Harvest season musings and a chile pickle

Chile pickle in the sun
Chiles pickling in the late summer sun

A lot has changed in our lives since we started this blog in 2004. For one thing, the term “urban homesteader” has become a lot more common. For another, we’re not really doing much in the way of urban homesteading, lately. At least not in the sense that we originally meant. We don’t have any land, or even a yard. Our gardening consists of several pots of herbs and a small plot full of sunchokes at a nearby, temporary community garden. We don’t keep any chickens, and this was our last year as managers of the Eastside Egg Co-op, so as of a few weeks ago, we don’t even share ownership or care of any poultry at this point.1

Yet somehow, as we hit the peak of the harvest season, we are still pleasantly overwhelmed with food processing and preserving. We’ve had a busy summer of work and family life, but we’ve managed to hit most of the high points of my canning and pickling goals.

I’ve put up some good fermented dill cucumber pickles twice this summer, concocting a technique that is a combination of Euell Gibbon’s classic dill crock method and my favorite spicy-sour fermented cucumber pickle recipe from the fabulous Quick Pickles book. The first batch was a mix of green beans and cucumbers in late July, which I brought to my friends Cora and Craig‘s wedding as part of their potluck meal. And in early September, my friend Laleña and I put together a second batch of dills, along with a tasty batch of cucumber kimchi.

Later that week, Holly and I got together with Holly’s mom, our friends Craig and Amy, and fellow pedal-powered parent/preserving friend Sarah Gilbert, and over the course of a perfectly overcast Sunday we canned 130 pounds of beautiful Roma-type tomatoes from Deep Roots and Square Peg farms.

Perhaps the most exciting harvest achievement for me this year is that I’ve managed to put together nearly a gallon of my favorite hot chile treatment, an Indian-style achaar, or oil-pickle, which is cured in the sunlight. This is a tricky pickle to pull off in the Pacific Northwest, where our relatively cool summers mean a late-summer hot-chile harvest that dovetails nicely with the rainy season. My preferred chile for the pickle is the serrano, and it takes some careful timing and a lot of luck to line everything up so that I can buy a couple of pounds of serranos at their peak, pack them in the oil and seasonings, and still have a good month of sunlight. If the pickle doesn’t get enough sunlight, it is still tasty, but the chiles have a raw taste, and gradually the pickle starts to ferment, taking on a fizzy acidity. This is not ruinous — I can still use the chiles for cooking — but the precious, elusive, and totally addictive full intense flavor of this pickle only happens when it’s received a good three or four weeks of bright, clear sunlight. (Once Holly and I made a batch in late fall, in Seattle, with serranos we bought in San Francisco over Thanksgiving. We finished the sun-curing on the dashboard of our car as we drove across the West to Colorado for the winter holidays. We had the perfectly-sunned pickle as a condiment for an unusual Indian-flavored Christmas breakfast at Dad’s house.)

I put together this year’s batch on August 30th. So far it’s been a few weeks of perfect achaar-aging weather, including some 90°F temps and lots of sun, and a taste of a representative chile chunk demonstrated that it is doing very well indeed.

Another trick to this pickle is the mustard oil. It’s a key ingredient, but it can be hard to find. We had to go all the way to Beaverton to find an Indian grocery well-stocked enough to fill our needs. (If you don’t have a similar shop nearby, you might ask at a local Indian restaurant.) Hunting down mustard oil is worth the effort: I’ve tried this recipe with canola oil and other mild oils and it doesn’t quite work. My guess is that it’s the high erucic acid content that gives mustard oil its intense flavor, and that the presence of the acid, or the preheating (or both!), helps to keep the pickle from going rancid.

It’s odd that mustard oil is so hard to find, since one of North America’s biggest crops is simply a form of mustard that has been cultivated for a milder taste and lower erucic acid content: Canola oil (which stands for Canadian oil, low acid). So, dear Canola farmer, maybe you could plant a few fields of ordinary mustard, and produce some domestic mustard oil? I’d buy a few quarts each year, and I’m sure all the Indian restaurants on the continent would be happy to buy it from you as well.

I promised this recipe to an old friend in Colorado when I was making it. Here it is, hopefully not too late, for Greg and anyone else who either has a sunny autumn and a southern-facing window, or wants to bookmark it for next year.

Hot Chiles Pickled in Oil

Adapted from Cyrus Todiwala’s Café Spice Namaste cookbook.


1 lb small hot chiles: serrano, jalapeno, or your preference, but they should be as hot as possible
1 pt mustard oil
2 tb coarse-grain mustard
2 tb salt
1 tsp turmeric powder
1/4 tsp asafoetida
1 head of garlic, cloves smashed and peeled
2 tb lemon juice


Rinse the chiles well, and let them dry on a towel in the sun. When they are completely dry, cut off the stalks and cut the chiles into 1/2-inch pieces.

Heat the mustard oil to the smoking point in a heavy pan or stockpot. Due to the strong odors it will release, this is best done outdoors on a camping stove or butane burner. When the oil begins to smoke, turn off the heat.

Keeping in mind that the oil in the pan is still extremely hot, season the oil with the garlic: Put the garlic into a long-handled metal strainer or tea ball. Lower the garlic into the oil and let it sizzle. Gently shake the strainer to keep the garlic from sticking together. When the garlic is slightly browned and fragrant, lift it out of the oil, and carefully shake the strainer to drain excess oil back into the pan. (You can discard the garlic at this point, or save it to use in a stir-fry, soup, or something else.)

Let the oil cool in the pan until it is about 100°F.

Put the chiles and the mustard, spices, and lemon juice into a large mixing bowl and combine well with a spatula. Add the oil and mix gently and thoroughly.

Transfer the mixture to a scalded canning jar. Fasten a bit of cheesecloth or a linen tea-towel over the top of the jar with a rubber band and let the pickle air out for a day or two. Then cap the jar and leave it on a windowsill in the sun. I usually allow the mixture to pickle in the sun for at least a month. If you have a sunny deck or porch, you can leave it outside to get more sunlight, but bring the jar in at night.

There should be plenty of oil to cover the chiles. The pickle will keep for months at room temperature, and indefinitely in the refrigerator (though in my experience, it never lasts “indefinitely”; we eat it too quickly for that). Wipe the rim of the jar after removing chiles, to keep the jar closure clean and free of oil.

This pickle is a classic condiment on curries or chili. Try mincing some of the chiles and adding them to a blue cheese dressing or tuna salad. I sometimes use the pickle as an emergency chile supply for cooking.

The chiles also make a nice canapé, served on a tortilla chip atop a thin slice of sharp cheddar.

The leftover mustard oil can be used for cooking or seasoning.

This recipe can be multiplied with success.

 1. For the purposes of actually finishing this post, I am leaving a lot out of this paragraph: moved to Portland, had a baby, etc, etc. Gotta focus!

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One Response to Harvest season musings and a chile pickle

  1. Dave says:

    Canning and pickling are a couple of things we really want to start doing more of – though it’s getting a little bit late for it at this point. We’ll have to make that the new food experiment for next summer. This winter we’ll delve a bit more into cheese and bread making, and we should be starting to get good at it by the time we get around to summer again and have fresh fruit or veggies to can/pickle.

    Those chiles sound amazing… we looooove Indian food, which is another ethnic cuisine we want to delve further into cooking. Anyway, good luck with the last bit of canning, hope everything turns out well!

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