Green tomato chutney, and the Talented Mr. Late Blight

Green tomato chutney

Green tomato chutney

If you read my last post, you know that I am trying to rescue my harvest of green tomatoes. I made salsa verde out of some of them, but the question naturally arises—how much salsa verde can one family reasonably eat? The answer is—not much. So on we go to other ideas.

Late Blight

But first, I threw out in my last post that my crop was threatening to be swallowed up by late blight. I did not know this at the time, but my tomatoes were brushing up against history. This is the same disease that once struck potatoes in Ireland, in 1845 precisely, and loosed famine upon the land. The cause of the disease is a pathogen known as water mold. An unassuming name, but it hides some points of interest, as Sherlock Holmes might say. You know the game that kids play where the first question asked is: “animal, vegetable or mineral?” Well, a similar first question to ask about lifeforms is: is it an animal, or a plant? Or a fungus (like mushrooms and yeast), or perhaps a bacteria? So which of these is the water mold?

Neither, it turns out. It is not an animal, nor a plant, nor a bacteria, and not, also, a fungus, though it superficially resembles one. Its is in fact from a separate kingdom of life entirely, known as the oomycetes.

Regardless of its pedigree, it has killer intent when it is found on tomatoes. First brown spots appear on leaves, and they dry and fall. The fruit remains relatively untouched pretty late in the game, which is why I was able to rescue most of them. But eventually greasy dark spots appear on the stem side first, and soon the entire tomato is covered with it. San Francisco’s coolness and fog is quite congenial to Late Blight, so much to my regret, this foe might always be dogging my heels.

Tomato chutney

You know that a foreign vegetable has been completely accepted into Indian cuisine when it undergoes chutneyfication. By this metric, the tomato has become a quintessential Indian vegetable since the Portuguese brought it over in the 16th century. The number of recipes for tomato chutney is immense. Here, though, is one that draws from Bengali cuisine.

Garlic and chili

Garlic and chili

Pulverised

Pulverised

Spice seeds

Spice seeds

In oil

In oil

Frying spice paste

Frying spice paste

Green tomatoes enter

Green tomatoes enter

Tossed with oil and spices

Tossed with oil and spices

After a while

After a while

Done

Done

Green tomato chutney

Green tomato chutney

Bengali green tomato chutney

Ingredients:
  • 4 large garlic cloves
  • 4 green serrano chilies
  • 4 cups of sliced green tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup olive or other oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nigella seeds
  • 1 teaspoon asafetida
  • 1 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
  • 2 teaspoon salt
Method:

Pulverize the garlic and chili in a mortar and pestle until it is a paste. Heat the oil in a wide, thick-bottomed pan on a medium-high flame. When it shimmers put in the five types of seeds (cumin, mustard, fenugreek, fennel, nigella). When they sizzle and pop, the asafetida and red chili powders. When they foam up, the garlic chili paste. The paste will cook in a few minutes, but make sure it does not burn. Now the rough-chopped tomatoes go in along with the salt. Toss to combine with oil and spice.

Cook on medium-low for a whole hour, turning occasionally and mashing with the back of the spoon. In an hour, it will have dried quite a bit, and the oil will be gleaming through. Mash once again, let it cool, and empty into a jar.


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For inspiration on green beans, look east

Green beans with Bengali spices

Green beans with Bengali spices

Bengal is a pretty far away land for me, since I am from the west coast of India, and ancestrally hail from even farther away Sindh. Exotic, I think, is the word I would use. In addition to that, I’m fond of the way Bengali sounds (not intelligible to me), full of rounded vowels; and the things they choose to say, seem old-world and fancy. Then, there is art. Sorry, I meant Art. This is what Bengal is known for above everything else (go google Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray, just to start). And if you think about it, great art is a lot about judicious choice.

So this is what I want to focus on today. A few  choices, judiciously made.

This dish is a dry sauté of green beans, with a simple tempering of whole spices. For vegetables cooked this way, a few choices you make are very consequential. How you cut the vegetables and how small. If they are small enough the high-heat sauté will be enough to cook them all the way through. If not, a slight steam-braise will be necessary, so cooking on low with the lid on to finish is called for. What fat one uses. Subtle choice, and often not subtle at all; the choice of fat can dramatically alter the dish. How high of heat one uses. High enough it is practically a wok-ish stir-fry. Low enough, and the primary means of cooking is from the steam emanating from the vegetable itself.

Naturally, the spices thrown into the fat to temper is consequential too. This is where the Bengali flair comes in. The famous Bengali spice mix, paanch phoran, consists of five disparate seeds from disparate plant families, that nevertheless come together in oil in an unforgettable partnership. For green beans, I find this to be very congenial and I usually cook them this way.

stuff 026Here is what goes into the paanch phoran, from bottom to top:

Fenugreek seeds: Fenugreek is a legume just like beans and peas. It has a distinctive smell that some have compared to maple syrup and a pleasing bitterness.

Fennel seeds: From the carrot family, fennel seeds are used as a mouth-freshener all over India.

Nigella seeds: Also known as kalonji, these small black droplet-shaped seeds are from the buttercup family. A relative, love-in-a-mist, is grown widely in England as an ornamental, I hear. Their flavor is reminiscent of onions when roasted.

Cumin seeds: Another carrot family member. Cumin has been used as a spice in India since ancient times. Its flavor is earthy and sharp at the same time.

Mustard seeds: Little brown balls with a kick. I have always thought of them as having a biscuity taste, whatever that means.

Bah, one can’t really describe a flavor. Go try it and I won’t need to.

Green beans sauteéd with Bengali spices

I want the green beans to be basically done with the sauté, so I cut them into small pieces, none wider than about a quarter inch. For the fat, I use mustard oil, for more of the Bengali style.

Cutting the green beans into small rounds

Cutting the green beans into small rounds

Look how golden the mustard oil is

Look how golden the mustard oil is

Red chili powder

Red chili powder

Tempering spices

Tempering spices

Throw in the green beans

Throw in the green beans

Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered

Cook for 10 minutes, uncovered

Green beans sauteéd with Bengali spices

Ingredients
  • Half a pound of green beans
  • Half a teaspoon red chili powder, or more according to heat tolerence
  • Quarter teaspoon fenugreek seeds
  • Quarter teaspoon nigella seeds (kalonji)
  • Half teaspoon cumin seeds
  • Half teaspoon fennel seeds
  • Half teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons mustard oil
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar or jaggery
Method

Heat the oil on medium-high in a wide thick-bottomed pan. This is the temperature that the entire dish will be cooked at. Most Bengali recipes recommend letting the oil smoke first, but I hear that is bad for you, and I like the kick of mustard oil and don’t want to quell it, so I don’t let it smoke.

Throw in the spices in the following sequence: first the red chili powder; then the cumin; when it sizzles the nigella and fennel; when they sizzle the mustard seeds; when those pop the fenugreek.

Now in go the green beans. Stir to coat with oil. Let them cook, uncovered, occasionally stirring. Five minutes in, sprinkle in the salt. Ten minutes in, the beans will be mostly done, some charred, most shriveled, and still crunchy.

In this dish, I really like the effect of some sweetness. The sugar goes in towards the end of cooking, and is simply stirred in. Done.