Summer Memories: Hot Pepper Relish

Peppers, lime, fresh ginger and mixed spices

Summer heat is all we talk about for a while but it is gone so quickly. School starts, the first rains fall, leaves turn. Suddenly the warm is something we lean into instead of pulling away from. The heat of summer lives on the bright colors of jams and sauces. I have bags of roasted tomatoes, pesto, and raspberries in the freezer. Next weekend I’ll harvest the winter squash and have containers of bright orange and gold mash for cream soups and stacks of butternut squash for roasting. But this weekend I packed summer heat in jars. Literally. I made hot pepper relish.

This was my third batch of hot pepper relish of the season. I grew three kinds of peppers this year; Early Jalapeno, a Basque country pepper, and a long yellow variety called Ohnivec which means ‘Fiery one” in Czech. I am pretty sure they are related to a variety called Hungarian Hot Wax I grew in Maine years ago. Madrid has a good climate for peppers as long as they get watered in July and August. I got 30–40 peppers off a good bush, ate plenty fresh in the summer, dried some for herb mixes, and made three batches of hot pepper relish.

The hot pepper relish here is a modification of a basic pepper relish recipe. The final salsa brings together a lot of memories.

I have a fond but painful memory of pickled limes I bought south of Durban in South Africa at an Indian roadside stall. They were packed in baby-food jars and labeled Hotazhell and they were. I never saw them again but I had some limes for G&Ts and thought maybe I could capture that bright, tangy note of lime with the heat.

I thought of the piles of bright spices at the Hazelwoood Food Market back in Pretoria, and the old man who handed out spoonfuls of his special spice mix to taste. He swore he used it on everything from ice cream to braai meat (BBQ). I found a mixed spice in the stores here in Madrid with cumin seed, coriander seed, peppercorns, whole cloves, garlic, and sea salt and I added a jar of that.

Finally, I had some extra ginger root and figured why not, so there is a chunk of fresh ginger for good measure.

A pickle, if you are a commercial lobsterman packing bait for the season, is all salt. A pickle for garden vegetables is a mix of salt, vinegar, and sugar with different proportions for different results. I used a small amount of salt and twice as much vinegar as sugar for a semi-sweet pickle.

The result is a thick salsa or sauce. I use it with everything but I have yet to try it on ice cream.

The peppers I used are not alarmingly hot but the relish has a quite kick since I added them whole. Personally, I aim for flavor not a four-alarm blaze but I have a fair tolerance. Depending on the variety of pepper and if you core them or add them whole, your salsa will have more or less impact.

— 1KG of hot peppers (about half a plastic grocery bag)
— 1 liter of vinegar
— About half as much sugar — plus/ minus two cups
— 50 grams of mixed spices (coriander seed, cumin, garlic, cloves… you could also use dill seed/mustard seed mix that is used for pickles. Whatever suits your taste. Be bold but don’t add too much of any one of them.
— A fresh lime or lemon
— A chunk of fresh ginger

I boiled all the ingredients for about 30 minutes and then used a mixing wand to blend them together.

I packed the salsa into hot sterile jars and put them in a hot water bath for another 30 minutes. I eat this up fairly quickly and keep it refrigerated. If you don’t use sugar or are going to keep yours longer you should follow the instructions in a canning and preserving cookbook and likely use a pressure cooker.

I love the DownEast Maine Bert and I stories told by Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge. I imagined Vern and Old Morris down at the wharf with a jar and a stack of the red hotdogs they used to sell up at Reed’s store. Morris is by the fly specked window knitting heads for lobster traps out of stiff yellow poly twine and Vern is leaned back in the black seat Young Mo took out of his old ’76 Dodge. Their sleeves are rolled up and their hip boots are rolled down.

Vern opens the jar and takes a sniff.

He hands the jar to Morris who takes a deep whiff. He pulls out the big white hanky in the breast pocket of his faded blue barn coat and blots his eyes and blows his nose explosively.

Vern laughs and takes the jar back. He dips a hot dog in the pickle relish and takes a bite.

Old Morris watches him.

“Well dear,” says Vern. “I guess I can take my coat off now.”

Writer, walker, poet, educator. Commercial fisherman, builder, donut maker, organic grower. Boston, U. City, Maine, South Africa, Madrid.

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