Catsup and Liquor: Hanging Ristras

CALLOUTinset4Both Catsup & Liquor are fine examples of modern food preservation, as well as the punch line to a hilarious joke. They don’t call New Mexico the “Land of Enchantment” as a gimmick; it’s a statement. For a part of the country that is so stricken with arid rural-ness, there sure is something that keeps calling you back. Shortly after arriving on my first stint in Santa Fe, “Land of Entrapment” became a more commonly over-heard phrase.

This time of year I’m always looking towards the Southwest for inspiration.  While the rest of the country is taking car trips to see the foliage change, it seems the Southwest is prepping for a season-long party – a post-harvest celebration. I feel fortunate that, here in Los Angeles, life isn’t too far off.

With the gluttony of summer’s bounty still hanging in the air, it’s time to put on your pants and enjoy these last few days before winter’s hectic hoedown sets in. In L.A. there’s an extra blast of heat that rolls through town during this time of year. It’s a reminder that things are hot here. Over-heard at the Farmers’ Market recently: “Late summer isn’t good for sweet peppers … but it’s GREAT for hot ones.”

Hopefully by now we’ve all stowed away that last batch of late season tomatoes safely in jars and freezers. But what of the spice? That glorious fruit that holds our hand tightly in cooler evenings? That dried leathery commodity that people crave? As we watch crunchy, green jalapenos turn from amber to lipstick red we should be asking ourselves, “How do we keep the heat when things turn cold?”

ristras2Drying peppers on strings is like hanging awesome Christmas lights for your kitchen. Beautiful gems of deep red fire-pods dancing across your kitchen – their natural sheen like an electric glow. These hanging hot pepper arrangements are known regionally as Ristras.

Hot peppers are a food preservationist’s delight. The thing people love most about them is the very thing that allows them to keep so well. If you happen to come upon a load of chili peppers – you see them at the Farmers’ Market; you’re combing the local ethnic market; your crazy neighbor has an obsession with growing the super hottest pepper – buy them! Dry them! Then crush them and use their dried forever-ness to top your pizzas and spice up your pastas. I use a combination of citrus and dried chili flake to season my meats, fish and dark leafy greens all winter long.

There are multiple tested and approved ways to dry chilis; however, let us not forget that this is a party, y’all. Make it pretty. When wading through the Internet’s litany of different food-saving recipes you might come across a university-approved / extension course recipe … just go with that. Instruction via the New Mexico State University is all you really need to know about drying chilis. Below are my personal notes and advice:

  • Select your chili peppers – any kind, really: Make sure they’re red. Ideally they have long stems for tying and no punctures or mildew. I’m using Espelette peppers from Windrose Farm in Paso Robles, CA. They are perfect for drying. I was told there’s an occasional hot Catalan pepper mixed in – giddyup.
  • Dry your chili peppers out before stringing them decoratively: Tie the fresh red chilis with little slipknots across a heavy-ish duty cotton/natural string. To secure the chilis, clothespins may also be used to pin the peppers to the string. A simple needle and thread can go a long way (make sure not to puncture the flesh, only the stem). The fresh chili peppers should not be touching each other when being strung out to dry (this encourages moisture; moisture = bad).
  • Find a location to hang: warm & dry with decent air circulation is best. Indirect sunlight is ideal, but these suckers aren’t too fickle. Periodically feel the peppers to see if they are drying. If any signs of mold begin to show on the fruit, remove the entire pepper from the string.
  • When the peppers are dry, remove them from the string: Bingo bango – you’re done. A very sane option at this point is to place them loosely in jars with lids for even moisture distribution. There, they will keep for quite some time (let’s say a year to be safe, understanding that no one actually knows how old those pizzeria chili flakes are). You may now crush them, grind them or keep ‘em whole.

However … Back to the party.

Making the Ristra: Take your dried chili peppers and follow the instructions laid out for you at the New Mexico State University extension website. I found their figures and diagrams very useful. Here’s what I did:photo-1(chile)

  1. Use more cotton-based string. Cut a piece long enough to suit the amount of chilis you have.
  2. Take TWO peppers (most instructions suggest THREE; I found two much easier to work with and still garnered pretty results) and cross their stems.
  3. Holding the peppers in one hand, use the other to loop the string around the stems twice.
  4. Next, drop the string below the peppers and bring it back up between the two. Pull up tightly on the string, making sure the peppers are secure in their new home.
  5. Then, using the same string, make a half-hitch knot over both stems. For us non-boy scouts, that basically just means, “tie a knot around the stems”. Pull tight and repeat the process about 3 inches above the last bundle.
  6. Repeat until all the peppers are strung up together. Tie a loop in the remaining string and voilà!
  7. Hang your Ristra, or give it away to a friend.

Happy making!


By Alexandra R. Agajanian