Every so often our veggie patch is blessed with a plant that just won't stop. There was the Year of The Basil, the Year of The Tomatoes (sadly, also the year that the basil wilted and refused to grow), then the Year of The Chillies, and the Year of The Chillies, and the Year of the Chillies…
The basil was easy enough to use up in salads and pesto and the tomatoes had me experimenting with sauces and chutneys, but even when your husband is Indian, there are only so many chillies you can add to a dish.
So when winter arrived last year, we harvested our chillies before the frost could get to them and found ourselves facing Mt Chillington (it turns out I needn't have worried, our chilli plant laughed in the face of winter and has never taken a break from producing fruit). Since we use dried chilli in pretty much all of our Indian dishes, that was the most obvious answer for us, and there was a certain appeal in hanging bundles of homegrown produce from the ceiling too.
Here is my entirely unsanctioned, over complicated, make-it-up-as-you-go-along guide to stringing, hanging and drying chillies.
You will need:
- Too many chillies. These can be red, green (they will turn red in time), fresh or a bit shriveled, so long as they are free from signs of fungus or decomposition. Try to pick your chillies so they still have their stem, you can easily pick off any leaves as you thread them.
- String — not too thick, not too thin. I used a ball of wool, but only because I couldn't get to something more appropriate without waking the baby
- A needle with a large enough eye for your string. Thick enough to press through the chilli without hurting your fingertips, but not so thick that it will spilt the chilli stem
Thread your string through the needle. Sounds easy, right? That's because you were smart enough not to try use wool.
Pull enough string through that you can work without it coming back out of the needle again. If you are using wool, this should stay in place quite easily, then again, if you are using wool you are probably still on step 1.
Thread those chillies! You will want to thread through the base of the stem since this is the hardest part of the fruit to split. As you thread each chilli, slide it down the string to join its friends. Prepare for a few of your chillies to split or fall off the thread at some point during this process, but don't worry because you had too many of the suckers anyway, remember?
Once you've strung yourself a spicy chilli necklace, it's time to make a choice. Do you want a big ol' bundle of chillies or nice slender rows? If you chose the latter, skip to step 10.
Grab a hold of the string beside your first and last chillies and pull them together to form a ring. Tie the two ends together in a quick double knot.
Hold onto the end with the needle still attached (I hope) and thread it under the opposite side of the ring, leaving enough slack in the centre for hanging. Tie another knot and you should be able to pick up the chilli bundle with its new little handle.
Snip off the excess string on either side of the ring. Take a well deserved sip of wine.
Repeat steps 1-7, leaving a slightly longer length of string for the handle. Take the handle of your second bundle and poke it through the middle of the first bundle so you can gather the two string together for hanging. Tie a knot near the base of the string.
More choices! If you have used up all your chillies, skip to step 12. If you still have a chilli mountain, either add a third ring to your chilli bundle, start the process over again or try out step 10.
Line your remaining chillies up against your string. Guesstimate how many chillies you will need on the string so that you still have half remaining, then thread 'em.
When you think you have reached the halfway mark, leave a gap in the string. This will be used for hanging, so make it 10 or so centimetres long. Continue threading the remaining chillies.
Tie a big, fat knot at both ends of your string to avoid escapees. Trim off the excess.
Find a dry, well ventilated area to hang your chillies. We hang ours from the sunlight in our kitchen, which admittedly is not ideal, but the sunlight helped to keep them dry in the winter, plus it looks great and they're right there when we need them for cooking. I have used S hooks for hanging.
WASH YOUR HANDS!
Paint your kitchen cupboard red to match (optional).
Notes on cooking, storing, and the dreaded orange chilli:
You can cook with your chillies at any time during the drying process, we just reach up on our tippy toes, pull one off the string and chuck it in the pot. Since wool is quite strong and they are threaded, not tied, the stem splits when you pull on them and they come of individually without taking out the entire bundle. Just make sure you remove the stems before cooking. And the string.
Our last batch of chillies were hung in winter and they took at least a few months to dry completely, but I probably left them up longer than necessary because I liked the look of them. And maybe I was a lazy. This time we've hung them in summer so I'm predicting the process should be a bit faster.Once all the moisture has been stripped from your chillies and the've become almost crackly, you can take them down and store them in an air tight container. They should be a dark, rich red, if they are looking a bit orange cut the orange portion open to check for mould. Chuck the mouldies out, but the untouched chillies will still be fine. Of the chillies remaining after hanging, I would say one in five had gone a bit funny (bearing in mind that we had already cooked the majority of ours and we had left them up too long).
You are now ready to "surprise" your friends and family with your new secret ingredient. Good luck!