One of my favorite condiments in Peru was a kind of relish made with rocoto peppers, onion, lime and some herbs (sometimes huacatay, sometimes parsley), I called it pico de rocoto, because it reminded me, in looks, of its tomato-laden cousin, pico de gallo. But this stuff was better. It had rocoto. Rocoto is a small, roundish red pepper that tolerates colder weather and grows in South America. Besides the unique appearance of the whole pepper, I found them to be pretty similar to crispy, red bell peppers. Not so sweet, though, and with a hint of heat. They are a bit thinner and less watery than the normal red bells, which I think helps with fermenting. Unfortunately my local latin markets don’t stock rocoto, so I had to improvise and I lucked out by finding some small, thin-walled peppers from a local farmer’s market this week. Sorry, rocoto, that I can’t use you. But if you have rocoto-access, please feel free to substitute the real thing. I love this recipe. With just a short fermentation, it maintains bright colors but achieves mellowness of flavor where needed (hint: it’s needed in the onions, IMO).
This relish isn’t the only way we ate rocoto in Peru. It’s a really popular vegetable all over the Andes. They stuff it, rocoto relleno, and it’s also commonly served as a sauce, salsa de rocoto. Restauranteurs and cooks were constantly warning us that it was going to be super spicy, but their warnings never proved true. I’m not that much of a pepperhead, and I could eat it by the spoonful in all its forms. Rocoto supposedly ranks with habaneros and scotch bonnets on the Scoville scale, but in eating this pepper dozens of times in spots ranging from local bars to gringo hotspots and from the villages of the Sacred Valley to the sprawling capital city of Lima, I never got anything even as hot as a jalapeño. Maybe it was the season. Who knows? It was good stuff, which is what matters to me, and what inspired me to make this salsa.
Peppers are in the category of vegetables that, to me, are not great fermenters, but are worth fermenting anyway. They will get pretty limp pretty quickly, but I will still pickle them and just use them where their limpness isn’t a problem. They’re worth it. in this case, though, we want our peppers to stay crispy, so I’ve resorted to the condiment trick of using a starter. Whey is the most vigorous helper I know, and kefir whey is the strongest of the wheys I’ve tried, so I overbrewed a batch of kefir intentionally to get a few tablespoons. A few hours extra was all it took in this hot summer weather. The overbrew of 3/4 of a quart of kefir yielded a bit more than a half cup of whey, which was more than sufficient for my needs.
The result transported me. To me, these are the flavors of sitting streetside in the business and shopping district (read: non-touristy) of Cusco or in a tiny cafe in an equally tiny town in the sacred valley. Again, I urge you to visit Peru if you have the means. It is worth the trip.
PICO DE ROCOTO – RED PEPPER SALSA
Yields ~6 cups of salsa
Don’t hate me for not using rocoto. I would if I could. And this salsa did the job of reminding me thoroughly of the wonderful “pico” we had in Peru. If you are a heat-lover, feel free to substitute actual hot peppers here. I could see some cayenne or long hots being pretty amazing here, too.
- 2 lbs. small, red peppers, preferably rocoto, but if not, red bell or other small red not or barely spicy pepper works great
- 1 1/2 large red onion
- 1 bunch parsley (or huacatay, if you can find it), divided
- 1 lime, cut into 1/8ths
- 1/3 cup whey
- 3 cups brine (I used a scant two tablespoons of salt, dissolved into room temperature, filtered water for an especially salty salsa)
- 1 fresno hot pepper, chopped into small rings (optional)
- Chop onion and pepper into small squares (as pictured)
- Into one half-gallon or two quart jars, add whey, and then for prettiness, create alternating layers of pepper and onion pieces, until both are used up. If using hot pepper, add it in amongst the red pepper pieces.
- Take half the bunch of herbs, stems included and wrap them into the jar as you would clothes around the inside of a washing machine. Reserve the other half
- Put the lime pieces on top, but do not squeeze out the juice. You want the lime flavor infusing, not the lime juice acidifying
- Pour brine over the whole thing, ensuring that there is enough brine to cover the limes.
- Put the jar lid on and close it tightly. This is a quick ferment, only 3 days. I wasn’t worried about mold, so I didn’t put any weight on. You can, if you are concerned, by using any of the submersion methods.
- Let the jar sit at room temperature for 3 days. Some water will release from the veggies and they will rise above the liquid.
- At the end of three days, remove the lime pieces. The juice should still be usable for other things, or you could finish fermenting them and preserve them!
- Remove the parsley or huacatay and compost it. It will be virtually flavorless.
- Chop remaining half bunch of herbs and mix it into your salsa. Refrigerate it or serve. It’ll be great for a week or longer.