My neighbor Mesha won my heart when she sent over a bottle of her mother Zelpha's hot pepper sauce (delivered shyly but dutifully by Mesha's teenage son). It was wrapped in newspaper from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent that revealed a Ju-C soda bottle filled with bright orange sauce, reeking of garlic and vinegar. It was so hot I could hardly stand it, but so delicious I couldn't stop eating it—on rice, bread, any suitable vehicle.
Our friendship was new—warm, but slightly tentative. When I received this gift I thought, "She really get's me." (I would show off the bottle of pepper sauce to anyone who came to my house, as if it were a highly valuable and extravagant present). I hadn't met her mother Zelpha, but I wanted to cook with her—and soon enough, I did.
Watching Zelpha efficiently peel a head of garlic (and seed pounds of peppers while you turn around to wash one dish), you can tell she's someone who knows unequivocally what she's doing in the kitchen. She makes her pepper sauce by feel—adding a little of this and a little of that until it seems right. Each island in the Caribbean has it's own variation, and each cook on that island has hers. The method is simple enough that once you've made it a few times, you won't need to look at a recipe either, and you will adjust the heat, the salt, the acidity, to your own palate.
Zelpha taught me (and my Facebook Live audience) how to make hot pepper sauce last time she visited (she splits her time between the Island and Brooklyn). I've since made it again so I could give you actual measurements. I substitute cumin and coriander for the MSG-free sazon (the Carribean's ubiquitous seasoning mix) that is Zelpha's (no longer) secret ingredient, and use a mix of ripe jalapeños for sweetness and habañeros for heat to mimic the spicy-sweet depth of Zelpha's tropical homegrown peppers (If you can find scotch bonnets, use lots of those). Give it a try, and then make it your own.
Post Script: Mesha brought me a jar of her mom's spicy green chicken-marinade last week. Our friendship is blossoming.
Recipe: Zelpha's Hot Pepper Sauce
Zelpha uses a mix of hot peppers grown in her back yard on St. Vincent. Use any ripe (red and orange) hot peppers you can find: scotch bonnet or habanero for a spicier sauce, jalapeño for a milder blend. This recipe is scaled to fit in a standard blender. If you want to make more, multiply the recipe for each pound of peppers and blend in batches.
Yields approximately 1 quart
- 1 pound ripe (red and orange) hot peppers
- 1 small–medium onion, peeled and halved
- 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
- 3/4 cup distilled white vinegar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 2 Tablespoons fine sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- rubber gloves
- recycled bottles or jars*
*If you plan to keep this unrefrigerated for more than a few weeks, sanitized the bottles or jars with boiling water before filling.
1. Wearing rubber gloves, trim the stems from the peppers and remove most of the seeds (don't worry about a few stragglers). Be careful to remove or change your gloves when touching other things in the kitchen—the last thing you want is to accidentally transfer those spicy oils to your eyes.
2. Put the trimmed peppers, onion, and garlic into the blender. Add 1/2 cup of the vinegar and the 1/2 cup water. Blend until smooth and pourable, adding the rest of the vinegar if necessary to aid blending.
3. Pour the blended mixture into a large pot. Add the olive oil, sea salt, spices, and any remaining vinegar. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium-high heat, just to help the flavors meld. Taste for seasoning (a little rice or bread can help you do this without burning your mouth up), and adjust as you like—if needed.
4. Allow the simmered sauce to cool to a manageable temperature (you DO NOT want to splash boiling pepper sauce on yourself). Using a ladle and funnel, transfer it into bottles or jars. Seal, and store at room temperature (or refrigerated) for up to a year. The vinegar and salt act as preservatives.