Thursday, October 4, 2012

House-made Spicy Ketchup

The topic of ketchup recipes came up in conversation the other day. It got me thinking. I had a huge whack of tomatoes; the last vestiges of summer, courtesy of the mother-in-law's "inventory clean out" of the back garden. This included about 25% green tomatoes. Originally, I was going to make some kind of salsa from this stuff, but then I thought: ketchup.

Now, there's an idea.

I've had a house-made ketchup on my draft menu for some time, but I've never taken the plunge to actually try and make the stuff. This, my first attempt, came off a little half-cocked as I was simultaneously helping the kids sort out Lego towers at the kitchen table all whilst a chicken curry was bubbling on the back hob of the stove. Another one of my crazy cooking adventures proceeded, complete with Hitchcockian red splatters on the tile and ominously steamed up kitchen windows.  Slasher film metaphor notwithstanding, I have to commend my wife for her patience. My antics at the stove are surely trying.

My inspiration came from the only ketchup recipe I have in my library, found in the River Cottage cook book by Hugh Fearnley-Whittinstall. However, my mise en place arrangement did not quite agree with his. He called for six pounds of tomatoes. I had three pounds of tomatoes (including green tomatoes). So I supplemented the missing three pounds with a litre of my roast tomato sauce. From there the other measures continued out of whack. The recipe calls for one cup of cider vinegar and three-quarters of a cup of brown sugar. Because my tomato volume was a total shot in the dark, I erred on the conservative side and halved his vinegar quotient and knocked the sugar back by one-third. I figured I could adjust things later. To annotate this recipe would be folly, so just join me for the ride.

I roughly chopped my tomatoes and got them in a large pot together with a finely sliced onion and a couple of chopped cloves of garlic. No oil or anything else was required. I just want to break the vegetables down on a medium heat, so about 25 minutes of cooking achieved this - maybe a bit more - the green tomatoes required longer cooking. Once this was done, I forced the works through a fine sieve so that all I had was juice and pulp. I put this concoction back on the heat in a clean saucepan and added a litre of my roast tomato sauce. To this I added the vinegar, the sugar, one cinnamon stick, three cloves, the gratings of one third of a clove of nutmeg, a teaspoon or so of mace, the same of white pepper and then some salt and black pepper. I turned it up to a gentle heat and then walked away. The recipe calls for 20 to 40 minutes of gentle simmering - which frankly seems ridiculous. It takes much longer to reduce such a large pot of tomatoes. I let this thing gently simmer for what seemed like an age. I kept checking, only to find it remained watery, and the pulp was stubbornly seperate and split from the liquid. A curious red scum formed at the top. To skim or not to skim? This is one of those things that no one ever thinks to comment on. So, if you must know: I skimmed. Eventually it hit Swiss Chalet sauce consistency. A small triumph. Tasting revealed a smoky taste, which was somewhat unexpected, but likely a bi-product of roast tomato sauce: the essence of its hot roasting was starting to appear in the ketchup. A wonderfully accidental side-effect of my ill-prepared approach to the recipe. 

After a good hour and 20 minutes I was becoming desperate. This lousy ketchup was just not thickening, so I went for broke and decided to turn it into a hot sauce. In went a bunch of dried red chillies, cayenne and more white pepper. Then a taste. Damn, too much white pepper. It was now overpowering. This experiment was quickly going down hill. I was becoming agitated; snapping angrily at the children's inquiries about dinner. To hell with dinner! I had a five-alarm culinary crisis unfolding on my stove top.

Using a soft voice and avoiding direct eye-contact, the wife gently coaxed me away from my madness in the kitchen to eat dinner. I left the horrific ketchup-like gruel to simmer away while I supped with the family. I also managed to overcook the rice that went with the curry. Not one of my finer moments.

Well, as they say, all's well that ends well. A second glass of wine with dinner re-established my gentle temperament, I peered into my ketchup saucepan to see, miracle of miracles it had finally thickened! Without even tasting it, I got it into a mason jar to cool and rest. I put it away that night in the fridge and chalked it up as a learning experience. However...and this is a big however. I tried it the next day, and I dare say, it was pretty tasty. More than tasty. It was complex. Yes, the white pepper is still a bit dominating, but it was sweet, and smokey and I put it on some scrambled eggs and only then did I realize that it was a success.

Obviously the recipe needs work, but this is how good things are developed. Roast tomato ketchup has a nice ring to it.

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