I stopped by my favorite local fruit and veggie stand today, looking for our next Two Dollar Box Challenge. And, as luck would have it, I had more than one choice:
My favorite small dehydrator is already full of cherries, thanks to the great sale I got over the weekend, so I was debating with myself (and with my husband, who’d decided to come shopping with me) whether I was going to take the box on the left, all bananas … and then dehydrate them in my larger, outdoor dehydrator (a recent Freecycle find) … or if I was going to take the box on the right (that Carol Merrill is pointing to…*chuckles*)–a mix of bananas, plantains, and mangoes–and try to make some sort of tropical preserves.
Kismet is a funky thing, you know. It loves to keep you on your toes As we were standing there debating, we were interrupted by one of the clerks who works at the fruit stand. She said: “How about a box of peaches and nectarines instead?”
Do you get the feeling they’re beginning to know me there? *chuckles* I’ve told a few of the people who work there about my $2.00 Box Challenge … and, honestly, I’m probably going to need their assistance one day. It never hurts to have the people who supply your supplies know that you’re potentially advertising for them, too! It might help if I start finding nothing but apples in the boxes for weeks at a time. I don’t want to start sounding like Bubba Gump here, live from Washington State: Apple fritters, and apple cake, and apple stuffing, and apple pancakes, and apple …
My husband and I looked at each other when the woman offered us peaches and nectarines instead, and–almost simultaneously–we both said “Chutney!”
She loaded the box for us out of what she’d been culling, and we headed toward the checkout stand. Half-way there, another sale bin caught my eye: this one containing really yellow, really ripe whole pineapples. One of those went into my cart as well, worth every nickle of the $0.99 it was going to add to my overall cost for this project.
They keep the actual cardboard boxes at the checkout stand, so we came home with our $2.00 Box in a couple of plastic bags instead. I decided after the last time that I will always give you a quick picture of the fruit and/or veggies before I start, and I’ll always show it to you in the same stainless steel pan each time … my beauty of a restaurant prep pan, that’s been in my kitchen for years! … so that you can maintain the same sense of scope from challenge to challenge:
The box contained lots of white peaches that were seriously mellow and yummy, several equally-yummy yellow clingstones, and then a couple of different varieties of nectarines, all wonderful in their own right. Again, I ended up with another 18 pounds or so of very ripe fruit, not counting the pineapple I forgot to add to the picture. Bad blogger! But so far, so good $2.00 Box Challenge-wise
Once I got home, I peeled and chopped all the fruit, then put it in my big heavy-bottom pot over very low heat, just to start the juices leaching out of the fruit while I chopped the rest of the goodies I needed. Many of the individual pieces of fruit were so ripe and mellow that I had juice running down my elbows pretty much the whole time I was peeling them, and it didn’t take long for more juice to start filling the pot as well. I also noticed how “blonde” all the ingredients seemed to be, so I ultimately dubbed this my Blonde Chutney.
In the parts of the world where chutney is king … and with those of us who’ve learned to love those heavily-spiced preserves as well … every cook has their own favorite chutney recipe. Most have more than one. Many have dozens or even hundreds … and then a small section of cooks just make chutney based on whatever they have in their pantry right at that moment.
That’s my plan today
Because my fruit’s really ripe in this batch, it’s got less natural pectin than greener fruit would have. The overall ripeness changes it chemically as well. For example, I’d never dry fruit this ripe. It would rot before it dried. Nor would I use it in a lightly-cooked fruit spread. If the over-ripe-to-starting-to-rot places in some of the flesh I cut away is any indication, this $2.00 Box is probably harboring a fair amount of ripening-fast fruit enzymes and less-than-fruit-friendly bacteria. A light cooking probably wouldn’t be enough to prevent the fruit from spoiling fairly rapidly, even made into jam and sealed in sterilized jars. In addition, a light cooking probably wouldn’t be enough to activate the natural pectin in fruit this ripe either. As the graph of the sugar content of fruit goes up as it ripens … the graph of its pectin content goes down. That means that you’ll either need to cook ripe fruit longer … or add more pectin … in order to make it jell properly.
Don’t let that scare you away from really ripe (or even over-ripe) fruit, however. Fruit this ripe is perfectly safe to ingest. It just really needs to either be cleaned and popped in your mouth right now. Or dropped in your brandy crock, where it will make magic of another kind. Or–if you want to make it into something you can store long-term that doesn’t have quite that much alcohol and fermentation involved–it needs to be cooked long enough and hot enough to counteract those bacterial and enzymatic elements properly.
That’s what makes Blonde Chutney perfect for this $2.00 Box Challenge
Traditionally, chutney is a spiced version of a preserve. Just so we’re clear on terms, in the world of fruit spreads:
- Jellies are made from fruit juice, or occasionally–in the case of things like pepper or mint jelly–from veggie and/or herb infusions. All of the fruit and/or herb solids are strained out in advance of gelling. Most jellies require pectin to solidify, but some rely on a chemical reaction between fruit, heat and natural sugar(s) to create the gel.
- Jams are made from pureed fruits, so–unlike jellies–they still contain fruit solids. Some jams use pectin, but some do not. Many rely on the natural pectin in the fruits, and on extended periods of low heat in order to reduce the overall liquid volume, in order to create a thick fruit spread.
- Preserves are made from chunks of fruit. A small number of preserve recipes use pectin, but–more often–preserves are created by slow-cooking chunks of fruit together with sugar, and using the gradual chemical reaction between the fruit’s natural pectin and the included sugars (from the fruit itself, and/or from any added sugars) to gel them into a thick, chunky fruit spread.
- Marmalades could also be considered preserves, but they differ in that they usually contain citrus fruits: oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, etc. Marmalades often look like citrus peels suspended in clear jellies. Because of that use of citrus peels and the oils they contain, marmalades tend to be on the tart side.
- Conserves are preserves made from whole fruits, so–needless to say–the process of making them requires a lot of time and no small amount of fruit spread skill. Conserves can be made by adding additional pectin, but–done the traditional way–it involves boiling your whole fruits in sugar syrup, then gradually reducing the overall volume while creating the surrounding gel … all without much natural pectin help from the fruit, and without either scorching the pot or stirring the fruit into pieces. Like I said: this takes some skill.
- Chutneys are preserves made using a chunky mix of sweet fruit and savory veggies, cooked together with spices and vinegar. Most chutneys are made without added pectin, but more and more, recipes are crossing my path that call for a box of Sure-Jel … rather than relying on the traditional low and slow cooking method most chutney-makers use.
- Freezer Jams are no-cook fruit spreads made using a special version of pectin. Because they’re not cooked, and they’re frozen to prevent spoilage (rather than cooked and canned in jars), freezer jams taste more like fresh, natural fruit than cooked jams do. You can also easily use Splenda or other artificial sweeteners in your freezer jams, so it makes them perfect for diabetics and others who wish to limit their sugar intake … without giving up the taste of fresh fruit in their diets. Stored properly, freezer jams last for about a year, but remember … you cannot use regular pectin to make freezer jams! You MUST use a pectin that specifically says “for freezer jam.” Regular pectin won’t gel in the freezer. It requires heat.
As I said, chutney is usually made without adding any additional pectin, and that was definitely my plan for this batch. Fresh and/or dried fruits are combined with aromatics–most often garlic and onion–along with spices, sugar and vinegar. The entire mixture is then slow-cooked until the fruit develops its natural pectin and the overall volume is reduced, leaving behind a thick, sticky fruit spread.
Chutney also tends to need some added sugar (up to 100% of the overall weight of the fruit, in some cases) to make the natural pectin in the fruit gel properly … but I’m going to hold off until later in the cooking process before I decide how much sugar I’m going to need. I’m hoping my fruits were sweet enough naturally (thanks to their ripeness) to offset me having to add too much more real sugar. Sugar is the #1 issue we (as in, my husband and I) face in our diet. If I can make it gel using less sugar, then I can still bump up the sweetness using an artificial sweetener (Splenda is our personal preference in canned goods) in the final stages of processing before canning, without having to add hundreds and hundreds of calories worth of pure sugar in the process.
Once my fruit was all peeled and chopped, I estimated I had about 10 cups of mixed peaches, nectarines, and pineapple. Every bit of it was really ripe and mellow, and just smelled awesome! A few pieces of white peach even managed to fall into my mouth as I was cutting it all up. Good thing my mouth was in the way. It would have been a shame for one of those pieces to hit the floor, right?
To my mixed/chopped fruit, I added:
- a tied spice bag, containing six broken cinnamon sticks, one tablespoon whole cloves, one tablespoon whole allspice berries, and one tablespoon cardamom seeds.
- six cups chopped onions.
- one cup golden raisins.
- 1/4 cup worcestershire sauce.
- one cup red wine vinegar.
Note: if you’re interested in one of the long-handled parts magnets you see in my video, don’t buy one of the expensive, heavy-duty ones like this. The magnet on those expensive ones is too strong for canning lids. Some of them could pick up every lid in the pot simultaneously, and you don’t want that. Instead, look in dollar stores or in the cheap tools section of a Harbor Freight, ACE Hardware, or similar store for one with a weaker magnet. I only paid $1.00 for mine, and it works just fine!
As you can see by the end of the video, the 6+ hours I slow-cooked the chutney concentrated the fruit, etc. down into a dense, sweet/spicy Blonde Chutney spread that should have no problem making your mouth–or a thick slab of fresh naan–very, very happy!
One thing I didn’t show you on the video: at about hour-four, I tasted my chutney to see how sweet it was ultimately going to be. I also took a look at how it was thickening without the assistance of more sugar, in order to see how the chemical reaction between the fruit’s natural sugars and pectins was progressing.
I found that it was thickening up pretty nicely all on its own. It looked like–with continued slow cooking–it was going to make a nice, thick chutney. However, the excess juice (when I separated it from the solids) wasn’t clearing the way I like to see it. You see, when you boil fruit juices for a while, their solids separate out, and the juice becomes almost clarified, like drawn butter or ghee. You can tell when this happens visually, because the juice gradually clears … until it gets almost crystal-clear in the end.
That wasn’t happening in my pot. The juices–even after four hours of cooking–were still fairly cloudy when I isolated them. Plus, I knew it wasn’t anywhere near sweet enough overall to suit my husband. I didn’t want to rely on a bunch of added sugar for the overall sweetness, and there was some sugar in the overripe fruit–apparently just not quite enough to go completely no-sugar-added–so I needed to add just enough real sugar to make it cook properly.
In a normal batch of full-sugar chutney, most people tend to use somewhere between a 2:1 and a 1:1 ratio of fruit-to-added sugar. That would mean that I should have put somewhere between 5 and 10 cups of sugar in with my 10 cups of fruit … but that’s a whhhhoooolllleeee lot more sugar than my husband and I have ANY business eating.
I ultimately opted to add in two cups of brown sugar to facilitate the cooking process and create that almost-caramelization chemical reaction I wanted/needed in my chutney, but then my plan was to round out the rest of my overall flavor later, using artificial sweeteners.
I let the chutney cook for another two and a half hours from there, give or take a few minutes. After I reached the stage in the video where you see me sort of temper the chutney, where I crank up the heat to over 180 degrees (to kill the last of the bacteria, and drive off the last of the remaining moisture so that the chutney sets up properly), what I didn’t show you (while I was trying to juggle pots, big spoons, and a camera, too) was … as soon as I hit 180 degrees, I pulled the pot off of the heat, stirred in three cups of measure-to-measure Splenda to bring the overall level of sweetness up to where it would make my cute husband happy … your mileage may vary. Once I got all the Splenda mixed in, I set the pot back on the heat, brought it back up to a boil, and then set a timer for one minute. Once my buzzer went off, the chutney was ready to either can … or eat
From there, I ladled the chutney into sterilized jelly jars, and cleaned the lip of each jar well with a paper towel dipped in boiling water before adding the two-part lid. I processed the jars in a Boiling Water Bath for 10 minutes before cooling and storing them away from the light. For as long as they last, anyway
So let’s recap, and–just so we’re clear here–I’m basing the pricing of additional items on what they’d cost me at my local Safeway (with the exception of my spices, which I buy in bulk at incredibly cheap prices by haunting local Indian spice stores) … even though I’ve bought most of what I have in my pantry for less elsewhere. I don’t have an exact inventory of what I paid what for what around here … therefore, since I can access the Safeway ‘delivery’ menu online–which mirrors the prices of the Safeway at the end of my street–that’s how I price most things except my $2.00 Boxes and spices:
- one $2.00 Box of mixed peaches and nectarines
- one $0.99 pineapple
- six cups chopped onions, approx. three pounds, $2.97
- one cup (one-half box) of white raisins, $2.20
- one cup red wine vinegar, $0.31
- one quarter cup worcestershire sauce, $1.15
- spices from my overflowing stockpile, <$0.10
- two cups brown sugar, $0.50
- three cups Splenda “measure-for-measure” sweetener, $2.92
That brings my total to $13.14 for seven pints of Homemade Reduced-sugar Blonde Peach/Nectarine/Pineapple Chutney … or $1.88/pint! That works out to about $0.12/oz.
In comparison, Safeway sells a 9-ounce jar of Crosse and Blackwell Major Grey (mango) Chutney for $6.29. That works out to $0.70/oz.
My final product
So the choice is yours. Pay a fortune for chutney that someone else made, someplace where you have no idea what they really put in it … or make your own at home for pennies an ounce, where you know exactly how it was made, and what’s in it. Besides, as of the last time I checked … there aren’t a lot of reduced-sugar chutneys on the market.