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Preserving capsicums without poisoning yourself

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

"Consider, for a moment, the sweet pepper. No other plant demands so much, gives so little, yet keeps us coming back for more."

Hank Shaw - Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

This post comes from two things. The first is the big bag of capsicums - mostly green and red - that I bought a week or so ago in Doncaster. It was an impulse buy because I always like to have at least one capsicum or two in the vegetable drawer of my fridge, and there were these bargain priced 1kg bags of them. I couldn't resist.

"Some fruit and veg advertise themselves with colours and shapes too lovely to resist. And once in the kitchen, they become upmarket home decor ... if you held a contest for the raw ingredient that looks best casually displayed on a worktop, the capsicum family would probably win: glossy, plump and multicoloured, they are catwalk swanky. Just don't forget to eat them." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

And that last dictum - 'don't forget to eat them' is unfortunately applicable. Crisis point is approaching. And there are too many to just use them in a recipe. I've only used a couple of them so far. I'm only cooking for two after all, so even if I made them the main feature - say stuffed peppers - that would only take care of two of them, maybe even only one.

The second post starter is my current enthusiasm for preserving brought on by the experiment with fruit vinegar - my jar of pear peel and core is beginning to bubble - so looking good. So having used so few of these peppers I think it's time to do something more major with the remains before they go off. They do keep for some time, but not forever.

My first thought was to roast them and then preserve them in oil. Naively I thought that all you had to do was roast them, skin them - or not - according to whim, put them in a sterilised jar and cover with oil - just like sun-dried tomatoes. So I started looking for recipes.

My first port of call, of course, was the River Cottage book on Preserves. It didn't actually have a recipe for preserved capsicum as such but it did have a recipe for Preserved asparagus in oil, which had an addendum saying you could do the same thing with roasted capsicum. Being me I only skimmed it and just thought you roasted the capsicum, and then put them in a jar with some garlic, covering the whole lot with oil. But as I searched for comparable recipes I found a forum on which some poor woman had indeed done this only to find that when she opened the jars a few weeks later, they sort of exploded, having fermented in the jar. And no - one can't assume that because they have fermented they are alright to eat. They are actually poisonous really - botulism and all that. Quite apart from apparently being most unappetising. Which is a minor worry on the fruit vinegar front. So I went back to that recipe and a few others as well and found that you must add some vinegar - or lemon juice I suppose - acid anyway.

There seemed to be several different ways of doing this - with the roasting or grilling of the peppers being the common thing. A few people did not skin them, but mostly they did.

Woolworths boiled up a basic pickling mixture of vinegar and sugar and spice, left it to cool and then poured over the capsicum. No oil at all here. It looks good I have to say, but I think I like the notion of oil in my pickles. It's an extra flavour is it not? And you can use the flavoured oil as well.

Hugh Shaw the guy from the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook website mixes salt into his drained peppers (and the separated drained pepper juice), puts them in a jar with vinegar in the bottom, and then covers first with the juice and then with oil. It's an interesting article with a lot of tips along the way, so worth looking at, especially if you want to grow the peppers yourself. Though bear in mind he is writing from a California perspective. Probably not all that different from here I suppose. I tried to grow them myself once, but like him got about two capsicum for my troubles, so I haven't done that again.

"I coddle them, dote on their every need, and in return they toss me a few fruits to play with — so few, in fact, that I can barely bring myself to eat them fresh. I preserve almost every one the little minxes give me to eat huddled, alone, in the dead of winter. Or something like that." Hank Shaw - Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

He persevered though and eventually found a way to be more productive.

There are also recipes that boil the capsicum, before adding the vinegar, etc. and some that cook the capsicum in pickling spices, but then I think we are more into pickling and you lose that lovely roasted flavour. And if you really want to pickle them you can always add them to other vegetables to make gardiniera or piccalilli and suchlike if you fancy.

So I think I will go for the original River Cottage recipe by Pam Corbin which, when I came to look at it more closely was yet another variant on the vinegar and oil version. In this one, having peeled your roasted peppers, you dropped them into a bath of hot vinegar and water for a few minutes, then packed them in jars and covered with lemon juice and then oil. As one blogger who had tried this said, not only were the peppers good but the oil was too.

Mind you - you could go really simple and use the recipe on from Food Ideas, which just covers your capsicum with a mixture of oil and vinegar.

So I'm now dithering a bit. One thing I do now know though - make sure there is vinegar in there somehow.

You can also preserve your capsicums in other ways as I found, at first by accident, and then by a bit more targeted searching. And most of these are useful if your peppers are really beginning to be a bit further gone because in most of them the capsicum is either cooked or cooked and puréed. Very tempting ideas though. Here are some.

Jam - the two pictures below are fundamentally the same thing as they are both the River Cottage recipe - the one on the left is the original Chilli pepper jam from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and the second is from a fan who offers a few extra flavourings:

"The first batch of this jelly-like jam was sweet and hot, delicious. The second batch was spiced, half with star anise and half with cardamom, tastes and aromas of a holiday season. The third batch – winner! – was laced with a dab of chipotles in adobo sauce. Sweet and hot, and smoky." Prospect: the Pantry

You can have as many or as few of the chillies as you like of course. And I don't really think you would be spreading it on toast - more likely to add flavour to cheese, or other such things on your toast. Lots of inventive ways to use it anyway. Interestingly my search for variants did not come up with anything that didn't have chilli in it. Not even a few tomatoes. But I guess if you have the basic recipe then you can play around with it. You will need pectin though.

Chutney - I'm beginning to think you can make chutney out of almost everything. Cabbage I wonder? Probably not. (I just had a quick look and yes you can - in India anyway.) Jamie has Cheeky chilli-pepper chutney. Chillies again though. So I had another look and found Spicy baby tomato and sweet pepper chutney on a website called Food 4 All - which uses all those cherry tomatoes that your garden has produced. Chutney is fun to make - it's so easy.

Relish - Is relish the same as chutney? I'm really not sure, but suspect it's just a bit fresher than chutney. Less jam like. Although judging from these two offerings from The Australian Women's Weekly Roast Red pepper and chilli relish and Red pepper and tomato relish they don't really seem to know what a relish is either. The one on the right looks more like a jam or a chutney to me. Difficult to get away from those chillies though.

Butter - Remember Stephanie Alexander and her freezer standbys of flavoured butters? Well she doesn't have a recipe anywhere for a capsicum butter as far as I can see but others do. The only one I could find a picture of was this Roasted capsicum and olive butter from the Australian Women's Weekly, but I also saw this one - ingredients only - that you just mash together - 100g bought chargrilled capsicum, 1 cup grated parmesan, 250g unsalted butter, softened. However, it was Beverley Sutherland Smith who set me off down this track with her recipe for Capsicum, tomato and parsley butter. No recipe online, but the ingredients are 90g butter, 1 grilled capsicum, chopped small, 6 semi-dried tomatoes, 4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1 tablespoon olive oil. She makes hers in a food processor. Endless possibilities for making a capsicum butter out there though. I would recommend roasting them first as they would be too crispy otherwise.

Pesto - a less long-term preserve but cover it with olive oil and store it in your fridge and it will last a few weeks. Well I find ordinary basil pesto does. 'Ordinary basil pesto' - now those words are a sign of the times aren't they? Basil - ordinary. Never heard of it when I was young. Even more for pesto. And such a surprising new taste. So surprising I had to sort of educate myself to like it. Jamie has a recipe for Charred pepper pesto - Jamie Oliver but there are lots more out there. So make up your own from the kind of ingredients you see here. Just vary the nuts and the herbs.

For now though I'm going to have a go at the preserved capsicum in oil - they are a very useful thing to have in your fridge for all sorts of reasons. I wonder when we began roasting capsicums? Indeed when did we start eating them? At high school for me I think as we had a forward thinking Swedish cook who knew they were packed with vitamins. She put them in all sorts of things. We were not sure we liked them. And my mother had never used them.

So a post for the cooks amongst you I guess. But then hopefully by now, you might be willing to try some of these things if you haven't already. Perfect for a damp and chilly afternoon. And my empty jars are beginning to fill up all the space I have.


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