As mentioned in last week’s post, one of the successes in my garden this year was growing chili peppers. These hot little items are small–two inches long–and turned from light green, to dark brown streaked, to fiery red on small, bushy plants at the front of my garden boxes. They are pretty, and while I enjoy plants for sheer beauty, I find it exciting when I can actually use plants for both decoration and food. I chopped a few into a tomato salsa and was rewarded with quite a kick of heat, but what else could I do with them?
A trip up to the local orchard provided an answer. While walking through the gift shop/payment shed, I noticed a sign listing the price of crabapples at $1.50/lb. This was a lower price than that of the Cortland and MacIntoshes, and I immediately thought of crabapple jelly. A second later, I thought of crabapple-hot pepper jelly. And when I mentioned this thought to the nice young man who runs the orchard, he told me about a cookbook they just happened to be selling which included recipes for both kinds of preserves. Score!
The crabapples were larger than the teeny-tiny ones I usually have on my flowering crab, a little larger than the big marbles we used to play with as kids . . . or the giant gumballs you could get for 10 cents from the machines in the supermarket lobby. Some had soft or brown rotting places, but I was able to quickly pick about six pounds of nice apples. The day was hot and sultry, and the fragrance beneath that tree was intoxicating. I could only hope my jelly would turn out to be as delicious as that scent!
I waited until after Labor Day weekend to attempt my first batch of jelly. I’ve made strawberry and blueberry jams in the past, but never jelly. The instructions in Theresa Millang’s THE JOY OF APPLES cookbook were clear and easy to follow. Basically, you put the apples into some water and cook them until they are soft and mushy. Then you pass them through a cheesecloth either in a strainer or hanging up like a bag over a bowl. You take the juice and mix it with sugar, add the chopped up chili peppers and some green peppers if you like a little extra color, boil it until it has reached jelling consistency (it runs off the spoon in two drips that meld together as they come off the spoon . . . or until you decide it MUST be done. This part was the hardest to calculate), and then put into your prepared jars which you process for five minutes or so in a boiling water “bath.”The jelly-making process is messy. You have towels and boiling water and boiling fruit juice and jars to keep hot and sterilized and lids to keep hot and sterilized and drips of jelly going all over the place. It is best to clear a few hours as well as your countertops before you start. Read through all the instructions and make a plan of action. For example, the big canning pot I have takes a long, long time to boil water on top of my flat-top stove as the pot is three times the diameter of the largest burner. The water should be boiling by the time you fill the jelly jars. It also helps to have a jar lifter to get the boiled jars out of the scalding water. You can buy canning sets from local hardware stores. Or you can order online from a site like PickYourOwn.org.
I was able to fill eight half-pint jelly jars and two smaller jars with my six pounds of crab-apples. The color of the jelly is an exquisite dark pink dotted with bits of red and green pepper. I put the smaller jars into the fridge rather than process them, and these jelled perfectly. The jars I processed with lids sealed well, but the jelly looks a little, well, un-jelled in there. Until I open one, it will be impossible to know if the preserve set correctly. I may pop them into the refrigerator a couple hours before I plan to serve.
I taste-tested the refrigerated jelly within a couple of hours. It proved to be a delicious sweet-hot combination, fiery at the back of the tongue. As for serving suggestions, hot-pepper jelly is fabulous as a snack dumped over a square of cream cheese and served with crackers. According to the cookbook, it also goes well with chicken and pork, but I’m not sure how you’d present it. Just plop some on each plate beside the meat? Or put the jar on the table so guests can dip in a spoonful and smear it on the meat? I may simply try glazing some pork chops or chicken breasts before baking on some cold winter evening when we could use a little heat in our food.Now that I’ve had some success with crab-apples, I’m rethinking my plan to plant dwarf apple trees on my property and may plant crab-apples instead. Their pretty blossoms in the spring and amazing fragrance in the fall, as well as the beautiful pink color of the jelly, have won me over. Now not only am I Flabbercrabby, I’m Flabbercrab-appley!
As we head into autumn, don’t forget to visit your local farm stand, farmer’s market, or orchard for the bounty of the season. If you’ve never tried preserving food, why not take a stab at it this year? And one more note of caution: when working with chili peppers, do not rub your eyes until you’ve thoroughly washed your hands. If not, you’ll be a red-EYED Mama instead of a red-hot one.