I’m going to let you in on a family secret. It involves jars and eggplants and peppers. Sometimes green tomatoes, but not today. Lots of vinegar and salt. Garlic, garlic, garlic. And some other stuff. Sounds innocent enough, right? But these simple ingredients, when combined, create our family’s secret culinary weapon: Pickled eggplants and peppers.
It sounds strange, I’m sure. I don’t know how pickled vegetables became such an important part of our family makeup. But over the years they’ve become just as important—if not moreso—than jarred tomato sauce. They graced our dinner table every night when we were growing up. My brother Sal mastered the art of making them go with anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if he snuck them into his breakfast cereal when we weren’t looking. Tucked them under his pasta. Crammed them into his chicken rollatini. His meal of choice as an adolescent was chicken cutlets swimming in ketchup and a pile of this stuff. Much to my parents’ glee, they could get us to eat anything as long as it was accompanied by pickled vegetables. It’s probably the reason we now eat everything, with or without the pickled stuff.
Just as I was mildly taunted for our tomato sauce stash, I was mildly famous at school for these pickled beauties. Around sixth grade, my girlfriends were over, poking around the refrigerator and asking what everything was, when they stumbled on a jar of pickled green tomatoes. They looked particularly revolting because the olive oil freezes in the fridge. The laughing kicked in. The “eww gross, what do you do with those” inquisitions that plagued my youth. Then they tried them. And suddenly, I wasn’t such a loser. In fact, I was even a little bit cool. The green tomatoes were such a hit that other kids started asking about them in the hallways, making requests for jars, their moms calling my mom for the recipe. When I was in high school a boy did my calculus take-home exam in exchange for a jar. I’m not kidding.
I hung out with the old gang last week for my best friend’s engagement party, and the jars actually came up in conversation. Jackie, who I hadn’t seen in a good two years, pulled me aside and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about your mom’s pickled vegetables.” I’m glad some things never change.
Of course, I never learned how to make them. For nearly three decades, I’ve greedily inhaled my favorite condiment by the jarful, never once asking my mom for the recipe, never even caring to know. Thankfully I’ve seen the light, and I will never look back. I made three jars this week with my mom’s daily phone guidance. Two are for me, and one is for my brother Sal, the master appreciator of this fine art form.
Pickled Eggplants and Peppers
The technique for pickled green tomatoes is slightly different, but alas, we’ll have to wait until next summer for that one. I think eggplants and peppers are better anyway, but I’m sure a playground brawl would break out if I said that in certain company.
2 red, orange, or yellow bell peppers
4 tablespoons salt
1 cup white vinegar
5 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
4 tablespoons olive oil
1. Peel the eggplants and slice them into 1/2-inch rounds. Cut each round into small strips, about 1 inch long and ¼ inch wide. Slice the peppers into strips about the same size.
The eggplants will shrink to around ¾ their size after the salt extracts water from them. Peppers are heartier, so they won’t break down as drastically. Keep this in mind when deciding how small to cut your pieces. Peppers are fine at any size. Eggplants are more appetizing in smaller strips. Too big, and they start to look like slugs in the jar. Not appetizing, I promise you.
2. Put the cut eggplants and peppers in separate bowls. Cover each with 2 tablespoons of salt and toss until the vegetables are entirely coated. The eggplants start to break down within minutes. The peppers won’t look as affected, but don’t worry. Cover and set aside for 24 hours (refrigeration isn’t necessary).
3. The next day, drain the vegetables and rise briefly if you don’t want them too salty. I don’t rinse them—their saltiness is half their beauty. The other half? Vinegar.
4. Return the eggplants and peppers to their respective bowls and cover with enough white vinegar to keep them submerged, about ½ to ¾ cup for each bowl. Cover and set aside for another 24 hours.
5. Drain the vinegar and squeeze out any excess. The eggplants will have soaked up most of it; squeeze it out if you don’t want to be overwhelmed. Don’t worry about losing the vinegar flavor—it’s truly in there, no matter how much excess you squeeze away. Drain the peppers, which will still be pretty crisp.
6. Now the true magic begins. Combine the eggplants and peppers in a large bowl and season with garlic, shallots, red pepper flakes, and oregano. Top with enough olive oil to coat everything, about 4 tablespoons. I included spice quantities in my ingredients list, but that’s just a formality. It’s truly a free-for-all at this point. Season it to your liking. I personally went garlic crazy and used 10 cloves. I did not regret it. It’s your show—there’s no way to mess this up.
7. Once everything is combined, pack the mess into mason jars. One 16-ounce jar fits a little less than 1 eggplant and 1 pepper. This recipe yielded about 3 jars.