Saturday, February 11, 2017

What to do with too many chillies

Everyone loves a bargain, and the closer you get to paying almost nothing, the better the buzz. Bargains are different from freebies, of course. For a bargain, you have to pay at least a few cents, and today's gardening bargain probably has cost me at least 25 cents. I'll be coming back for more.

Way back in 2016, this little gardener bought some of his favourite largish red chillies at the supermarket. I saved the seeds from one of them, popped eight plump seeds into a punnet of potting mix, all eight came up in a week or so, and now, a few months later, I am harvesting my bargains.

I like these bigger than average chillies (they're about 3 inches long). They still have a chilli kick but it isn't too savage. And as I think I've mentioned before in this blog, I like to just toss a whole chilli into a tomato sauce and let it slowly infuse what the Italian restaurant menus like to call "a touch of chilli". Civilised heat.

I've always been fond of growing chillies, and if you are a beginner gardener they are one of your best bets for success. Chillies love life, and most of the time you should succeed in getting a colourful crop.

Yes, they do need a sunny spot, and yes, they like some fertiliser and a steady supply of water when they are young plants. The only extra care my chilli bushes received was the support from a garden stake. As the fruit grows, the plants can become top-heavy and blow over easily, so tying the trunk of the bush to a sturdy little stake will let the bush get on with the business of producing a bumper crop of fruit.

I love how chillies turn from green to red, almost in the blink of an eye. A few days ago all my chillies looked like this: very green.

And now they're turning into that vivid red. This one would have been green two days ago, and tomorrow it should be entirely red.

So, what do I plan to do with my glut of chillies? They keep quite well in the crisper section of the fridge, for a week or two, so some of them will go there for general use in all sorts of meals. 

Another big batch will become my "Sambal Ulek" chilli paste, which is an Indonesian basic ingredient (alternatively spelled sambal oelek).

At its simplest, Sambal Ulek is just minced chillies, preserved with some salt and vinegar. Whizz it all in a blender, pop it in a clean jar and it keeps in the fridge for several weeks at least.

If you go searching for Sambal Ulek recipes online you'll find people adding in extras such as garlic, ginger, lemon grass, shrimp paste, fish sauce, vegetable oil and sugar (as well as the salt and vinegar).

And opening up the spice-stained pages of my beloved bible of Asian cookery, Charmaine Solomon's Complete Asian Cookbook, she suggests substituting tamarind liquid for the vinegar, but her recipe is just salt, vinegar or tamarind liquid, and chillies. Nothing else.

However, to keep things basic, try this Sambal Ulek for starters. Aim for 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon sugar per cup of chopped chilli, and enough vinegar to turn the fairly stiff chopped mixture into a paste in your blender (so just add a tablespoon of vinegar at a time until it's a paste — for 1 cup of chopped chillies this should be 1-2 tablespoons vinegar). Oh, and whatever you do wear disposable gloves from beginning to end when handling big amounts of chilli. They prevent regrets.

Some people add a surface covering of peanut oil to the paste in the jar, to help seal it up. Of course store it in the fridge at all times, and if it ever changes in the way it looks, that's your big signal to be sensible and throw it all out.

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