I'm wild about regional food products--stuff that's made locally, not distributed far and wide, and consumed with fierce love by the people of a given area. I make my brother fly giant "Weekender" bags of Middleswarth Bar-B-Q chips and multiple jars of Tallarico's Hoagie Spread cross-country when he visits from Pennsylvania. And I'm the lady at the Milwaukee airport with the suspiciously full carry-on bag of Usinger's summer sausage and aged cheddar getting searched by TSA. It's not just what the food product is that matters; what I really love is what it says about a place.
Seattle is rich with these kinds of locally made products, which we'll be looking at each week in these Seattle Pantry posts. First up: my all-time favorite Seattle condiment: Mama Lil's Peppers, which owner Howard Lev has been making in small batches for eighteen years.
Mama's Lil's, named in honor of Lev's mother, who pickled and preserved the hot Hungarian Goathorn peppers she grew in the garden of her Youngstown, Ohio home, are made according to a traditional recipe from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Youngstown's high concentration of Abruzzi immigrants, Lev says, explains how the recipe landed in the hands of Mama Lil (by way of a Serbian friend, who learned it from a Slovenian friend), who was partial to making traditional Jewish Romanian recipes.
Making Mama's Lil's is a labor-intensive process that, according to Lev, "can only be described as a labor of love." Production happens in a three-week frenzy once a year (usually the first few weeks of August) in Sunnyside, when the peppers are picked, seeded and sliced, usually within just a few hours of being picked. Lev works with four farms in the Central Yakima Valley; the furtherst farm from the processing site is just twelve miles away.
"The peppers are pickled for three days in a vinegar brine, then we drain all the moisture out of them," says Lev. "They typically drain for full 24 hours. Then we pack them in high-quality oil. Being in the oil does wonder for them, and they keep really well. I actually only eat peppers that are at least five years old."
Hearing Lev explain it, it all makes sense. I'm partial to the ultra-hot Mama Lil's Kick Butt peppers, and put them on/in nearly everything: eggs, sandwiches, pasta, tacos, grains like farro and quinoa, even soup. They have an unmistakable tartness from the pickling, but for all the spice and tang, the garlicky oil they float in mellows them into something that, remarkably, never overwhelms a dish. There's also the matter of the peppers inherent sweetness.
"Honestly," Lev continues, "I do this only in part because of the quality of the peppers I get from these farms. These peppers grow in Florida, but it's so humid, and the texture can just be mush. Out in Eastern Washington, the natural sugars turn them yellow, orange and red, but the aridness and the cold night temperatures stop them from ripening too fast. It keeps the peppers young and sweet and firm."
Local chefs are wise to the magic of Mama Lil's. Lev says the bulk of his business comes from selling directly to Seattle restaurants like Matt's in the Market, Serafina, BOKA, pizza shops like Pagliacci, Snoose Junction, and Zeek's, as well as sandwich shop The Honey Hole. But, he adds, "The peppers are even more popular with Portland chefs," where you'll find Mama Lil's on the menu at award-winning restaurants like Le Pigeon and Nostrana.
Mama Lil's Peppers are available at most local grocery and specialty food stores, where they are typically priced between $9-10 a jar. If ten bucks feels a little steep, take heart: you can also buy smaller quantities of peppers at these local stores, which sell Mama Lil's in bulk: Central Market (in Shoreline), DeLaurenti's, Madison Market, Metropolitan Markets, and Whole Foods.