That’s why they pickle cucumbers and cabbage up there. It’s a question of surviving the winter. But down in the sunkist land of my people, you pickle because it makes things delicious. It’s a matter of art. Taste their pickled cucumber and our pickled eggplant, or their pickled beets next to our pickled cherry peppers, and you will taste the difference between preservation of life and appetite for it.
This is a good time as well to deliver my diatribe against that materialistic historicism that explains things away by reducing their origin in being to their origin in time. Your parents may well be the reason you came to be when you did, but they’re not the reason you keep being. Likewise, saying people began pickling fresh foods to preserve them because they didn’t have refrigeration doesn’t expalin why they’ve kept pickling since. Its origin in time is not the reason for its being. The historicist explanation that Jews don’t eat pork because Moses knew it prone to spoil in the desert would be as trivial as it is true, if in fact true. Even if a fact, the reduction to it of the religious motives that Jews with refrigerators have for not eating pork trivializes it, not to mention all the rabbinical ink spilled over it.
In every case, it’s sophistry to represent material facts as evidence. They’re at best matter for explanation. Material facts are as mute as they are brute—they don’t explain themselves or anything else. To explain visible facts requires an understanding that sees what is not visible, the correlations and causal relations that explain the facts. It’s a mind with a question about them that selects and connects facts to explain them
So why do my people pickle cherry peppers? To say that they didn’t have refrigerators back in the day is as unquestionable as unexplanatory. So what to say instead? We could fall back on the question of why people like vinegar so much, but a web-search turns up material facts so trivial as not to be fit matter even for mockery, let alone explanation. So we must fall back on ourselves, gentle Reader, and reflect. Reason can discern the reason, for the reason remains ever present, though the beginning be long past.
Well, there’s something sweet about the hotness of cherry peppers. Though their color burns bright to the eye, their fire burns mild on the tongue. Their generous flesh seems likewise temperately sweet, neither cloying nor banal. In a word, cherry peppers seem friendly. Maybe that’s what gives you the idea of introducing them to other favorite flavors, the savoury and the salty, on one hand, in the form of seasoned bread crumbs; and the tangy, on the other hand, in the form of vinegar. All that hooking up turns out to be a very good idea. Suddenly in one plop you have a world of tastes—the sweet, the spicey, the savory, the tangy—riffing in four-part harmony. The little cherry bomb popped into the cavern of your mouth explodes a cosmic array of taste sensations.
That’s why we keep stuffing and pickling cherry peppers.
Now, appearances can be deceiving for an eye untrained by a mind. Don’t mistake for what I am describing here the jars of cherry peppers to be found at Italian deli’s and Gentile supermarkets across America. They bear no relation to my mother’s, unless perhaps degeneration is a relation. My mother’s cherry peppers, lovingly filled with prudently seasoned bread crumbs, are each an appetizing work of art for an antipasto platter or lunch plate. The sort at the store, in contrast, are at best fit to serve as condiments to enliven the fatty meats of an oversized sandwich. These unfortunates have been brined in a vinegar brine so strong as to kill not only the microbes but the peppers. Sometimes the brined cadavars are stuffed with a piece of provolone cheese and slice of prosciutto, which seems to me as demeaning of the cheese and ham as of the pepper. Sometimes, to add insult to assault, sugar is added to the vinegar for a sweet-‘n-sour flavor that quite obliterates the native sweentess of the cherry pepper. Such embalmed peppers offer to the insensate palate of gluttonous craving the ever sharper tactile sensations its progressive blunting demands. My mother’s peppers are rather for palates that take a contemplative pleasure in discriminating and harmonizing tastes.
I learned the hard way not to put a jar of my mother’s cherry peppers out in the midst of Gentiles. Their wonder seemed to overwhelm their manners, for they ate the whole jar in a single sitting. It took but one time for such barbarian voracity to teach me the stinginess of its mother-climes: I now keep the jar secreted away at the back of my pantry, and portion out only one pepper each for a short list of worthies, at special dinner parties, with much ‘ado. I even sometimes lie and say I’m giving them my last, for fear the ravenous rack me for more.
It was typically in the weeks leading up to Labor Day that my parents combed the markets for the best Roma tomatoes to puree and can for the year, and when they came upon a bushel of cherry peppers, they would snatch it up for pickling. My mother learned about stuffing pickled cherry peppers from friends, but over the years she kept tweaking the recipe—with with my father prodding—in the direction of less vinegar and less boiling. She settled on a brine of 1 part white vinegar to 3 parts water, and boiling the peppers for only a minute at a full boil, as the peppers soften over time in the jar (under oil), and she doesn’t like them to get too soft.
I’m not sure what to tell you about this practice. Reading on the web, one gets the impression that so little contact with so little vinegar would not suffice to kill off microbes to safe levels, and the food could get deadly poisonous. All I can say is that I have never known my mother’s pickled peppers to sicken anyone, let alone kill them. It does sometimes provoke sibling rivalry, but that’s more a moral matter. Maybe Gentiles just don’t know how to do Italian pickling right, and when they get themselves sick, they blame us. So, if you’re a Gentile, maybe you better get an Italian to pickle your peppers for you.
Alternatively, I have a cousin who is a doctor, and she has a patient from our region of Italy, Campania, who brought my cousin a really delicious jar of stuffed cherry peppers. It turns out that this woman doesn’t boil the peppers at all, but soaks them overnight in a brine of half white-vinegar and half water, which was the proportion in my mother’s orignial boiling recipe. The peppers come out rather crunchy at first, but soften over time in the jar under oil. My mother tells me that when my aunt made it this way, her husband loved it, but her son not, so now she has to pickle them both ways, to keep peace in the family. In any case, this practice of brining overnight in a half-‘n-half cold brine is consistent with pickling practices approved by unverified authorities on the web, if you like to play it safe.
Another interesting difference is that my while my mother’s bread-crumb stuffing has chopped anchovy in it, this other Campanian woman lays a whole anchovy across each pepper, stuffs with seasoned bread crumbs, and then folds the overhanging anchovy ends over the top of the stuffing. This could be a good way to restrict their appeal, as people who think they don’t like anchovies will leave more for the rest of us.
Now it seems that where there are Italians, there are cherry peppers, but not where not. I found 15 cherry peppers at a farm stand in Delaware farm country when driving down the Mid-Atlantic from Brooklyn, but I couldn’t find any at all in my colonial town on the Bay. One farmer at the city Farmer’s Market said he wasn’t able to sell them the one year when he grew them only because Whole Foods said they wanted them, but then didn’t buy them. As I’ve said said, you can find them by the bushel in South Brooklyn and South Jersey.
Brining the Peppers
The possibility that these 15 cherry peppers are the last ones I will ever be able to find in the farmlands of my exile put me inexplicably in a mood of wild innovation. My mother said that these days she brings 3 parts water & 1 part white vinegar to a boil and boils the peppers for only a minute. However, haunted by memories of overdetermined discussions each year of whether my mother had boiled the peppers too long or not; and figuring that ‘too long or not’ had as much to do with the ripeness of the peppers as the boiling time; I thought my cousin’s slow overnight soak in a half-‘n-half cold brine was likely to give one more opportunity to monitor more even results.
I not only went with the cold ovenight brine—which I postulated to mean 12 hours—but I also decided to use white-wine vinegar, and also to aromatize my brine with a couple cloves of garlic, several bay leaves, and a palmful of black peppercorns; I also figured it needed a tablespoon of salt, though my mother forgot to mention that.
Be forewarned that you have to wear gloves to trim the cherry peppers of stem and seeds before putting them in the brine. Though the hotness of cherry peppers is relatively moderate to taste, it is burning to touch. If it gets into your skin, you’ll be losing a night’s sleep. You want to cut only a small circle close around the stem to remove it, and then poke your gloved finger in to scrape out the seeds. Now my mother insists that she has always removed all the seeds, but I have a clear memory of overdetermined discussions each year of whether the peppers had come too hot or not because my mother had left too many seeds. So I don’t trust my mother’s memory, and I was tempted at least to leave some seeds to float in the brine water, and I regret that I didn’t. I will try it next time.
I found another interesting suggestion on the Web for brining the peppers, namely bringing ½-water and ½-vinegar to a boil with aromatics, and then pouring the hot brine over the peppers in a bowl and letting them steep in it for 10 minutes. In light of my mother’s practice, I’d be tempted to try steeping sometime with a brine of 2 parts water to 1 part vinegar and 5 minutes of steeping. Similarly, in light of my father’s practice of cutting store-bought wine-vinegar with half as much wine, I’d be tempted some time to try the cold ovenight soak with a brine of 1 part white wine vinegar, ½-part white wine, and 1 part water, to mitigate the acidity a bit.
Any which way you do it, you have to drain your cherry peppers and lay them out upside down on paper towels to dry off before you stuff them.
Stuffing the Peppers
For 15 largish cherry peppers, I figured a heaping teaspoon of breadcrumbs for each pepper; and for every 3 peppers, a medium clove of garlic and a large anchovy, but next time I wouldn’t hesitate to use more anchovy. I used small salted capers that I soaked in white balsamic vinegar to desalinate them, so they didn’t need chopping.
I must have used a level tablespoon of capers for every 5 peppers. I sprinkled the breadcrumbs liberally with oregano—was it as much as a tablespoon? Then I drizzled just enough extra virgin olive oil to work the breadcrumbs with a fork up into a fluffy meal.
Once I had all the peppers snugly laid in, I covered them well with regular olive oil, tapping the jar a few times against the counter to ensure air pockets fill in with oil. The idea is that the oil smothers mercenary microbes by keeping air out. So the peppers must at all times remain well covered with oil, and be extracted from the jar only with a perfectly clean utensil; and leftovers must never be returned to the jar. With such good hygeine, the pickled peppers can be stored in the pantry. You could also refrigerate them for good measure, but then the oil will coagulate into a cloudy gel and will need time at room temperature to melt back into a clear liquid.
The peppers typically need at least a month to mellow both in texture and taste. They usually start showing up on antipasto platters during the winter holidays. But I ate most of mine all by myself in the first month. I told myself that they hadn’t come out quite right, their flesh a bit too crunchy, their skin a bit chewey, but that didn’t stop me from reaching for one daily, and when I served number 12 to a Greek and number 14 to a Gentile—both of whom had had my mother’s before—they both exclaimed, That is delicious!
Well, all gone now—and that’s no lie.
Pickling Eggplant Fingers
We pickle strips of eggplant in the same way as cherry peppers, brining them with vinegar and storing them under oil (sott'olio), although with a lot more fuss and bother than for cherry peppers. The extra fuss and bother comes from not only all the trimming and cutting up of the eggplant, but also a pre-treatment with salt. And then after all that fuss and bother, you end up with a condiment-winger rather than a solo-appetizer. But they're delicious, whether winging other antipasti or moisturizing a sandwich. I also sometimes mix them with fresh roasted red peppers for a side-dish to roasted meats.
But I need a disclaimer for this recipe: I know my mother's recipe well, but I've never tried it myself. She keeps me supplied, so I haven't needed to. Now you know my policy with her is, "Trust, but verify." But I haven't verified, so I'm only as trustworthy as she is. Enough said.
You only want to pickle firm eggplant, because it softens in the jar over time. That means getting the little eggplants often labeled "Italian eggplant" and sold at double the price of bigger and softer varieties. So there's not just extra fuss and bother, but extra expense too. But they're delicious.
My mother says she cuts the peeled eggplant up into strips "thick like a finger," because they shrink a lot when boiled. But before boiling, she first salts them in layers in a pot as she cuts them up, and they shed a dark liquid presumed to be bitter, in which she lets them steep until she's done. Then she drains them of that liquid and leaves them in a colander under a weight (with occasional tossing) to squeeze them dry. When they're squeezed dry in a hour or two, she brings to the boil a brine of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water, and boils the eggplant for a minute or two, just to blanch them. Then she drains them, and puts them back in the colander under a weight (with occasional tossing) for a couple of hours, to squeeze out the boiling liquid, and then lays them out in a flat layer to air-dry some more. She says you want as little moisture as possible in the jar.
Now, many Italian eggplant recipes call for pre-salting eggplant to disembitter them, but I've adopted my Sicilian aunt's practice of brining them in water salty as the sea. I've always assumed that the traditional dry-salting dehydrates them as well as disembittering them, and that my aunt's way of disembittering them in a salt-brine instead keeps them plump and moist. But then I read some science thing that claims soaking things in salty water dehydrates them. Can that be true? Can soaking something in water dry it out? That runs so counter to common sense that only a blind faith in science could assent to it. I wish I could believe it, because the soaking in salt water is a lot easier, and has the very desirable effect of bleaching the eggplant. When I proposed this alternative to my mother, she thought it was a good idea, and she's going to try the salt-brine next time. If I try it, I'll also try spinning the eggplant dry rather than draining it under a weight.
I recall a recipe of Marcella Hazan's in which you salt the eggplant in layers and stuff it into a jar, which you then place upside down on a smaller jar to press liquid out of the eggplant, gravity abetting. Then without any further brining with vinegar, you cover the dehyrated eggplant with oil. If I'm remembering all that right, it sounds wrong. Although it's true that internet definitions of pickling say that salt brining is an alternative to brining with vinegar, raw eggplant just sounds unappetizing. I've never in my life been tempted to plop a raw piece of eggplant into my mouth while chopping it up, as I might a disc of zucchini or strip of red pepper. Eggplant just doesn't count as food until you cook it somehow. I'd classify any sort of raw eggplant as New Age food, like raw kale shredded into salads, or new "salt-water" pickles, or strawberry risotto. I don't deny this sort of stuff is innovative, just that that's a good thing.
So, your eggplant, once salted dry, then boiled in a vinegar brine, then squeezed dry again, now needs seasoning, with pinches of oregano all over, and studding here and there with thick slices of raw garlic, and a little hot red pepper or two. (When I try this recipe sometime, I will surely aromatize my boiling brine, as for cherry peppers, with garlic cloves, bay leaves, black peppercorns, and little hot red peppers, and leave it to my nose to decide afterward whether or not raw garlic and hot pepper is needed in the jar as well. I'll also taste to be sure it doesn't need a little more salt before going into the jar.)
Stuff your seasoned eggplant tight into a jar, and cover completely with regular olive oil, tapping the jar against the counter to encourage the oil to displace air pockets. As with the cherry peppers, the pickled eggplant usually needs at least a month to soften and mellow, often coming out for the winter holidays. And as with the pickled cherry peppers, they must always be kept completely covered with olive oil, and retrieved with a completely clean utensil, and leftovers must never be returned to the jar. With such good hygiene, they can be kept in a cupboard. And they'll be delicious.
I went up to Brooklyn for Columbus Day weekend, which gave me the opportunity to rack my mother with questions about pickling eggplant, as well as conduct an experiment or two to boot. Here's what came out under direct cross-examination and experimental verification:
1) Under direct cross, it came out that when she said the small eggplant they call "Italian" eggplant at the store, she meant the really small eggplant they call "baby" eggplant at the store. In any case, ideally you want very firm, very fresh, seedless flesh. When I told her that little white eggplant are really hard and might be worth a try, she said no for no good reason, never having seen one. She had two jars on hand that she had made, one from smaller eggplant that came out a light color she approved of, and one from a 6" variety that was a darker color she disapproved of, and I liked the bite and color of the latter better. So, you go figure.
2) As for cutting the eggplant "thick like a finger," I made her cut some before my eyes. First she cut longitudinal slabs, then crosswise the same thickness, to get fat fingers. She thinks what she cut was thick as her index finger, and I think more like my pinkie. I just measured my pinkie for the sake of this postscript, and it measured 3/4-in. wide, which looks wrong to me—I'd say what she cut was more like 1/2-in. wide. But she said, "You cut it however you like," which is her fall-back instruction for everything, so that she doesn't have to take responsibility for any outcome. I know you want to contradict me and says it's rather an endearing humility, but if that's the case, then I counter that the humble are stinting of their wisdom and won't give up their secrets to you without racking.
3) Under cross-examination, it came out that she herself doesn't lay out the eggplant after having drained under a weight in a colander, but only said so because she thought others do that. So she sort of lies too, if only in the sense of mental reservation, diversionary deflection, verbal equivocation, or a combination of these, in a spirit of extenuating self-deprecation but with nonetheless deceptive effect, even if not intention. That's why you need me, gentle Reader, and I need unrelenting cross-examination and experimental verification.
4) I want to take back what I said in the post above about pickling raw eggplant—which is what she had said to me over the phone—namely that raw pickled eggplant sounds unappetizing, that surely it needs boiling, if only a bit. Well, we tried doing it raw and we liked it. I did what I suggested I would above, namely, I first soaked the eggplant-fingers in a salt-brine all afternoon (1/4-cup salt/1 qt. water); then I squeezed the fingers dry with my hand and put them overnight in a vinegar-brine of 1-part white wine vinegar, 1-part water, & 1/2-part white wine, with a couple of halved garlic cloves and halved hot red peppers, several bay leaves, & a dozen black peppercorns. However, at one point my mother inexplicably drained my experiment, and after throwing a fit about that, I had to make a new batch of brine without the white wine, since I had run out, so that part of the experiment is inconclusive.
In any case, next morning we drained the eggplant under a weight for a couple of hours. They looked, smelled, and tasted good--and in contrast to my mother's par-boiled stuff, they were good-chewy as opposed to bad-chewy—but they were wetter than my mother thought good, which she blamed on the age of the eggplant, not the brine. For some inarticulable reason, she thinks it imperative the eggplant be as dry as possible before going under oil in the jar. She suggested rolling them in a kitchen towel. I first spun them in a salad spinner, and was surprised how much water came out (which made me think we should have spun them from the start), and then I rolled them in a kitchen towel for good measure.
5) When it came time to dress the pickled eggplant in a bowl, I used fresh garlic because I had thrown the brining garlic away, but next time I would keep it. I added oregano, but not more salt, because my mother said not to, but to my taste, she was wrong about that. Over her objection, I used extra-virgin olive oil to dress them in the bowl, and regular olive oil to cover them in the jar, and I think I was right about that too.
7) Speaking of being right, even my diatribe proved right. It turns out that in Sacco they only pickled small amounts of eggplant and ate it up right away, so that there was no concern about keeping the eggplant al dente enough to last the winter, a concern apparently born of American prosperity's multiplicative bushels. So it was not only in truth but in fact all about its being delicious: Buon appetito!
6) As for the final product of my experiment, I'm pleased with its toothsomeness. It's acidity is not overbearing, but I suspect I'll like the mitigating addition of 1/2-part white wine next time, when my mother's not around to meddle with my brine. A little more salt in the dressing will also be good, as oil likes salt as much as I do, and my mother has grown afraid of salt because of high blood pressure. But you, gentle Reader, do it "however you like it".
As for my mother, once my cross-examination got out of her what we were looking for (yes, we, you as much as I, your henchman, gentle Reader), she bristled that I got up "schtortu" that morning—literally "distorted", but maybe less literally cross? You know how I love a pun.
Hot Cherry Peppers Pickled "Sott'olio"
* Prepare enough brine to cover: half vinegar and half water, a couple of cracked garlic cloves, several bay leaves, and about a teaspoon's worth of black peppercorns, plus plenty of salt. Soak the peppers in the brine for 12 hours. (Alternatively, you could bring the brine to a rolling boil, and boil the peppers for a minute or two.)
* Remove the peppers from the brine and drain them upside down on paper towels, letting them dry off completely.
* Enhance seasoned breadcrumbs (1 teaspoon per pepper?) with very finely chopped garlic & anchovy (1 clove & anchovy per 2/3 peppers?), capers, and oregano. Moisten the breadcrumb mixture with just enough extra virgin olive oil to work them up with a fork into a fluffy meal.
* Use an espresso spoon to stuff each pepper with the breadcrumbs, pressing the breadcrumbs firmly in with a finger.
* Lay the stuffed peppers very snugly into a jar, and cover completely with regular olive oil, tapping the jar to let oil fill in all air pockets.
* The peppers will be at their best after a month or two of mellowing. They can be kept in a cupboard safely only if they are always completely covered with olive oil; and if only a perfectly clean utensil is used to extract them from the jar; and if leftovers are never returned to the jar.
* Drain the eggplant and put them in a colander under a weight for an hour or two, occasionally tossing. Alternatively, squeeze dry with your hands and spin dry in a salad spinner.
* Now prepare a vinegar-bring of 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water (and perhpas 1/2-part white wine); halved garlic cloves; halved hot red peppers; bay leaves; and black peppercorns. Either brine the eggplant fingers overnight, or else blanch them--when the vinegar brine is at a rolling boil, add the eggplant and bring the vinegar brine back to a boil for a minute or two.
* Again, squeeze and spin dry the eggplant, and put them in a colander under a weight for an hour or two. If they still seem too moist, you could also roll them in a kitchen towel and lay them out in a layer to air dry some more.
* In a bowl or pot mix the eggplant with very thick slices of garlic, a few whole hot red peppers, oregano, extra-virgin olive oil, and perhaps some salt.
* Stuff the eggplant snugly into a jar and cover them completely with regular olive oil. They will be at their best after a month of two of mellowing.
* The pickled eggplant may be stored in a cupboard if you take care to keep it always completely covered with olive oil; to extract portions only with a completely clean utensil; and to never return leftovers to the jar.