Monday, September 14, 2009

Pepe Salati, part 1

Autumn back home in the Northeast. I remember well the first day you could feel it in the air each year. A bittersweet moment as summer fades and fall takes the helm. There is a coolness in the air, a certain smell and a feeling that makes me want to bake and cook cozy dishes and big pots of soup.

A big rite of fall in my family was the preserving of the last of the hot peppers and the green tomatoes from the garden — Pepe Salati (pronounced pee-pee sa-li-ah-ti by my family). Directly translated, it means simply salted peppers.

The process of making Pepe Salati was lovingly passed down from my grandfather to me the year before he got sick. Pappaw was 89 and I was 26. I can still here him telling me how to prepare everything for the 5–6 week process. I'll never forget his voice and his smile. I was very close to him from the time I was an infant and keeping this tradition alive keeps him close in my heart and thoughts every fall.

Now I live in southern California, so that first glimpse of fall is far more subtle, yet there is still something in the air when the summer begins to fade and fall is upon us. This will be the second time I will make Pepe Salati here in San Diego and I am very excited!

The process is quite long and involved. First you have to gather a large supply of green tomatoes and hot peppers. Thanks to my friend Jonathan for hooking me up with the tomatoes! He and I hand picked organic green tomatoes last Thursday in north county. Back east, we always used medium to hot Hungarian Wax peppers, but I can't seem to find them here. I use a yellow chili peppers that are also medium to hot. They work nicely.

The next step is to prepare the crock and the weight and board. All were handed down to by Pappaw. The details of the process is best observed first hand, but the basic idea is to layer whole garlic cloves, thick sliced tomatoes, broad sliced peppers, a good amount of canning salt and a combination of fresh fennel fronds and stems (supplementing with dried fennel seed as necessary). Repeat until the crock is full, then place the wooden board wrapped in cloth and the heavy weight on top. Let it set a day or 2, poor off the water that is released and add more layers if you have more peppers and tomatoes. Once you have added all you are going to add, let stand with the weight and board in place and check daily, pouring off the excess water. Once the crock is not making water any longer, it is time to start to brine. The brine consists of water, canning salt and white vinegar. It is changed weekly along with the cloth that covers the board for the next 4 weeks until the peppers are ready. Once they are ready, the garlic and fennel stems are discarded. Some are stored in brine or plain water in the refrigerator and some are drained and dressed with olive oil and fresh garlic — ready to enjoy!
John Petosa and Pappaw wiping peppers for Pepe Salati

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