Friday, October 28, 2011

Sugar and Spice, and Everything Nice

Gastronomically speaking, autumn is my favorite season. I think it's safe to say I'm not alone on this one either. This is a time when crispy apples, juicy pears, sweet persimmons--not to mention our Autumn produce King and Queen: pumpkin and cranberry--are at their peak and invade almost every dish, beverage and baked good you can think of. When I'm not complaining about the sudden change in climate I am thinking of all the lovely foods and wondering why it can't be Autumn all year long. It's kind of like how General Mill's only produces their Monster themed marshmallow cereal around Halloween. What if I do want a bowl of bright pink Franken Berry on a hot August morning? 

The return of these Autumn yummies also represent the gathering of family. I live in the United States of America and here, Thanksgiving is a pretty big deal. My household is a bit unconventional and our Thanksgivings haven't always been the grand Norman Rockwell affairs but still, I couldn't imagine a November without the holiday of feasting. A November without a day dedicated to cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie and mulled apple cider? How do you foreigners do it?!

Growing up, I had long wondered the mystery of the Thanksgiving Cranberry Sauce. I don't remember how it was presented at our own family feasts or if there even was any but from what I had learned in school, on TV and through my American friends was that this "sauce" was not a sauce at all but a strange dark red solid mass.

I remember one particular event when I was invited to post-Thanksgiving dinner by a neighborhood friend. It was the first time I had met her grandparents and there I was sitting down for dinner at their very stereotypically decorated home, Victorian florals and plastic furniture covers in all. My friend's grandmother asked me if I wanted some cranberry sauce and as I craned my neck in search of a spouted bowl of liquid cranberry condiment, my attention was quickly drawn back to my plate by a sudden, heavy PLOP. There upon my pile of turkey and garlic potatoes had landed a slightly jiggly block of something I had never seen before. I was so caught off guard by the appearance of this so-called "sauce" that I was actually a bit frightened of it and immediately lost my appetite. That was the last time I was invited to dinner there.

Since that experience I had spent many years harboring an aversion to cranberry sauce. Even the mere mention of the name sent little shivers up my spine as I recalled that extremely awkward dinner. I don't remember when I learned that not all cranberry sauces came in the form of a brick nor do I quite remember the first time I discovered the wonders of cranberry chutney. 

I can, however tell you of the moment I fell in love with cranberry chutney and decided that I must learn how to make it myself. This is actually a fairly recent story. We had taken a weekend trip north to Burlington, Vermont to visit my brother's top-choice school, University of Vermont. We had finished the campus tour and decided to check out the surrounding town. To my little foodie heart's delight it just so happened to be the day of the farmer's market and boy, does Burlington know how to host a farmer's market. It was larger than any I'd ever been to and there were so many free samples I was convinced I'd died and gone to foodie heaven.

One of the stands I sampled stopped me dead in my tracks. This is quite impressive because when I am on a mission there is very little that will stop me (and sampling every stand is a very, very important mission). It's jars of sauces and marinades bore a silly drawing of a smirking mustachioed face wearing large sunglasses and the name "It's Arthur's Fault!"

It was like I had never tasted cranberry chutney before. Actually, I honestly can't recall if I have or not. All I know is that at that very moment I decided it was crucial that I purchased a jar not because it was the most amazing cranberry chutney ever (for as I have mentioned before, I have very little experience with which to compare), but because I had made it my new mission to learn how to make my own. I must admit that I had the mean idea that I, a culinary novice could make a cranberry chutney just as good as this...Arthur character, whoever he was. Que the malicious evil villain laugh. I think the chutney stand lady may have seen my evil smirk as I pranced away to the next sampling table waving my jar of chutney triumphantly over my head.

This weekend I am returning to Vermont--not to shake my magnificent homemade chutney in Arthur's face but for a little family gathering and I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to try my hand at this sauce (that does in fact look like a sauce) and hand it out in cute little mason jars as a way to share not only my love but to spread the word about my passion and this blog.

Of course I could not simply dive blindly into chutney making. I spent several days scouring the web for chutney recipes. I even cross-referenced other fruit chutneys for overlapping spices. I settled on loosely following this Gingered Cranberry Fig Chutney recipe I found on a collaborative website called Food52.

Spicy Cranberry Pear Chutney (makes 4 pints)

Disclaimer: I don't know if it was an error on my part for dancing along to English electropop singer Ellie Goulding while adding the spices but my batch of chutney came out quite spicy. Perhaps I added too much ginger and too many red pepper flakes. Personally, coming from a household where kimchi is consumed by the boatload, I have no problem with the pepper's sharp bite. For those of you who are not spice champions like myself, I would suggest to gradually add the red pepper flakes while sampling or omit them all together. I assure you this recipe has enough bang without Pepper's mean left hook.

24 oz. fresh cranberries
4 Asian pears, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and minced
2 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup apple cider
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup raisins
4 tbs fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 1/2 tbs lemon juice
2 tsp yellow mustard seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp ground cloves

In my recipe I about doubled all the ingredients, replaced orange juice with apple cider, omitted toasted hazelnuts, fresh thyme and dried mission figs, added pear and used bottled lemon juice instead of fresh squeezed.

The rest is pretty simple, you just toss all the ingredients together in a heavy-bottom pan and set on high heat until it boils. It will look something like the two photos below. At this point you want to reduce the flame and let the chutney simmer for a good 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

The chutney will have thickened up a bit and most of the cranberries will have lost their shape while the raisins will have plumped up like little balloons. The Asian pear seems to hold up impressively though and takes on the bold color of the cranberry.

Canning: How to Prepare and Process Mason Jars

You Will Need:
Mason jars with lids and bands
Large, deep pot
Tongs (or some other method to fish jars out of hot water)
Lots of water
Cooling rack

I suggest you use a larger, deeper pot if possible but the deepest pot I had available at the time was this large sauce pan. This worked fine but it would have made the canning process much quicker if I was able to get multiple jars going at once. 

Clean jars before using. I suppose you can argue that boiling the jars should kill most bacteria but a good washing with soap never hurt anybody. Bring enough water to completely submerge jars to a boil. Carefully lower jars into the pot. If you can avoid that little air pocket that I got, great. Otherwise, rotate the jars a couple times. The purpose of boiling the empty jars is so they don't crack when you try to fill them with hot chutney.

Carefully remove a hot jar and shake off excess water before filling. Make sure you do not over fill the jars. After filling, gently "drop" the jar onto the counter cushioned with a kitchen towel. I put "drop" in quotations because it's more of a gentle yet convincing tap to get things to fall into place and release air pockets. Just for safe measure, use a dinner knife to fill in any stubborn air bubbles. Wipe off any escaped chutney from the rim and outside. You want to make sure there are no obstructions for the lid or it may not seal correctly.

Unfortunately I forgot to take photos of the next step but I will do my best to paint you a picture. Now, with your jars filled and wiped clean we are going to "process" them. Lower your full, uncovered jars into  a pot of boiling water. I removed some water from the previous step so two jars could stand together in the pot with the water reaching to about the neck of the jar. Kind of like if you are trying to heat up bottles of baby formula. 

After letting the jars warm up a bit I slowly lift one up, place the lid and gently screw on the band. Ideally you want it screwed on securely but just enough so that you can unscrew it with just the strength of your finger tips. Let the now-covered jars boil away for about five to 10 minutes then remove from heat and let them sit in the water for five more minutes. After the hot water has had time to release its heat you may remove the jars and set them on cooling racks to finish cooling. Let the jars sit overnight. This will ensure complete cooling and allow the chutney's flavor to further develop. 

During this cool-down I got to work with my little tags and ribbons. Earlier today I had gone to a craft store and picked out gold ribbon and small brown gift cards to complement the deep red of the chutney. The front labels the chutney, inside lists the ingredients and on the back I wrote the address to this blog. After hole-punching the corner and threading the ribbon through I tied them onto the jars in a bow for a cute finishing touch. 

1 comment: