A Chutney for All Seasons

Parsi Tomato Chutney

My seasonal clock seems to be all messed up this year. Normally I don’t even wait for the first autumn leaf to hit the pavement before breaking out my Le Creuset and cranking up the oven. Things like cream, butter and cheese go from occasional indulgences to refrigerator staples, and salad relinquishes its starring role for supporting performances alongside soups, stews and roasts. Not this year. To date I’ve bought one winter squash, have made exactly nothing with mushrooms, potatoes or pears, and haven’t so much as shown a dust-rag to my poor Le Creuset. For crying out loud, I haven’t even had a cup of hot chocolate! Instead we’re still eating things like this, my fridge is full of eggplants and zucchini, and I’m posting recipes a week before November that call for multiple pounds of fresh tomatoes. What on earth is wrong with me?

The easy answer would be our summer travels. Not only did it cause me to miss out on one of the most important food months in the northern European seasonal calendar—which correspondingly pushed my whole eating calendar out of whack—but it got me so hooked on the fresh, bright flavors of the Orient that even now that the weather here has taken a turn towards the Arctic I can’t stop filling my shopping cart with warm-climate imports instead of what’s currently in season here.

In reality, though, I think the reason probably has more to do with what lies ahead than behind. The fact is that I’m simply not ready to face winter again. I was telling Manuel yesterday that life in Germany seems to have two modes: dealing with winter or dreading it. That blissful in-between time of endless blue skies and soft, golden evenings which should be a northern climate’s reward for suffering through the bleaker months just didn’t last long enough this year. By my count there were two good months this summer, one of which we weren’t even here for (and yes, we had plenty of heat in Asia, but it wasn’t exactly weather conducive to enjoying the outdoors!), and that’s certainly not long enough to erase the sting of seven months of misery. I feel like I spent so much time longing for summer and planning all the ways I would enjoy it that now that it’s over—and most of those plans never made it off the shelf—I’m in a kind of denial. Enough denial, it seems, to forsake many of the foods I spend all year looking forward to. Or, at least, enough to postpone enjoying them for a bit longer.

You don’t need to find yourself in seasonal denial to make this chutney, though. In fact, this might just be the perfect time to make it. You see, while for most tomato recipes you want the heavy, sweet specimens of summer, for this one those would be a little wasted. That’s not to say you’d want the utterly flavorless winter tomatoes here, but the ones you find at this time of the year are sort of in between, not worth rhapsodizing over but definitely capable of showing some spunk when left on a low flame for a few hours to mingle with some garlic, ginger and spices. Of course if you still have good tomatoes by all means use them; for those of us that don’t live in a magical sun-kissed fairyland, however, whatever can be dredged up at the supermarket will be more than adequate.

Actually it’ll be nothing short of amazing, as everything I’ve ever subjected to this recipe has been. I’m generally pretty picky about my chutneys, particularly those in the sweet, cooked genre (as opposed to any of the myriad herb/chile/nut/coconut concoctions that are blended fresh); for example, there’s nothing I hate more than so-called ‘chutneys’ that are actually lightly-spiced fruit jams interrupted by a few slivers of rubbery, barely-cooked onion. Or in other words, most of the commercial chutneys I’ve ever bought. This one, though, is a different beast entirely. It comes from one of my favorite Indian cookbooks—make that one of my favorite cookbooks of any genre—My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King (from which this incredible curry also comes), and it has become my go-to recipe whenever I feel like bottling my own sweet-spicy-sour taste of the subcontinent. Not only does it have no rubbery pieces of onion, it requires very little in the way of exotica, which means that even those who don’t habitually dip their toes into Indian-food waters will be able to whip up a batch without needing to invest in a lot of esoteric ingredients. The spicing, nonetheless, is perfect: a tongue-titillating dance of sweet, sour, salty and hot discreet enough to harmonize with non-Indian flavors but complex enough to stand up on its own. In previous years I’ve made this chutney with apples and plums, and this year I finally gave it a try with tomatoes, which is what the recipe is actually written for. It’s been equally stellar with all of them, but the tomato version is perhaps the most versatile: so far I’ve enjoyed it smeared on all manner of sandwiches (try it on a BLT with avocado… drool!), layered with cheese and crackers for a snack, dolloped generously on takeout falafel, and mixed with a little mayo and sour cream for an addictive dip. And of course it goes without saying that a spoonful would enliven any plate of rice and curry under the sun.

It also adds a fantastic kick to, ahem, tuna and chicken salads. I imagine it would dress up a big chunk of roast meat like nobody’s business too, but if you want hard evidence on that I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a few more weeks for my report—or simply find out for yourself.

Parsi Tomato Chutney

Although this is called tomato chutney, it’s actually a recipe template that can be used with all kinds of seasonal fruit. I’ve done both apples and plums this way, but you could also try peaches, apricots, pears, quinces, cherries… Just make sure to tweak the seasoning after cooking so you have a good balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot. And here’s a tip: if you can’t face slicing all that ginger and garlic by hand, just throw them into a food processor (peeled, of course, and in the case of the ginger sliced into coins) and blitz them to a medium-fine chop. It won’t look quite as pretty, but it’ll taste just as good.
Source: slightly adapted from My Bombay Kitchen by Niloufer Ichaporia King
Makes: about 1 1/2 quarts/liters; recipe can easily be doubled

3 pounds (1.5kg) ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped (or pitted, chopped plums or peaches, or peeled, cored and diced apples, pears, quinces, etc.)
1/2 cup finely-julienned peeled ginger (about one 2.5-inch/6-cm-long piece)
1/2 cup thinly-sliced garlic (about one large head)
1 1/2 cups (375ml) cane, malt or cider vinegar
1/2 to 1 cup (75-150g) raisins (optional)
2 cups (400g) turbinado/raw sugar, or half light brown and half white
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons cayenne pepper or hot ground chile (or to taste)
1 small cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons salt
grated peel of 1 organic orange (optional)

First, open a few windows (you’ll soon see why). Place all the ingredients except the orange peel (start with the smaller amounts given) in a heavy nonreactive pot and bring to a boil, stirring so everything gets well combined. Lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the chutney reaches the consistency of a soft jam. This will probably take at least 2 hours; you can speed things up by increasing the heat, but then you’ll need to remember to stir much more frequently. Particularly once it starts getting thick it can burn in a flash.

Adjust the balance of sugar, salt and vinegar while the chutney is still warm. Add the orange peel if you want it. Add more cayenne if you’d like it hotter. Preferably let it sit out for a day to let the flavors meld and then check the seasonings again. As Niloufer explains it, you want a taste of this chutney to “light up your mouth”; I like to think of it as a wrestling match between sweet, sour, salty and hot.

To bottle for shelf-storage, bring the chutney back to a rolling boil for 2 minutes, then proceed with your favorite canning method. Otherwise, it will keep a good few weeks in the fridge (particularly if you’ve used the full amount of cayenne!).