Southern salsa

Pepper relish on field peas with cornbread and 'maters.

One of my favorite discoveries after moving to North Carolina 33 years ago was pepper relish. Not pepper jelly which is usually nothing more than pectin, sugar and food coloring, but pepper relish which is tiny pieces of pickled peppers — just like in the nursery rhyme. 

Pepper relish is not easy to make (only because there’s so much chopping), but it is simple and a good first-time canning project for someone in search of same. With so much vinegar and sugar, you probably don’t need to worry about killing anyone, unlike trying something non-acidic for your initial go.

Peppers grow like mad in our hot southern summers. Pepper relish is one of those zippy condiments invented by southern cooks looking to spice up their field peas, a cheap, easy protein source that all cooks, no matter how poor, grew in their gardens. Field peas, blackeyed peas, crowder peas — they all need pepper relish like Mars needs moms.

Pepper relish is good on cream cheese and crackers, added to meatloaf, atop scrambled eggs or in a chicken, pork or beef sandwich. I wouldn’t try it on ice cream, but it improves just about everything else. This recipe is from Southern Food on about.com. I added the jalapenos because we like our zippy zipped up just a smidge.

Sweet pepper relish

20 large bell peppers of varying colors, seeds and membranes removed, about 6 pounds

3 to 6 jalapenos

1-1/2 pounds sweet onions

1/4 cup kosher or pickling salt

5 cups sugar

2 cups white vinegar

2 cups cider vinegar

1 tablespoon yellow mustard sereds

1 tablespoon sweet Hungarian parika, optional

Coarsely chop some of the peppers and some of the onions to give texture to your relish. Run the rest through a food grinder or processor. Combine all in a large, non-reactive bowl with salt; toss to mix thoroughly. Cover with ice and let stand for 3 hours. (During this time, you can wash and sterilize jars, lids, rims and utensils if you like.)

Drain peppers, squeezing to get as much moisture out as possible. (You’ll find this mixture has the best and freshest smell to ever come out of your garden or the farmer’s market.) In large nonreactive kettle, combine vinegars, sugar, mustard and paprika, if using. Add well-drained peppers and onions, stir and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, for 50 to 60 minutes, until slightly thickened and darkened. Stir occasionally. (I always use a diffuser under the kettle to prevent all that sugar from scorching.)

Meanwhile, fill a boiling water bath canner about half full. Add clean canning jars and rims

Ice on peppers and onions in big stainless bowl.

to the water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and keep jars warm.

In saucepan, bring water to simmer, turn to low and add the flat lids. Keep lids in hot water until ready to use (you don’t want rubber seals  boiled more than once and that will be in the canner, not before).

When pepper mixture finishes cooking, ladle into hot drained jars. Fill to within 1/2 inch of jar top. Stir with clean utensil to get rid of air bubbles. With damp clean paper towel, wipe rims of jars. Return jars with rims and lids to boiling water bath (1 inch of water above lids) and gently boil for 10 minutes. Stand on several layers of clean towels away from any breezes or drafts. In 24 hours test seals and tighten rims. Label and store in cool, dark place for 3 months before eating. Makes 17 to 18 half-pints (probably enough for some holiday giving).

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