Late summer and early autumn usher in canning time. From tomato sauce with bright basil leaves, to fig jam and peaches in simple syrup, it’s a ritual that I cherish. A ritual I have thanks to my grandparents and mom. Mom and I are adamant about carrying forward family traditions. This brings me oddly to a scary place…Ma and Papa’s – my maternal grandparents – basement. It wasn’t so much the basement that scared me but the ill lit narrow stairway which led to the cold damp cavern. When I close my eyes and think of the stairs, I get goosebumps like when I watch Steven King’s “Salem’s Lot”. The basement held everything from rakes, a lawnmower and glass jars to wooden and concrete shelves stocked with canned tomatoes, peppers and concord grape jelly.From where I sit now the doorway to the narrow stairway is a magical entrance like the wardrobe door in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. It is a gateway to another land, a land of food, laughter and love and memories. I followed Papa around as he grabbed a rake to gather fallen leaves or as he pulled on dirt stained thick gloves to work in the vegetable garden. He’d wear a dark blue quilted jacket and sometimes a beaten up baseball hat. Ma would call to us from the kitchen window or back door to come in for a warm slice of midnight velvet cake layered with melting vanilla ice cream or steamy apple pie. She seemed to always be at the stove.
Back to the shelves packed with home made delicacies. September is the month when we put up vinegar peppers. My Aunt Virginia, Mom and Ma would meet around the kitchen table to prepare them. The green ones play a main role in insalata di baccala (salt-cod salad) which is one of the seven fish courses that we serve at Christmas Eve dinner. Three years ago I spent my first Christmas away from Mom and Dad. Stumbling upon the peppers in the Trionfale market was a joyful and tearful moment. Ma called them Saint Nicole peppers – I imagine because of the link to the Christmas and Saint Nicolas – or in dialect pupacchielle. In Italian they are pappacelle.
- Saint Nicholas peppers – found in August and September
- Apple cider vinegar
- Dry oregano
- Garlic cloves peeled
- Medium size sterilized canning jars
Wipe the peppers with a clean towel. Make sure the peppers are not bruised. Cut in pieces or leave whole. If cut in pieces remove the stem and seeds. If leaving whole remove the stem end. Place 1 tsp salt, 2 garlic cloves and oregano in each medium size jar. Pack half of the jar with peppers and repeat salt/garlic/oregano mixture. Fill the rest of the jar with peppers leaving 1/2 inch head space. Repeat salt/garlic/oregano mixture. Add vinegar and water (3 parts vinegar to 1 part water).
Cover tightly. Turn upside down to mix well. Store in a cool place for at least 4 weeks before using. We use the green peppers in salad as they remain firmer and we use the green, yellow and red peppers in cooked dishes like pork chops, peppers and potatoes. My advice is use them as you like.