As my fingers hit the keys, the sun is out, there are green things growing in my yard, and it well and truly looks like spring might be here. It’s the time of year when a food-lover’s mind turns to farmers’ markets and vacant-lot foraging, but there’s still a whole lot of waiting to do. For the next month or so it’s more of the same old dry goods, imported produce and, if you’re very lucky, berries you smartly stashed in the freezer last year.
But you know what’s just as good now as it was when I made it last year? Chutney, that’s what. There’s a bit of a chutney glut at my house, since I have, in the past, tended to make great huge batches of it and then failed to give it away as intended. I also have a very hard time saying no to chutney from other people’s kitchens, since everyone’s chutney recipe is different. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an obsession, but it certainly is an accumulation.
Now, you have probably encountered chutney in one of two contexts: as an accompaniment to Indian cooking, or as a condiment to go alongside cheeses and meats. The chutneys you encounter with Indian food vary widely, from syrupy tamarind sauce to chunky spiced vegetable relishes. Some are made from cool, mouth-refreshing ingredients like mint, while others are quite zippy indeed. The chutneys you might find on a cheese plate are a little different. They’re generally made of fruit, with lots of sugar and vinegar, and tend to be rather thick. They’re usually chunky, and commercial ones are often quite sticky – think Major Grey’s mango chutney. Strictly speaking, sauces like ketchup and HP Sauce could be considered chutneys, since the have all the classic chutney ingredients: fruit, sugar, vinegar, and a collection of spices.
How did an Indian condiment make its way onto the cheese and meat plates of the English-speaking world? It’s all part of the legacy of England’s colonial presence in India in the 18th and 19th centuries; the British there became rather accustomed to certain aspects of Indian cuisine, and they brought the parts they liked home with them. The English interpretation of Indian foodstuffs is fascinating, actually. Who could have known that the exotic spices of the Indian sub-continent would end up in a gravy to be sopped up by thick-cut chips as ballast against so many nights of drunken English revelry? And speaking of revelry, did you know that the gin and tonic is another relic of the British East India Company? Tonic water really is a tonic, in the medicinal sense, and it was consumed to help ward off malaria. Gin was added to make the stuff more palatable and to take the bitter edge off the tonic’s quinine flavour.
But I digress. Gin will make you do that.
Chutney, though, deserves your attention, because it’s one of the tastiest and most intriguing of preserves. It’s also a great place to start preserving, if you’d like to try your hand at it but don’t quite know where to start. It’s not as finicky as jams or jellies, which rely on pectin to thicken and set. English-style chutneys are thickened by slow cooking, and the balance of sugar and vinegar is extra assurance against them spoiling. The only hard part is the heller lot of chopping you have to do: onions, mostly, possibly bell peppers, and then whatever fruit you’re using. But it’s kind of pleasant and meditative, if you’re into that kind of thing.
You can find chutney recipes using just about any fruit as a base. Dried fruits like dates, apricots, and raisins are delicious. If you want to use fresh fruit, you can use much of what looks good at the store (so long as it’s fairly sturdy, not, say, a kiwi), or wait a few weeks until you can get your hands on some local rhubarb, and try the recipe at www.tinyurl.com/3acpsu4 In fact, you would do well to put away a small batch of chutney for each wave of sturdy fruit that comes along between now and the fall: peach chutney at the height of summer’s heat, pear and ginger chutney as summer winds down, apple and date chutney with currents as fall hits and the leaves turn, green tomato chutney at the same time. Or you could leave it to the more experienced chutney-makers and buy a few jars. President’s Choice makes a good peach chutney if you’re in a hurry, but if you’re willing to wait for the farmers’ market to get on the go, you may well cross paths with local King of Chutney Jordan Young, peddling his Coaker’s Hat Chutneys there.Craft fairs and church sales are good chutney-spotting zones, too, and it’s well worth it to reward intrepid local chutney-merchants for their hours of chopping and stirring, don’t you think?
What to do with a jar of English chutney
• Dollop it by spoonfuls atop slices of sharp cheese on grainy crackers, and eat as an outdoor lunch with apple slices and a handful of walnut halves. My favourite lunch ever.
• Should you be in possession of some leftover roast beef, slice it thinly, then arrange the slices on your favourite bread, starting first with some mayonnaise and a nice layer of chutney. Put some cheese slices on top, then throw the whole thing in the oven until everything is melty and bubbly.
• Get yourself a small wheel of Brie, place it in the middle of a sheet of puff pastry, top with a goodly amount of chutney, gather the pastry up to cover the cheese, brush the whole thing with beaten egg, and bake it at 350F until the pastry is deeply golden. Serve at a fancy party and amaze all your friends. Or, if you want to get really super fancy, make little tiny puff-pastry squares or cups (in a mini muffin tin, perhaps), fill those with Brie and chutney, bake, and serve.
• Take some chicken breasts, bone removed, skin on (sad naked chicken breasts depress me). Using a sharp knife, slice the chicken breast open (this is called “butterflying”), then sandwich some soft goat cheese and chutney in there, and close the chicken breast like a book, skin-side-up. Bake at 375F until cooked through, about 45 minutes (will depend on size).
• Put it on a burger, be it a proper burger-burger, a veggie burger, a turkey burger, whatever. Super tasty.