Fresh and Cooked Chutneys
For almost thirty years I have made chutneys almost daily. Chutneys, both fresh and cooked, are piquant palate-teasing relishes that serve to accent other dishes. Readers familiar with homemade Indian chutneys know they bear little resemblance to commercial stuff that has the same name (and is most often loaded with vinegar). Homemade chutneys are served with a wide range of meals, from those with one or two dishes to banquets. And aside from invigorating flavor, the Ayur-veda says that chutney helps stimulate digestion.
With eye-catching allure, chutneys sparkle with vibrant shades of freshness: the green hues of fresh mint or coriander chutney, the golden orange of fresh mango-and-papaya chutney, the rose pink of flash-cooked cranberry, the reds of cooked tomato or plum, the alabaster white of coconut, or the sparkling yellows of cooked pineapple or fresh corn. Flecks of green in muted earth-tone chutneys of nuts or legumes signal hot chilies or fresh coriander. And the textures of chutney range from chunky and crunchy to thin and creamy.
Chutneys inspire creativity and experimentation. In a matter of minutes, with little or no effort over the stove, you have taste sensations.
Ripe, fresh ingredients are essential for outstanding chutney or salsa (which might be called "Mexican chutney"). The closer to the garden the better.
Restaurant chefs often build reputations on their chutneys and salsas. To come up with your own favorites, improvise and experiment with seasonal herbs, fruits, and vegetables.
Called taza chatni in India, fresh chutney is a loose puree of uncooked ingredients, as popular in India as pesto in Italy. But unlike oil-rich pesto, fresh chutney has hardly any or no added oil. What it does have is heat, a little to a lot, registering on the heat scale from mild to torrid-volcanic!
The good news is you have the choice. After nearly three decades my heat tolerance has stayed almost the same: I still prefer mild to medium-hot chutneys, with more flavor than heat.
Though fresh chutneys are traditionally ground on large stone mortars, they're a snap to make in a blender or food processor. Typical consistencies vary from loose paste to spoonable puree. I thin chutneys with yogurt, buttermilk, vegetable juices, or the liquid from cooked beans. I fold chutneys into steamed or baked vegetables, use them as sauces on casseroles or bean dishes, drizzle them on tikkis and mashed potatoes, mix them into vegetable, whole-grain, or pasta salads, or serve them as dips or salad dressings. You get the idea.
Served with everything from rice and dal to pakoras and samosas, cooked chutneys are irresistible. Perhaps in the near future they'll become as popular as Mexican salsas, because they're every bit as diverse. You don't need the aid of a machine here, just the rat-a-tat of the knife as you chop beautiful ingredients like plums, mangos, guavas, ginger, chilies, tomatoes, pineapples, and fresh coriander.
Like any good relish or sauce, whether simple or complex, cooked chutney has layers of texture and flavor. For example, in Pineapple-and-Raisin Chutney (in Lord Krishna's Cuisine) note the contrasts between sweet-acidic pineapple and sugary-sweet dried currants, floating in a hot, almost buttery sauce.
If you've sampled good homemade or temple chutneys, you know how ambrosial they are. If you are hearing about them for the first time, be prepared for goods you'll rarely find in a jar. Try these dishes and surprise yourself.
The Heat Connection
As I mentioned, both fresh and cooked chutneys are fueled with heat from hot chilies, ranging in intensity from mild to devilishly hot. Even if you don't like hot foods, give chilies a try. When used judiciously, they act as flavor enhancers rather than heat givers, and will spark up flavors in a dish, much like salt, lemon juice, or lime juice. It's when you use more than small amounts that the heat takes over.
You can use dried or fresh chilies. Most ethnic stores, specialty stores, and supermarkets sell dried chilies whole, crushed, and ground. Scores of varieties are now available, with wonderful flavor overtones. A few to stock are cayenne, ancho, poblano, jalapeno, chilpote (smoked jalapenos), New Mexican, Chinmayo (my favorite), and generic crushed chilies.
For fresh chilies, small chilies with pointed tips and narrow shoulders are generally the hottest. Larger chilies with a rounded base and wider shoulders indicate moderate heat with sweet overtones.
Most of the fresh chilies used in India are unavailable in the West, so it good to become familiar with alternatives. Large supermarkets now carry a pretty good variety. Large banana, poblano, and Anaheim chilies are fairly mild, smaller jalapenos are medium-hot, and Thai or serrano chilies, smaller still, are the hottest.
When handling hot chilies, wash your hands before touching your face; the juices will smart and burn your eyes. To keep the taste of your chilies above the heat, remove the seeds.
Once you've become familiar with the flavor elements in fresh chilies, chilies will likely end up in much more than your chutneys.
Readers following the classes should make several dishes from the chapter on chutney in the class textbook, Lord Krishna's Cuisine. The recipes here are not in the book. They're a few dishes I've come up with in recent recipe testing.
Srila Prabhupada on Chutney
Srila Prabhupada said several times that a simple feast means four things chutney, puri, halva, and a vegetable. In Mayapur he recommended a feast of chutney, kicchari, a vegetable, and sweet rice.
Those engaged in Srila Prabhupada's service as personal cooks will easily recall his fondness for good chutney. On various occasions he asked for mint chutney, coconut chutney, fresh neem chutney, or cooked tomato chutney. He taught several of us how to make chutneys of neem, guava, and tomato. In Vrindavan, Prabhupada's sister Pishima showed us how to make his childhood favorite Bengali tomato chutney.
On this Column and Cooking Class
Now, about half-way through this series of cooking classs, we are nearing Srila Prabhupada's Centennial Celebration. You may have already decided how you want to glorify him on this auspicious occasion. But certainly you'll have the opportunity to practice and share Prabhupada's teachings about cooking and prasadam.
I want to express my gratitude to Srila Prabhupada for all of his wonderful instructions to me about this subject. I feel so fortunate to be able to pass them on to you through this column in Back to Godhead. Please take them, use them, and share them with others. In this way, together we can take Srila Prabhupada's instructions and pass them on to devotees in the next century.
Yamuna Devi is the author of the award-winning cookbooks Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking and Yamuna's Table. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and Vegetarian Times. Write to her in care ofBack to Godhead.
Roasted Corn Chutney
I came up with this chutney using just-picked Silver Queen corn from my organic gardener. It is a salsalike fresh chutney, good on its own or as a topping for baked potatoes.
1 tablespoon unrefined cold-pressed corn oil
4 ears shucked fresh corn
vegetable cooking spray
½ cup finely chopped bulb fennel
1 cup diced purple bell pepper
¼ cup diced Anaheim pepper
¼ cup fresh lime juice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Brush 1 ½ teaspoons of corn oil over the corn. Coat a grill rack with vegetable spray, place the corn on the grill, and place the grill over medium-hot coals or under a broiler. Cook the corn until charcoal flecked, 10 to 15 minutes, turning it to brown it evenly. Cool; then cut the kernels from the cobs.
In a bowl combine three fourths of the kernels with the fennel, bell pepper, and Anaheim pepper. Place the remaining kernels and the lime juice in a food processor and reduce to a coarse pulp. Scrape the pulp into the other ingredients. Season with salt, pepper, and cilantro. Stir well. Offer to Krsna.
Many people can't detect the nuts in this warm, gingery chutney. They just like it and want the recipe. I rarely make it the same way twice. Experiment with ingredients and come up with a few variations. This chutney is excellent thinned down for salad dressing, or with grilled eggplant, raw vegetable crudites, and endless other items.
½-inch to 1-inch piece peeled ginger root
1 or 2 hot green chilies
½ tablespoon lemon juice
2/3 cup toasted cashews
3 red, green, or yellow bell peppers, peeled and seeded, with the veins removed
water as desired
salt to taste
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Combine the ginger, chilies, lemon juice, and cashews in a food processor and "pulse" until chopped. Chop the peppers and put them into the processor. Process, adding water as needed, until the ingredients reduce to a smooth puree.
Transfer to a bowl, season with salt, and stir in the cilantro. Offer to Krsna. Serve, or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. (Chutney thickens as it sits. Thin with water as desired for spread, dip, sauce, or salad dressing.)
Fresh Cranberry Chutney
A fresh, light, sweet-tart alternative to traditional cooked cranberry chutney.
2 juicy sweet oranges
2 Anjou or Bartlett pears
2 cups cranberries
2/3 cup maple syrup or honey
½ cup toasted pecan bits
cayenne as desired
salt as desired
Using a zester, remove 1 teaspoon of orange zest from an orange and set it aside. Using a sharp serrated knife, peel away all of the skin and pith of the orange. Cut between the membranes to remove the orange segments. Dice the segments and set them aside. Place into a food processor any orange juice left on the cutting board.
Peel, core, and coarsely chop the pear. Place the pear, cranberries, and maple syrup into the food processor. Process, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed, until the ingredients reduce to a coarse puree.
Add the nuts. Use the "pulse" setting on the food processor to mix them into the chutney. Season with cayenne and salt. Transfer to a dish and stir in the oranges. Garnish with orange zest. Offer to Krsna.