My grandmother first introduced me to making preserves many years ago, when she taught me how to prepare pickled shallots and raspberry jam. I have since expanded the repertoire and now enjoy making a range of pickles, chutneys, jellies, and jams. As we were recently forced to harvest our tomatoes thanks to the onset of grey mould amongst the glasshouse and polytunnel crops, it seemed like a good time to make some more green tomato chutney.
Chutneys are preserves made by cooking various fruits and vegetables with vinegar and sugar. They can be made with a great many ingredients, although apples and onions are common fresh ingredients, and dried fruits such as dates, raisins, or sultanas are often included. The typical ingredients needed for all sorts of chutneys are in season, so now is the time to prepare them for winter use. Stored properly in sterilised containers, they can keep for months; in fact, the flavours develop over the first couple of months and the initially harsh tang of vinegar mellows, so that they are best eaten after some time in storage.
This recipe is for a green tomato chutney, but it also includes lots of apples and onions, both plentiful at this time of year. It is quite a useful recipe, as it shows the important stages in the preparation, and can be readily adapted to suit other ingredients. Simply scale the vinegar and sugar to suit. As a rough guide, 500g of sugar to 1l of vinegar is a good starting point, and this will do nicely with 4kg or so of fruit and vegetables, but the amount of sugar may need to be adjusted a little depending on how tart the ingredients are. In this batch of chutney, I started with 500g, but increased this to 600g because the apples were quite tart. Conversely, if using a large amount of sweet dried fruit, especially dates, one might be able to reduce the added sugar a little.
Tomatoes, even in their green stage, contain a lot of water. One can make the chutney with freshly chopped tomatoes, but the liquid will take a long time to boil away. It is useful to salt them for a few hours, and preferably overnight, to draw out some of this excess liquid. I used 2.5kg of green tomatoes, and drained off over 500ml of liquid from an overnight salting. The same approach can be used with other watery ingredients, such as cucumbers and marrows.
The colour and flavour of the finished chutney is influenced to some degree by the vinegar and sugar used. White wine vinegar or cider vinegar and white sugar will result in a lighter colour and slightly milder flavour, whilst a malt vinegar and soft brown sugar, as used here, will produce a richer, darker, chutney. One may freely substitute whatever vinegar and sugar is preferred, although the vinegar should be proper strength – typically 5–7%.
Whatever vinegar is used, unless it is already spiced, I like to add some pickling spice. One can readily assemble some suitable spices, such as allspice, coriander seeds, peppercorns, dried chillies, and yellow mustard seeds, or alternatively use a readily available pickling spice blend. I once made the mistake of leaving the pickling spices in the vinegar when I prepared some pickled shallots. The flavour from the small red chillies multiplied greatly in storage and they became quite a challenge to eat. I have since preferred to spice the vinegar beforehand, straining out the spices once it has achieved the desired flavour. One must, of course, be ever so careful when tasting vinegar to avoid choking; just take a tiny amount without breathing in at the same time.
Chutney needs to cook for a long time, typically two hours or more, although this depends very much on how much liquid is present in the ingredients. For the first hour or so, it only needs the occasional stir, but as the chutney reduces and starts to thicken it will need frequent stirring and, near the end, almost continual attention. It is very easy to leave it just a moment too long and allow it to catch on the bottom of the pan. A heavy based pan will help a great deal in distributing the heat, but even so, it is all too easy to have a disaster, as I almost did with this batch. When stirring the pan, if there is even a hint of sticking on the bottom, stop stirring immediately, and definitely do not scrape the bottom of the pan. Instead, pour the contents – very carefully, as hot chutney will scald – into some temporary vessels, leaving anything that is stuck on the bottom well alone. Clean the pan, return the mixture, and continue. In this way, you may well rescue the chutney from an otherwise nasty burnt flavour. Give it a quick taste to make sure it has not been ruined.
If you have the patience for it, a nasty wet autumn weekend can be well spent preparing pickles and chutneys in good sized batches to provide for the coming year. When I made this batch, I managed to fill seven 1lb / 454g jars. This will, though, depend on how much liquid the ingredients give up and how far the chutney is reduced. Unlike jams and jellies, there is no set temperature to achieve, and no test for a set. Instead, the mixture is reduced until suitably thick and dark, bearing in mind that it will thicken a little further on cooling. If in doubt, the trail of a spoon dragged through the surface of the chutney will remain for some time.
Finally, a note on the treatment of the onions. Many recipes will call for the sugar to be added to the vinegar and, once dissolved, all of the other ingredients are added. That is fine, but to my mind, onions are never as good when just boiled. In fact, in any cooked dish where onions are used, they are, to my mind, best sautéed first. Other ingredients, such as chillies and peppers, also respond well to being sautéed before the vinegar is added. This is how I always prepare my chutneys, but if you prefer, by all means skip that step.