My friend Gwenn Baldwin drove out from Portland today with a brown grocery bag full of Brook’s plums from the tree in her yard. I walked through the Hood River Farmer’s market this afternoon and bought two red Italian frying peppers from Quercus Farm. Stu came home from windsurfing this afternoon, and gave me two huge yellow onions, grown by his friend Bob Danko, up Parkdale way.
This is a mysterious thing to me, a thrum, a subsonic hum, making it’s way through the human history of cuisine. Who made the first chutney in India? Was it a mother with six hungry children, an onion, two peppers and a bag of plums? How did that inspiration for some combination of fruit, spice, vinegar, herbs, peppers, onions and garlic, find itself repeated in Mexican salsa, Spanish romesco, English pickle relish, French persillade, Italian salsa verde, Indonesian sambal? And on and on through cuisine after cuisine?
Is there something in the human psyche that just can’t stand to lay a slab of meat on a plate and pass it down the table, naked, gray, left to its own devices? At Nora’s Table, we looked at our plates like a drag queen’s make-up artist. We walked around them, twiddled our fingers on our cheeks, tilted our heads, hands on hips: something’s missing. It needed SOMETHING. Not a garnish, some wasted sprig of chive or dusting of pepper. It needed a ding-dong: that thing that popped, that banged against the plate so loudly of umami, of crunch and chew and sweet and salty and hot and sour.
In those days, I combed the pages of recipe books and traced the history of cuisines, always looking, always stealing, always on the lookout for a great dingdong, the crow jewel, the legitimate heir to the throne resting atop the slab of meat, the bowl of lentils, the poached fish, the grilled lamb chop.
I’ve never stopped wondering how they came to be, essential to so many cuisines, eons before a Burmese chef could Google a Mexico City chef and steal his ideas.
And so here is my chutney of today’s found objects. Tomorrow, who knows?
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
six cardamom pods, lightly crushed with the side of a knife
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small saute pan. Add the spices and stand stalk still till the seeds begin to pop. Set aside
In a two-quart saucepan, bring the next five ingredients up to medium high heat and stir until the sugar melts, then turn the heat to low and cook until the onions are translucent:
1/2 cup minced yellow onion
2-inch piece ginger, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 Italian frying pepper, minced
Add 1/4 cup water, your popped seeds, and the last five ingredients:
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
six whole cloves
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
zest of half a lemon
2 cups diced Brooks plums (prunus domestica)
Simmer for 15 minutes. Add:
Generous pinch of salt
2 tablespoons apple cider or other sweet vinegar.
Remove from heat and let cool.