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Jammin' : Jam on Roast

July 29, 1993|JEAN T. BARRETT | Barrett is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles. and

When most Americans hear the word chutney , they think of a spiced mango compote, subtitled Major Grey's, which is invariably served with curry. In India, though, chatni properly applies to an endless variety of freshly made salsas, more likely to be sour than sweet. And even the sweet condiment English-speaking people call chutney--its correct Indian name is kasundi-- is a much broader category than most of us realize, encompassing a vast range of spicy relishes made from fruits, vinegar and sugar.

The British have the right idea. Of the 120-odd recipes in "Jams, Pickles and Chutneys" (Charles Letts & Co. Limited; London: 1991), 31 are for chutney (that is, kasundi ), ranging from apple, tomato and mint chutney to a rhubarb version. There's even one made with curried parsnips.

Parsnips notwithstanding, I am an unabashed lover of chutney. I know of very few dishes that cannot be enhanced with a dollop of the stuff. Even a lowly grilled cheese sandwich takes on a rakish air if you spread a bit of chutney on the cheese before grilling.

According to Toussaint-Samat's "A History of Food" (Blackwell Publishers: 1992), an Englishman first began importing the exotic Indian condiment to London in the late 1800s. It quickly became fashionable. Just as quickly, British home cooks began adapting the recipe to feature the fruits and foodstuffs that were available in England. Now, it must be said, most recipes for homemade chutney bear only a passing resemblance to the condiments served with authentic Indian cuisine.

The great virtue of chutney is that it's not at all tricky to make. Peeling and chopping are the only toils involved, and often a food processor can make short work of the chopping. Chutney cooks on the stove for a long time, but it needs little attention. And you can play around with the recipe, omitting raisins, doubling the quantity or adding spices or chile peppers if you prefer a more fiery version.

The one caution is to maintain the original proportion of vinegar to fruit. Using too little vinegar can cause spoilage. When it is cooking, the chutney mixture may smell and taste overly vinegary, but that is because the vinegar flavors are volatile under heat and seem more pronounced. Once a chutney has been allowed to mellow for a month or so, the vinegar flavors soften to a gently acidic tang.

When preparing chutney, use firm-ripe fruit without bruises or blemishes. A heavy-bottomed pan will help the chutney mixture cook evenly. Use a non-reactive pan, such as stainless steel or Calphalon, or one lined with enamel or a non-stick coating. Never make chutney in an aluminum pan or one with a chipped non-stick coating, otherwise the vinegary mixture may cause a reaction that will discolor the food.

Chutney shouldn't be rushed, but cooked slowly until it is thick; it should not be watery or drippy. After you spoon the mixture into canning jars, be sure to run a non-metallic implement, such as a narrow spatula, around the inside of the jars to release any air bubbles before sealing.

For safety, chutneys must be processed in a boiling-water bath. If you are not familiar with this canning procedure, invest in a good canning cookbook such as "Putting Food By" by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan (Stephen Greene Press: 1988) or Jeanne Lesem's "Preserving Today" (Knopf: 1992). The United States Department of Agriculture Extension Service offers the "Complete Guide to Home Canning," which costs $2.75. You can also send away for one of the cookbooks put out by the canning companies: Ball of Muncie, Ind., or Kerr of Chicago. If all else fails, cases of canning jars come with full instructions that should be followed to the letter.

If you're not up to canning, chutneys can also be made for immediate consumption. Just cut down the quantity of the recipe and refrigerate the chutney once it has cooled off; it will keep for a week or two.

I make chutney year-round, using whatever fruits are in ample supply. In fall and winter, I concoct a spicy-hot apple chutney and a rich brown chutney based on honeydew melon from a recipe in "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" called Wirtabel's chutney. In spring, there are chutneys made from firm-ripe plums and peaches. During those weeks in August when the tomatoes are ripening like crazy, I cook up tomato chutney that's great with hamburgers. At the end of the season, the green tomatoes go into a wonderful, mustardy chutney.

Chutneys are particularly tasty with smoked meats--ham, sausage or pork ribs. Barbecued meats, poultry and game are also good with chutney. Of course, chutneys are delicious with Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, as well as with many Chinese and Thai dishes.

A jar of homemade chutney poured over a block of cream cheese and served with crisp crackers makes a fine hors d'oeuvre. Finger sandwiches of cream cheese and chutney are terrific for tea, or what used to be called a ladies lunch.

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