I love hot peppers. The only problem is there’s not much you can do with them and whatever you come up with needs to be done in small portions. So, I’m not sure why I felt I needed sixteen hot pepper plants in my garden this year. Part of it was I couldn’t choose. You’ve got your jalapeno and your habanero. The cayennes are long and pretty. There were also these lovely hot banana peppers I’d never seen before and, of course, what’s a hot pepper garden without some chilies? So I got a bunch of each of them and, wouldn’t you know, they all did well.
The other day I realized there were hundreds of hot peppers in my garden and they were all ready to be eaten. The peppers were beautiful and I couldn’t just let them go to waste. I tried to give them away but people were only willing to take one at a time. This was not addressing the problem.
So, yesterday I resorted to the only thing you can do in large quantities with a vegetable that wants to burn a hole in your tongue. I made hot pepper jelly. It sounded simple enough. I should have realized it wasn’t when the recipe began with the words “This is long and difficult but…”
The list of equipment included items I’d never heard of so I had to look things up, then traipse around town to find them. And you’re supposed to wear rubber gloves. Who cooks with gloves on? I ignored the author’s warning and, let’s just say, I should not have done so.
The project took over our kitchen. Equipment sprawled from one end to the other and several pots were going on the stove at once. God-awful ingredients like vinegar, pectin and obscene amounts of sugar waited on the table. It was hard to imagine they could combine into anything tasty.
The author advised I must get everything measured, cut, boiling and ready before I started, so I’d be able to do ten things at the same time once things got underway. I began by preparing the peppers. They’re supposed to be chopped “finely” but I wasn’t sure what that meant in the context of hot stuff. What if I were to miss a big piece? I had mounds of peppers on the butcher block and I kept finding chunks buried in the middle. The vigilance it took to make sure nothing got by me was stressful, but that was mere inconvenience compared to the searing pain that suddenly set in.
This was when I realized the wisdom of wearing gloves. Come to find out, the juice soaks into your skin when you are working intimately with hot peppers. It starts to burn and eat your hands alive, but you can forget washing it off. The inferno will remain until the skin has been sloughed. And no matter how hard you try to remember, you will scratch your nose, touch your lips and you will even rub your eyes with those hands of fire. As an aside, I’ll mention that, when the razor-sharp knife slices into your finger, letting the pepper juice directly into the blood stream, you will feel entitled to swear and yell out the window for your husband to come quickly, as though you’ve just cut your entire hand off. It hurts that much.
With the chopping done, it was time to start making the jelly. It would’ve been better to have three people or several hands but, lacking either of these, I had no choice but to run like a maniac from one task to the next. I was washing the jars and boiling the lids at the same time my peppers were cooking and I was supposed to stir them constantly. The mixture needed to come to a rolling boil—an ordinary boil wouldn’t do—and cook for exactly one minute. During those sixty seconds I needed to keep stirring and also move the now sterile jars close to the pot so I could immediately ladle the jelly into them. And it became obvious I’d better be quick about the ladling because that pectin wasn’t fooling around. It wanted to set the jelly on the spot.
I was torn after I’d filled the first jar because I could all but see the bacteria crawl in to contaminate everything, but the rest of my jelly was firming up and I had to get it into the jars. Inasmuch as I felt a certain obligation to prevent an outbreak of botulism, I had to think on my feet and come up with a compromise.
Finally, I was ready for the last step, lowering the jars into a warming pot to process the jelly. The scalding water almost felt good when it splashed onto my pepper burns, but that misguided euphoria didn’t last long.
Today, after eight hours on my feet and damage to my hands that doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon, I have thirty three jars of hot pepper jelly. The single jar I’ve had in my fridge for the past six months has been tossed to make way for eight or ten others. I’ll be giving the rest away from now until Christmas. If they aren’t gone by then, anyone on my list might as well make room in your own fridge, cuz you know what you’re getting this year.
Next spring, I think I’ll just plant a few peppers and, if anyone hears me talking about making jelly again, please remind me how much fun I had the first time.