Mama Lil’s Pickles: for Gourmet

Mama Lil’s pickles
Shoba Narayan

Ten years ago, Howard Lev, then a screenwriter, drove across the Cascade Mountains from Seattle to the Yakima Valley on a camping trip. At Kruegar Farms in Wapato, Washington, he discovered some Hungarian goathorn peppers that tasted even better than the ones his Jewish mother from Rumania had been pickling in Youngstown, Ohio for as long as he could remember. The Valley’s combination of hot days and cool nights elongated the growing season, producing firm peppers that turned from yellow to orange to red. “When you get all these colors together in a jar, it makes for a wonderful complexity of flavors because they each have a different sugar content,” says Lev.

Lev called his Mom and asked for pickle recipes. She responded by sending several, but also a package with one pepper cut exactly the way she wanted it. Lev started making small batches of pickled peppers and sending them along with his scripts. “Good script, but really great pickles,” was the response. Soon, Lev got the message and Mama Lil’s Pickles was born.

Lev’s production season runs 8 weeks when the peppers are ripe. He cuts them by hand, takes the seeds out, dunks them in a pickling brine of salt and vinegar for a day, then drains the vinegar out so that it doesn’t block the oils and spices from infusing the peppers. Unlike commercial pickle makers, Lev cold-packs his pickles, which means that he heats his peppers after they are in a jar. He fills each bottle with a colorful mix of pickled peppers, adds oregano, garlic and other spices, pours in a mix of extra virgin olive oil and expeller pressed canola oil. He sends the jars through a steam oven, heating each one just enough so that nothing grows in them, yet making sure that the peppers don’t get overcooked and turn into mush. “The transfer of flavors between the pickled peppers, garlic, oregano, and the oil is what gives the flavor,” he says.

Lev also makes a hotter version, which he calls, “Mama Lil’s Kickbutt Peppers.” His other products include pickled vegetables like asparagus and beans, as well as “Peppalilli”, a variation of the classic chow-chow recipe that uses peppers, onions, cucumbers and sweet mustard sauce. “When I did samplings of my Peppalilli at grocery stores, 80-year-old women would come up to me and say, “I haven’t eaten this since the time my grandmother made them.’”

I first tasted Mama Lil’s pickles at a Seattle grocery store. The peppers were crisp and fresh, and the flavor bloomed slowly in my mouth as I chewed. Soon, I was addicted, and put the peppers on sandwiches, pizzas, toast, pasta, and in fact, everything I ate. I used the flavored oil as a marinade and salad dressing.

Lev sells directly to specialty shops in Seattle and to many online grocery stores such as chefshop.com. Mama Lil’s pickles can be mail-ordered directly from Lev by calling (206) 322-8824, or emailing mamalils@zipcon.net

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About Shoba Narayan

Writer. Author. Freelance journalist. Business Columnist. Travel writer.
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