For a long time, I’ve been looking for a recipe to preserve vegetables, Italian-style, in oil. I found a lot of retro recipe from the fifties explaining how to simply use a water-bath canning method to sterilise peppers and artichokes packed in oil. However, these days we know that using an open-water bath method of canning is not really safe for low-acidity vegetables. And although the risk is low, once you know that, you can’t really un-know it.
A short domestic science lesson:
The problem is that the botulism toxin, which is rare, but can be deadly, can thrive in a sealed, airless environment. There are ways of eliminating the risk. One way is using pressurised environment, such as in a pressure canner, to raise temperatures higher than the point where the toxin spores can survive, which is how the antipasti jars you see on your supermarket shelves will have been processed.
The other way is to raise the acidity of the environment to make it inhospitable for the toxin. This is why pickles and jams are safe to use a water-bath method for. Fruit, most varieties of tomatoes and of course, anything in vinegar are safe to can at home.
Is there a safe method?
But I don’t want pickled peppers. I want them preserved in oil. I like to serve them as a starter, or mixed in salads, and I didn’t want an overpowering vinegary flavour. I also don’t want to store them in the fridge. A lot of the modern recipes I was reading were American, and they blithely give instructions to “seal and keep in the fridge.” Well, I live in a city in Europe, and my fridge is the size of the average American shoebox. Once I have the baby’s milk and maybe a lettuce in there, I struggle to close the door.
Use a hybrid pickle
Then I discovered a method called “sott’olio” in one of Jane Grigson’s books. You acidify the vegetables to be pickled by marinating or boiling them in a vinegar solution, and then you top off with oil. The olive oil gives some flavour, and the acid used is mild, but essentially this is an olive-oil-flavoured pickle, and so safe to store in the pantry.
Bell Peppers Preserved in Oil
500g / 1lb bell peppers. I used small “snack-sized” peppers in all different lovely colours.
A cup of olive oil, or a mixture of olive and a cheaper, tasteless oil if funds are low.
A cup of vinegar. I used red wine vinegar, but you can use any type you like for different flavours
2 cloves of garlic (optional)
- First fry your peppers. Quarter them, or slice them into eighths if they are very large, and put a good layer of oil in the bottom of your pan. Fry the peppers, skin-side down, on a high heat until they are blackened and burnt. Squish them flat with the back of a spatula and turn them over for a final minute or so. The skins should look ruined and the peppers soft. Don’t worry, all will be fine.
- Put the peppers in a bowl and cover it with Clingfilm. Leave to cool.
- Put the vinegar in a second bowl, and top with an equal quantity of water.
- When they are cool enough to handle, rub the blackened skins off the peppers, they will come off quite easily now, and drop each pepper in the bowl of vinegar. Leave them there while you sterilise your jars.
- One by one, take the peppers out of the vinegar and pack them as tightly as you can in the warm jars. After you finish each layer, sprinkle it with a little salt. Pack the garlic cloves in there if using. When there is a two-finger space between the top of the jar and the level of the peppers, pour some of the vinegar over the peppers until they are just covered. You will not need very much, there should be very little space between the layers.
- Slide a chopstick down the sides of the jars to release any pockets of air.
- Top off with olive oil and close.There should be a one-finger headspace in the jar.
- Line the bottom of a pan which is big enough to hold your jar(s) with a folded tea-towel. Put the jars on the tea towel and then pour water to almost cover. Put the pan on the heat and bring to the boil. Once boiling point has been reached, boil for ten minutes and then remove the jars. I do this using oven gloves and speed.
- The jar will click when it has sealed, and you will no longer be able to compress the button on the top. They are now cupboard-safe for up to a year.
You can use the same method to preserve many types of vegetables. With the mushrooms in the picture, I marinated them first in lemon juice, and then boiled 1lb (500g) of mushrooms in a solution of four pints (two litres) of vegetable stock to two cups of white wine vinegar. When they were slightly softened, I fished them out and packed them in jars with lemon slices and peppercorns, then proceeded as for the peppers.
Ps. The jar of meat in the picture is pâté. It tastes a lot better than it looks. Recipe for that coming soon.