It would be 10 minutes before serving time, and the four cooks would be huddled together in the kitchen, all talking at once. "Pineapple in the prep room." "Red jalapenåos." "Vidalia onions." "Black currants." "Limes." Then a yelped "Sounds good!" and we would rush off in all directions.
The chutney brigade was on the job. Chutney was often on the menu at the Tabard Inn when I was cooking there. Besides being beautiful on the plate with smoked salmon or pate', it fit well with our reputation for interesting and healthful food. Lean and mean, chutney was the perfect choice to enliven a grilled cheese sandwich or a poached chicken breast.
It was so popular that we sometimes ran out at odd times; hence the chutney brigade. And that actually may be the best approach to making chutney.
The first rule is, don't go shopping. Chances are you have everything in your kitchen to make a wonderful chutney, one that nobody has ever heard of before and one that you'll really appreciate with leftover turkey. All it takes is an understanding of how this exotic condiment is put together, then a fast shuffle through the refrigerator and cupboard to turn up likely ingredients.
There are five categories of ingredients in a chutney: fruit, vegetable, sweet, sour and spicy.
Fruits and vegetables are what you need the most of; to make a cup of chutney, the equivalent of an eight-ounce jar you would buy, it takes about two cups of chopped ingredients. Then you add, for every two cups of fruits and vegetables, approximately a quarter cup each of the sweet and sour elements and a teaspoon or two of spice, and cook until thick. So much for recipes.
For the fruit, which is the most important ingredient, choose nice bright specimens that will keep their color and shape; tropical fruits are great, but you probably don't want to make a ripe banana chutney. Mix and match: apples and oranges; pears and black grapes. Yes, you can use canned fruit -- try sour cherries (not pie filling) or pineapple. A handful of raisins or chopped dates makes an interesting contrast. Or, if you have a big bag of dried pears you could make that the focus; with canned apricots and golden raisins, it's the start of a lovely off-the-shelf chutney.
Vegetables, usually onions or peppers, are used as accents in most chutneys, in a ratio of about one to three, vegetable to fruit, but there's no law against a vegetable chutney or one using half fruit and half vegetable. Imagine a roasted red onion and Granny Smith apple chutney with black currants -- the perfect foil for saute'ed calf's liver. Sweet or acidic vegetables are good main ingredients, for example, red or green tomatoes, red cabbage, or plain beets from a jar. Peeled and seeded roasted chilies are terrific (or use chopped green chilies from a can), but for most people's taste, don't exceed a half cup of chilies with 1 1/2 cups of fruit.
Cut up your chosen fruits and vegetables in whatever size you like: minced for a sandwich spread, chunked for a glamorous entre'e accompaniment, then throw everything into a stainless steel or enameled pot. Leave out canned fruit -- you'll add that near the end of cooking.
Now for the quarter cup of sweet and the quarter cup of sour -- look to your shelves and see what you like.
Brown sugar sounds earthy and chutney-like, but the clean taste of white sugar is often better at letting the other flavors shine through. With tomatoes, though, a combination of the two would be hard to beat. You can use a compatible jam or jelly as part of the sweetening, maybe orange marmalade. A touch of honey is good with mild fruits like apples and pears, but only a touch. Maple syrup? Sure. Try it (again, in combination with white sugar) with mixed dried fruits and pearl onions and serve it with your Thanksgiving turkey.
For the acid in your chutney, there are dozens of vinegars to choose from, not to mention zesty citrus juices and the odd half cup of sherry. Good old cider vinegar will be fine most of the time, but you may want the delicacy of rice wine vinegar or the elegance of half sherry vinegar and half sherry (dry or sweet). Or the downright luxury of Balsamic and red wine vinegars with, say, black grapes and red bell peppers. Lime juice is terrific with tropical fruits, but only use half as much as you would vinegar -- it's very strong.
Now comes the fun part -- the seasoning. A good chutney is spicy, mellow and hard to describe. First, there should be something hot. If you haven't already added chilies, you could put in an eighth of a teaspoon of red pepper flakes or a quarter teaspoon of minced fresh ginger per two cups of fruit and vegetables. Powdered ginger, chopped candied ginger and freshly ground black pepper are also good in about the same amounts. Start small and then taste during the cooking to see if you want more.
Then what about some lemon or orange zest? You can use thin strips (no white part) if you parboil them for a minute, or just finely grate a tablespoon or two. Now is the time of bring out your most fragrant spices: try cinnamon with cranberries, nutmeg with tomatoes, coriander with big, sweet onions. Allspice gives a nice, Major Grey flavor. You can use about four times as much of these milder spices as you did the hot ones, but keep the total amount to about a tablespoon per quart of chopped ingredients, at least for starters.
And, that's it, the very basic ratio for a basic chutney: six parts fruit, two parts vegetable, one part each sweet and sour, plus seasoning. Then, stir all the ingredients together, bring to a boil and simmer until thick, from 20 to 40 minutes. You may want to add a little water if you're using dried fruit or if you like a syrupy consistency. That's it. You can keep your chutney in the refrigerator for three or four weeks, and the next time you're serving plain grilled hamburgers or diet broiled chicken, you'll be ready.
Joanne Halataei is a computer systems analyst, freelance writer and former restaurant cook from McLean.