Store:

If you plan to use your peppers right away, put the jars into the fridge for two days and start eating!

If you want to hold on to you peppers longer, you will want to can them. Place your newly packed jars into a canning pot filled with boiling water. The water should sit 1 inch above the jars. Keep the water boiling for 10 minutes. Then lift the jars out of the water and let them cool on a towel (not touching each other). After they have cooled overnight, press the center of the lid down with your finger. If the lid doesn’t move, it has sealed and your peppers will keep for up to a year! If the lid pops up and down, the jar didn’t seal and should go into the fridge for quick eating.

Don’t forget to have fun! Play with different color and flavor combos or chop the peppers for something spreadable. As long as you use the right amount of vinegar and salt, the sky is the limit!

Already perfected pepper pickling? Then make giardiniera!

Use half the recipe above and add carrot, celery, onion, cauliflower, green olives, and garlic to the jars. Also add 2 tablespoons oregano, 1 teaspoon celery seed, 1 teaspoon ground pepper, and 3 cups of olive oil to the pickling liquid. Rather than canning, let the jars ferment in your fridge for at least two days before eating for the best flavor.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

With the Kentucky Derby—and mint julep season—approaching, it’s time to consider mint, a fast-growing, almost wonderfully invasive plant.

PHOTO: Spearmint in bloom.

A refreshing digestive, mint can be harvested more than once in a season; use it fresh in your mojito, or dried as tea.

Mint survives Chicago winters and comes back hardier than ever. Cuttings easily take root and begin propagating anywhere they touch soil. For these reasons, grow mint in a plastic pot, so it doesn’t take over your yard. (The roots are so strong they can crack clay pots.) Mint needs at least four hours of sunlight per day, so pick a sunny spot. It is tolerant of most soils and weather conditions—just be sure it gets some water every week to keep it from becoming bitter.

Maintaining flavor

Mints spread in two ways: by runners and by seed. However, many plants are hybrids, which means the sprouts that shoot up from the broadcast seed will probably not be the same as the plant you bought. To keep that lovely flavor you brought home, trim the plants down when they have flowered, but before they drop seed. This causes the plant to bush out and spread from the roots only.

Choosing your flavor

PHOTO: Mint julep by Bill Bishoff.

Mmm-Mmm mint julep—a Kentucy Derby favorite! Photo by Bill Bishoff

There are more than 600 types of mint on the market. Here are a few that work best in the kitchen:

Kentucky Colonel spearmint (Mentha spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’) got its fame from being the leaf of the classic mint julep, but it’s also perfect for any mint sauce or jelly.

Banana mint (Mentha arvensis) is part of the spearmint family, but grown mostly for its incredible smell. It still maintains a good flavor in cooking, though.

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is most often used for its peppermint oil. Peppermint family plants are strong flavored and best used dried or in small quantities because they contain menthol (think Vicks). They soothe stomachs, but are difficult to cook with fresh.

Variegated pineapple mint is a lovely, sweet-scented peppermint hybrid that makes a great tea. To keep it variegated, you need to cut off any green stems.

Orange mint is the most invasive of all mints, so plant accordingly. It smells sharply of orange peel and can turn a nice burgundy color during winter It also works beautifully in baking recipes.

Easy Mint Simple Syrup

PHOTO: Mint simple syrup.Making simple syrup is a great way to put your mint to good use.

What you need:
½ cup mint of your choice (washed leaves; lightly chopped pieces packed down)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

Directions:
Rinse and drain mint leaves. Bring water to boil in a small pot on the stove. Add mint leaves and sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves, and then turn off heat. Let mixture cool (approximately 30 minutes). Strain off leaves.

Store the syrup in the refrigerator for use within two weeks, or freeze for later use.

To use:
Add this simple syrup in place of sugar in your favorite ice cream, sorbet, lemonade, soda, or cocktail to add balanced mint flavor to any recipe. Even better, add to a dry wine or prosecco for an easy happy hour treat.

Want to take it higher? Freeze the syrups in ice cube trays with a few small leaves and use as a sweetener for tea or cocktails. A glass of bourbon becomes a Mint Julep when you add Mint Syrup ice cubes.

Peppermint Extract

PHOTO: Peppermint extract.Peppermint oil is often used for cleaning, pest control or aromatherapy. What you produce is not the professional essential oil (that takes more time and effort than most of us can muster), it will do the jobs needed.

What you need:
A sealable/airtight jar or glass container
Enough chopped peppermint or peppermint family leaves to fill the jar
Vegetable oil, olive oil or nut oil 

Directions:
Place washed chopped mint leaves in the container (no need to pack; they need to breathe a bit). Heat the oil of your choice (use enough to fill the jar) on the stove in a small pan until it is too hot to touch. Pour the oil over the leaves and seal the container. Let the mixture sit on the counter until it has cooled, then move it to a dark place or cupboard for a week and a half to two weeks. Once it has set, strain out the liquid into a spray bottle.

Uses:
Peppermint oil sprays are said to prevent mold and can be mixed with vinegar to create a simple disinfectant cleaner. They also create a great air freshener, massage oil, or natural control against ants, mosquitos and even rodents.

PHOTO: Tarragon simple syrup and fresh peaches enliven a sparkling wine cocktail.

Add simple syrup to Prosecco and peaches: lovely.

Want to save more of the amazing herbal flavors in your yard this year? Check out our post on Herbal Mixology for ideas.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org