Preserving and processing hot peppers

Above: dried hot peppers

As we are still harvesting an abundance of hot peppers, we must think of ways to use up all this bounty before it spoils – or else preserve it for future use.

The easiest way by far to preserve hot peppers is drying them. This can be done in an oven, in a food dehydrator or outside in sunny weather. I don’t have a food dehydrator, so sun-drying and oven-drying are the two options I use.

To dry a batch of hot peppers, first cut them lengthwise and remove the seeds. Careful – wear gloves while handling, because those little capsicums can be treacherous. Place the peppers on a cookie sheet lined with baking paper.

If drying outside, cover the cookie sheet with metal wire, cloth mesh or anything else that will keep birds and insects away but still let sunlight get to the peppers. Place in direct sunlight and turn peppers over every few hours. This process may take several days, depending on the amount of light, degree of heat and humidity.

For oven-drying, place the cookie sheet with the peppers in the oven and turn it on a very low heat. Remember, you don’t want them to be roasted – you just want all the moisture to evaporate. Keep the peppers in the oven, turning from time to time, until they are quite dry and brittle.

At this point, your dry pepper slices can be stored in a tightly sealed jar, where they will keep for a long time. You can also pulverize them in a food processor and make your own hot pepper powder, which you can likewise store in a jar. This powder can be used for seasoning various dishes as is, or made into hot paste or sauce with some salt, fresh or dry herbs and olive oil.

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As this will probably be my last post before Rosh Ha-Shana, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish all my Jewish readers a very happy start of this new year.

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The perils of peppers

This season we were blessed with a large quantity of hot peppers (all from only four thriving plants), so I’ve been busy making hot sauce inspired by the Yemenite hot pepper spread/dip called Zhug. I don’t really have a recipe; just throw a bunch of de-seeded hot peppers, a head of peeled garlic cloves, a bell pepper, some tomatoes, a generous splash of olive oil and salt to taste into a food processor and whip it all up. It makes a fabulous sauce\paste to add to stews, meat and fish dishes, soups, etc.

Unfortunately, it has been a while since I used fresh hot peppers, so I was careless and didn’t use protective gloves. The deception was in the delay: I didn’t feel any burning in my fingers until I was done cutting up the peppers. Then it hit with a vengeance.

Even more unfortunately, my kids, who like to get into anything that goes on in the kitchen, grabbed some peppers too – and touched their faces without even washing their hands. Ouch. It was a disaster – for the next hour, I was dealing with crying, hurting kids. My eldest sincerely advised me to throw the whole bunch of peppers away (“because nobody wants to eat something like this!”).

I’ve tried some of these remedies for stopping hot pepper burn, but nothing really helped us. The kids felt better pretty quickly. I had to endure several very unpleasant hours of burning sensation in my fingers, hands and any part that was exposed to the capsaicin in the hot peppers.

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Hot peppers: beautiful but deadly (well, almost)

Lesson learned: next time I work with hot peppers, I’m going to wear gloves and warn my children to stay away.

By the way, I wanted to let you know that The Practical Homemaker’s Companion is now available in a new, extended edition of 90 pages, with added content and photos – for the same price. Those of you who have already bought a copy and are sorry to miss the new edition, don’t worry – simply email me using the contact form, and I’ll send you the updated version. Also available in print. Disclaimer: as the printed version is in black and white, I can’t vouch for its photograph quality. Opting for color print would have made the book too  expensive, so I compromised in favor of price.

Making carob powder

The pods of the carob tree are rich in minerals and vitamins, and can be utilized to make tasty, naturally sweet powder that is often used as a cocoa/chocolate substitute. Now, I personally can always tell the difference between carob and chocolate, but I still like the taste very much and think it’s great in brownies and other baked goods. As a bonus, unlike cocoa, carob is naturally sweet, so when using it I can cut back on added sugar.

Carob trees grow all over Israel (and in other similar climates) and the dark brown pods can be picked in the summer, for free, if you know where to look. They make a tasty, chewy snack right off the tree – only beware of the little hard seeds. They also keep extremely well, so you can pick a big bunch and then process it in parts at your convenience.

Make sure the pods you pick are ripe. They are supposed to look and feel dry and to come off easily from the tree. To make sure, break one in half and taste it. Pick the biggest, shiniest, healthiest-looking pods.

Wash the pods and boil them for around 30 minutes to soften them. This way they will be easier to de-seed. Cut them lengthwise with a sharp knife, remove the seeds, break into pieces and place on a cookie sheet. Dry in the oven on low heat – really low, as you don’t want to burn them (it will give the powder a bitter tinge), or in the sun. The pod pieces should be really crisp.

roasted carob

Throw your dried carob pieces into the food processor. Once you have mostly powder, sift to remove any chunks that are left, then return them into the food processor and repeat. I know my end product isn’t really like commercial carob powder – I could have used a finer sieve, but I didn’t bother. I know it will be quite good enough in my brownies.

powdered carob

Once the powder is ready, it can be stored in a tightly closed glass jar for a long time.

Processing prickly pears

Prickly pear season is here, and my husband got a big bunch very cheaply, from someone who picked them off the hedge on his property. When he came home with the loot, I foolishly forgot that the prickly pear is – well, prickly – and carelessly grabbed one. I had a quick, painful reminder of the fact that the prickly pear, actually the fruit of the opuntia cactus, is full of tiny fiberglass-like spines called glochids, which very easily get embedded in the skin and are very difficult to dislodge. Soaking my hand in warm water helped get most of them out, though, and I carefully proceeded to look for a pain-free way of utilizing this unusual fruit.

Rule number one: don’t touch the skin of the prickly pear with your bare hands. Wear thick gloves or, as I did, use tongs. 

pricklypeartongs

While holding the prickly pear down with tongs, use a knife to cut off the edges (“top” and “bottom”) of the fruit. Then cut several slits, length-wise, in the skin and pry it off with the tip of the knife. It’s a little tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Briefly wash your peeled prickly pear under a running tap, to make sure any glochids that might have stuck to the fruit are washed away. You don’t want them in your tongue!

At this point you can eat the prickly pears fresh, or juice them. To make juice, I first mashed the fruit with a potato masher, then strained the whole mess. The juice is great as part of cold beverages, and can also be made into syrup or jelly. The remaining seeds, mash and peels make a great treat for chickens (or, if you don’t have chickens, they can be composted).

mashpricklypears

Mashing the prickly pears

I do have to say, though, that the whole process is somewhat labor-intensive: a whole lot of fruit gives comparatively little juice. Since the season of the prickly pear is short, it’s alright as a once-a-year project, but I wouldn’t do it on a regular basis.

pricklypearjuice

Above: prickly pear juice, for a refreshing cold drink or for making syrup or jelly. I love its bright orange color. 

The business of bread

Carmen writes, in the context of making sourdough bread:

I was wondering, if you would have the time to write a post about the differences between different types of flour. You have hinted before that some are more nutritious than others, and I tried to do a google search, but there were too many unknown terms, and I didn’t have the time to properly digest the information.

The grains most commonly used in the Western world are wheat as a strongly dominating first, rye, and barley. In recent years spelt, an ancient grain of the wheat family is making a comeback as well, and spelt flour and bread are available in many stores.

All of the aforementioned grains contain gluten, though in slightly different forms. A word about gluten: this famous protein is what gives bread its shape, elasticity and lift. The higher the gluten content, the better the bread will come out. You can make bread from gluten-free grains such as corn, teff, quinoa or buckwheat, but it won’t be bread in the form of the high, shapely, crusty loaf most of us crave.how_to_make_sourdough_08213_16x9

Image source: BBC

People with Celiac disease should avoid gluten entirely, in all shapes and quantities. People with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, however, often find that they tolerate certain grains better than others, in particular spelt better than the commercial varieties of wheat, especially if the bread is made through long-rise fermentation process (as in sourdough).

Mankind has cultivated wheat for thousands of years, but the wheat that had been consumed throughout most of human history is not the same wheat in use today. In the 1960’s, commercial farmers switched to growing a new, modern hybrid of dwarf wheat. It provides easier processing and higher yields, but is also less nutritious (containing, in particular, less of certain minerals than traditional wheat) and, some studies claim, more allergenic. Evidence is a bit murky here, and it’s unclear how much the rise in sensitivity to wheat is due to the new genetic makeup, and how much to modern processing methods.

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, we were told that people should consume whole grains because the bran contain nutrients and fiber that are cast away in the process of making white flour. No one talked about the different varieties of wheat, however, nor of how grain fermentation partially breaks down the gluten and makes the nutrients in whole grains more easily absorbed. In particular, fermentation activates the enzyme phytase, which breaks down the phytic acid binding minerals such as calcium and magnesium in the hull of the grain.

It might not be scientifically proved, but many people who can’t tolerate commercial wheat bread respond a lot better to long-fermented breads made from traditional grains. Of course, this only goes for people who do not have Celiac disease – if you do, avoid any gluten-containing products altogether. 

The type of bread I generally recommend is made from whole rye, barley or spelt (or a combination of these), using a long-rise fermentation process. You can obtain such bread in many artisan bakeries or make it in your own kitchen. The results might not be as reliable as when using baker’s yeast, but the nutritional and culinary benefits are well worth it.

I think spelt flour is the best option for people with conservative taste, because of its resemblance to wheat. Personally I love rye bread, but some people (my family, for instance) find it too dark, dense and dominant-tasting.

If you are new to baking with whole grains, it should be noted that bread from whole grain flour will always rise slightly less well, and be a little more dense, than bread made from white flour. The reason for this is, again, the gluten content. Because whole grain flour includes the bran and germ – parts of the grain which do not contain gluten – the amount of gluten in whole grain flour, per cup, is lower than in white flour. This is sometimes off-putting for people who are used to commercial spongy white bread, but I think it’s a matter of habit and mindset: just because the food industry has gotten us used to soft, sweet bread, it doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be.

Once you get the taste for real bread, there’s no looking back. Personally, one of my favorite light meals – as breakfast, lunch or dinner – is a slice of artisan sourdough bread with some farm cheese and a ripe tomato. Yum!

Cooking simply

I have come to the conclusion that cooking isn’t really very challenging – unless you specifically aim at gourmet recipes, of course – if you can almost always be assured of almost all ingredients, or at least, if it’s only a question of putting something on your next shopping list.

 

It isn’t very difficult to make a good dinner if you always have a chicken or a good part of beef.  Salmon steaks are pretty hard to ruin, too. And your baked goodies, soups and pasta will almost always turn out well with plenty of butter, cream and cheese. And it’s really easy to make fancy desserts with copious amounts of whipped cream and chocolate.

 

It’s a lot more of a challenge to create a variety of healthy, tasty, satisfying meals from the simplest, most economical ingredients. If you use vegetables and fruit in their season, when they are best (and cheapest), things become even more interesting.

 

My mother-in-law cooks, and has always cooked, soup almost every day – mostly meatless, sometimes enriched with the bony parts of chicken or turkey. Her lentil soup and split pea soup are especially beloved. A bowl of such thick, savory soup is a meal in itself. I don’t cook soup nearly as often, but nevertheless we hardly eat meat during the week – or if we do, it makes for a supplementary part of the meal, such as bits of chicken breast with stir-fry veggies, served over noodles or rice.

 

Much of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned on rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, last Thursday I made beef stew. On Thursday evening, we ate couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. On Friday night and Saturday we ate the beef. On Sunday I took what was left of the stew – mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart – and cooked it with some leftover rice for a few minutes. This made an excellent lunch, and a total of four days’ worth of meals – not too bad.

 

There was a time when bell peppers were so cheap that my husband brought home great full bags of them, and I made stuffed peppers almost every week. Then came a time when peppers got so expensive we did without any for maybe two months in a row. Nowadays I have just enough for fresh salads. Having any vegetables at my disposal at any time would be more convenient, no doubt, but there is also something nice in not having something, and looking forward to a time when you can have it again, and enjoy it all the more.

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