Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Secret to Making Great Hot Sauce Even Greater

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Every gardener has a muse--the inspiration that compels him or her to break out the shovel. It could be a childhood memory of a cherry tomato, warm from the sun. Maybe it's the seedy pop of a deep-ruby strawberry, or the taste of a cucumber right off the vine. Whatever it is, it's enough to make him dig up his lawn, start saving kitchen scraps for compost, and spend all his free time bent over, pulling weeds.

My muse is the chile pepper.

I save pepper seeds all winter, like some sort of fanatical collector, in little wax envelopes. I have some that a friend smuggled back from Jamaica and some from a pepper that blew smoke out of my ears when I ate it on a dare. I have Chocolate Habaneros and Louisiana cayennes and Indian ghost chiles. They all sit patiently until early spring, when I plant them in starter containers and set them on the windowsill, where they stretch their first leaves out of the dirt. Then, for the next six to seven months, nothing much happens. The plants grow at a frustratingly slow pace. It's not until late September that the fiery fruits are ripe and ready.

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Well, here we are in late September, and I am rolling in capsicum. The local farmers' market is erupting with chiles, too. There are too many to eat raw or even to cook. The chile's draw is also its force field. They're spicy little buggers. There's really only one way to use up mass quantities: hot sauce.

There's an unfathomable variety of recipes for hot sauce, and finding your favorite might take some doing. But the secret that I hope you'll take away from this post has to do with aging. The last time I made hot sauce, I put the jar in the back of the fridge and forgot about it. That turned out to be a very happy accident. The sauce mellows as it ages and becomes less spicy, letting the floral notes of the chiles come forward. This isn't new. Tabasco, possibly the world's most famous hot sauce company, crafts a Family Reserve sauce that it ages for up to eight years. I don't suggest that you need to wait that long for your hot sauce to mature. Feel free to use it right away--but if you keep it tucked at the back of your fridge for a couple of months, even a year, the results will be stunning.

Hot Sauce
Makes 1 scant quart

INGREDIENTS
12 oz. fresh hot chiles, stemmed and halved
1 head of garlic, roasted*
2 1/4 cups distilled white vinegar plus more if needed
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. kosher salt

PREPARATION
Pulse chiles and roasted garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small pan and bring to a simmer, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool completely. Place chile mixture in a 1-qt. mason jar, then pour vinegar mixture over. Top off with additional vinegar, if necessary (chiles should be completely covered with liquid). Cover the jar and store in the refrigerator for at least 3 months and up to 1 year. If a more refined sauce is to your liking, strain the hot sauce through a fine-mesh sieve, discarding solids, then pour sauce into a jar and chill.

* Roasting garlic is so easy, it barely requires a recipe. Anytime your oven is heated to 350-425 degrees for an hour, you have a great opportunity to roast a couple of garlic heads. Simply cut off and discard the top 1/2" of one or more heads of garlic and place the remaining heads on a small piece of foil. Drizzle with a little oil and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Wrap the garlic in the foil and place it in a corner of the oven for 45 minutes to an hour. You can use your roasted garlic right away, squeezed out of the bulb, or refrigerate it until you need it, for up to a month.

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