MY SHERRY AMOUR
I don’t think I’ve ever met a condiment I didn’t like. I love to get them as presents under the Christmas tree—I feel like a world traveler without getting out of my pajamas—and I love giving them—Branston pickle to a homesick Englishman, a big beautiful jar of preserved lemons or mostarda as a hostess gift, Ocracoke fig preserves to someone who thought she could never go home again, Thai red curry paste to people who like playing with fire, Duke’s mayonnaise to, well, pretty much anybody. (I consider myself sort of an unofficial Duke’s ambassador.)
Southerners, in fact, are a condiment-appreciating crowd. Artichoke pickle (which is made, not with true artichokes, but Jerusalem artichokes, a wild-growing tuber). Spiced grapes. Chowchow. Pickled okra and pepper jelly (two regional “classics” that post-date World War II). Shrimp butter. “Bourbonated” peaches. (The ones served at our wedding, overlooking a Savannah salt marsh, were from heirloom trees upcountry and were served with a syllabub spoon. They almost upstaged the wedding cake, they were that good. Because their juices were so voluptuous and sweet, we thought the bourbon was overkill, and never bothered to put it in. But I digress.)
I would travel back in time—hang the consequences—for the chance to have one of Aunt Roxie’s watermelon-rind pickles—and for the chance to coax the recipe out of her. Those pickles were superb, the best I’ve ever had; just looking at them cooled you off. Aunt Roxie also made a pepper Sherry that was as suave as Fred Astaire.
Pepper Sherry is my go-to condiment, the one I would want most on a desert island. (Let’s be realistic: Duke’s wouldn’t last in the heat.) It used to be so commonplace in the American South (as well as the West Indies) that it was never recorded in cookbooks. And then it gradually fell out of fashion and disappeared.
When the southern food historian and cookbook author Damon Lee Fowler discovered a jar of vintage pepper Sherry, analyzed its contents, and then published the recipe in his masterful Savannah Cookbook two years ago, it rocked my world, and I’ve gone through bottles of the stuff ever since. It somehow manages to be both delicate and devastatingly potent—rather like Aunt Roxie and other southern cooks of her generation—and a sprinkle or two is enough to add a little mystery and spicy-nutty caress to soups (everything from black bean to fish chowder), gumbos and other stews, a plateful of pot greens or rice and beans, even a tomatoey braised beef chuck roast.
By rights, pepper Sherry should be made with tiny, incendiary bird’s eye peppers. Aunt Roxie grew them on her front porch (I can’t think of them without conjuring lantana and sand spurs), but today, they can be tough to find. Lately, I’ve been using Thai chiles; I scooped up a bunch at the end of the season, and keep them in the freezer. But I think I’m going to track down some bird’s eye peppers in a seed catalog I’ve got here somewhere and grow them next year.
From The Savannah Cookbook, by Damon Lee Fowler (Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2008)
1/3 cup bird’s eye peppers or 1/2 cup other small hot peppers
1 cup medium dry Sherry (Amontillado)
1. Rinse the peppers in cold water, drain, and put them in a heatproof bowl. Bring 1 cup water to a rolling boil and pour it over the peppers. Let stand 1 minute and drain.
2. Put the peppers in a clean cruet, jar, or bottle that will hold at least 1½ cups. Pour the Sherry over them, stop or seal it well, and steep for at least 24 hours before using. It helps to distribute the peppery oils if you gently shake the cruet after 24 hours.
As you can see, sometimes the best things in life are staggeringly simple.