It's chile pequin season at the little mercado behind Canino's. Two dollars will get you enough chiles for a year's worth of pepper vinegar. Official sources favor the name chiltepin, but in Texas the tiny pepper is known as the chile pequin. (Spelled "chili pikin" at one vendor's stall.) The peppers are propagated by birds rather than cultivation, and they grow wild throughout southern Texas and northern Mexico. These are the original chiles in North America—all of the cultivated Capsicum annuum varieties, from green peppers to jalapeños—are descended from this wild form.
In Houston, you might find a pequin bush in your backyard or a vacant lot. The original South Texas pepper sauce was simply a bottle of chile pequins in vinegar. The custom was to refill the vinegar as you used the pepper sauce. Then, in September, when there was a new batch of chile pequins available, you dumped your old chiles and started over again.
The vinegar is a key ingredient—it gives the heat some extra flavor. Cane vinegar was once traditional. White wine vinegar is very tasty. This year, for a change of pace, I used Japanese-style seasoned rice wine vinegar, which is slightly sweetened and flavored with garlic. I'm thinking it will taste great on collard greens, but it will also make a great base for a nuoc cham dipping sauce. Don't forget the extra virgin fish sauce.
Chile Pequin Vinegar
1 cup chile pequins
1 cup vinegar of your choice
Clean a cruet or pancake syrup dispenser with boiling water. Pack the bottle with chiles. Heat the vinegar in a small saucepan over low heat until it steams slightly. Pour the hot vinegar over the chiles to the top of the jar. Cover and allow the mixture to sit for a day before using. The bottle can be refilled with vinegar several times. Keep refrigerated between uses.
Makes 2 cups