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Southwestern regions of the United States and parts of Mexico display decorative strings of whole peppers, or pepper pods, called ristras. A ristra is made up of varieties of mostly red- and brown-colored chili peppers that are strung tightly together for hanging and drying. Though some are for decoration only, others provide dried peppers for cooking. Most ristras are composed of peppers, though some inedible types include garlic bulbs.
When making a ristra, it is generally advisable to select peppers that are not green or too young. These green varieties are very moist and can be more difficult to dry out. Peppers used can include ancho, serrano, poblano, or cayenne. Local varieties in New Mexico and Arizona often are used as representative of the region where they are grown. A mix of pepper types can be used, and shapes and sizes can vary, though for uniform drying it may work well to hang pods of uniform size.
Stringing the peppers into a chain for hanging usually starts by wrapping the stems with wire and circling down and around as pepper pods are added beneath. When stringing is complete and the ends are tied off, the ristra may be hung from a rafter, door, or ceiling hook for drying. Hanging it in a well-ventilated area is important so the insides of the peppers do not become moldy from too much moisture. A sunny location often is best, as it may speed drying time and keep the inside of the pepper from spoiling and becoming inedible. Drying times range from a couple of weeks to longer, depending on the conditions.
To use ristra peppers in cooking, a pod or pods can be removed from the bottom of the cluster. Peppers dried on a string can be prepared as with any dried pepper. Rehydrating peppers in water before using is a common method, or they can be added dry to a stock-based recipe, such as a stew or bean pot. Charring rehydrated peppers over the fire of a gas grill or stove top also works well. Smaller varieties can also be used to flavor oil for seasoning.
Treating purely decorative ristras with shellac can add shine and preserve it for up to several years. Strips of corn husks and ribbons often adorn the tops, whether decorative or edible. Some makers of ristras forgo the real peppers and craft strings of ceramic, plastic, or paper mache pods for adding southwestern elements to decor.
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