If you've been around here for a while, you know by now that Clare Bergh has a way of collecting seed varieties. First came the tomatoes, then the eggplants, and the garlic. This summer, it's hot peppers—she's hooked.
Her table at the Orleans farmers' market is a mosaic of reds, yellows, purples, greens. She labels the peppers by heat range, according to a system known as the Scoville Scale. If you've never heard of it, the basic idea is this: a guy named Wilbur Scoville came up with a method for testing the amount of capsaicin—the chemical compound that makes our mouths feel spice—in hot peppers. Based on the decisions of Scoville's taste testers, the amount of capsaicin different peppers contain and how spicy they are as a result can now be found on charts. Bell peppers, for example, have zero Scoville Heat Units, while law enforcement grade pepper sprays rate at over five million.
If you squint at the photo of Clare's peppers up there, you can tell from the numbers that the Giant Thai Hots are significantly less spicy than the Golden Nuggets to their right. Here's a chart of where all Clare's hot peppers rank on the Scoville Scale, to give you a little bit more specific idea of what I mean:
Giant Thai Hot
Cayenne Long Purple
Cayenne Long Red
Ho Chi Minh
Las Cruces Chile
Habanero Caribbean Red
Personally, I probably will never make it very far beyond Jalapeno Heaven. I am a terrible wimp when it comes to spice, and although I will gladly eat your pickled Jalapenos off a Greek salad, I cannot endure even the slightest hint of Scotch Bonnet or Habanero. Clare claims that she can't either, at least not raw, and that this is where friends come in handy, friends like Ben.
(Ben is Ben Chung—the guy who sells quail eggs and all sorts of garlics and herbs at the Orleans Farmers Market and, incidentally, also the same Ben Chung who has a practice downtown as a dentist—and he is not afraid of hot peppers in the least. Clare found a new cultivar growing wild in her garden this year, and he happily gave it a taste—raw!—and suggested a number for the scale.)
But while she might not go nibbling raw peppers the way Ben does, Clare is not afraid to cook even the hottest peppers into a jam. She wears gloves, to protect her fingers and (later) her eyes, and she cooks Jalapenos and Habaneros and plain old bell peppers down with vinegar and honey. Something about the combination soothes the spice of the hot peppers, she says, so that the jam is easily spreadable on toast or hot dogs or piled up on hamburgers even for "non-chile heads."
Next week, I plan to give it a try. If you get there before me, let me know how things go, okay? Oh, and if you're growing any hot pepper varieties, let us know, on the Scoville Scale, where they stand. I'm not sure if it will be for drying, or for paste, or for jam, but one of these days, I'd like to try growing some myself.
HOT PEPPER JAM
To use Clare's words, "Even with all these hot peppers, this jam's not too hot for the non-chile heads." So long as you use gloves and avoid pouring warm or hot liquid over any of the hot pepper seeds or scraps (the steam can carry the spice and burn your nose and eyes), you should be safe from even the habaneros. Enjoy!
1 dozen bell peppers (use red, yellow, and orange for a colorful jam)
10 Habanero peppers
10 Serrano or Jalapeno peppers
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup white vinegar
1 and 1/2 cups honey (or 3 cups sugar)
Wash canning jars and lids and place jars in a boiling water bath.
Wash, seed, then chop the peppers in a food processor. They will be wet—drain any excess liquid and combine the pulp with the remaining ingredients in a large, non-reactive soup pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil gently for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the volume of the jam is reduced by half and it thickens enough to sheet from a spoon.
Ladle the hot jam into hot, sterile jars (they need 10 minutes in a boiling water bath with at least an inch of water covering the tops of the jars), leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the rim of the jars with a dish towel dipped in boiling water to make sure they are clean, and seal tightly with lids and bands dipped in boiling water.
Turn the sealed jars upside down and leave overnight; in the morning, check the seals. Any jars that for some reason do not seal can be put in the fridge to be used right away; the others will store in a dry, dark place for up to a year.