Nancy Krcek Allen

Nancy Krcek Allen

Tomatoes are culinary catalysts. They have the ability to enhance other foods in a dish without stealing the stage. Perhaps that’s why tomatoes are so universally beloved.

You might be surprised to find that India knows well the tomato’s best qualities and is one of its most ardent admirers.

The tomato first appeared in India in the 16th century with Portuguese explorers. British occupiers increased India’s tomato crops in the 18th century and, because tomatoes are well-suited to the Indian climate and deliciously tart-sweet, Indian cooks widely embraced them.

Tomatoes have become indispensable to Indian home cooks because their glutamic acid content delivers big-flavored umami, the savory fifth taste. Cooking tomatoes concentrates both. Additionally, tomatoes provide tartness and thickening or body that give Indian curries and chutneys structure; the fruity-acid kick brings them alive.

In the arena of the flavor-enhancing sauce/condiments, Indian chutneys shine. An Indian meal is not complete without at least one chutney (or more) to add sparkle to rice, breads and dal. Uncooked or lightly cooked, either smooth or chunky, dry or wet, or spicy, sweet, sour or savory, true Indian chutney is a highly flavorful part of every Indian meal, rich or poor.

Throughout India chutney comes with different names and in numerous varieties and textures from raw, dry powders or cooked, to chunky or smooth and creamy. Chutneys may be wet, dry, sweet, sour or spicy-hot. Some chutneys act as a relish, others as a dip or sauce. They can consist of single vegetable or fruit or a combination;of fried and split, peeled lentils (available in Indian markets), nuts or dried shrimp, fish or meat.

Tempering is a South Indian method that gives chutneys a final flavoring flourish. Seasonings like onion, shallot, ginger, garlic or whole and dried spices like coriander, cumin, chillies, dark mustard seeds, caraway and nigella (kalonjii) are quickly fried in ghee or oilto infuse flavor then poured over the top of chutneys, vegetable dishes, curries, rice or dals (legumes).

To prepare the richly flavorful ghee, finely chop unsalted butter into small cubes and melt in a heavy pot over low heat. When the butter is fully melted it will separate into milk solids on the bottom of the pot, the middle layer or butter oil and a top layer of foamy milk solids. As the butter cooks the bottom layer should turn a medium brown and caramelize. The top foam will crust. When the ghee smells like Christmas cookies, strain it hot into a damp cheesecloth-lined strainer into a heat-proof bowl. Use this to sauté; without milk solids it will cook without burning.

Tomato time is upon us in Northern Michigan. In India there are no condiments more beloved than the vast array of tomato chutneys. With a little practice, these chutneys can be your grand answer to bland meals. Chutneys give diners the freedom to balance tastes according to their desires: a morsel of bread, a bite-burst of chutney, a bit of rice, a spoonful of spicy lentils or vegetable curry and more chutney. Chutneys pair well with American meals too. Grilled chicken or lamb, roasted vegetables, eggy dishes, corn and cold salads like potato, coleslaw and grain will transform with a side-kick tomato chutney.

Be wise. Save the flavor of summer tomatoes. Prepare a tripe batch of tomato chutney from the personal recipes of Indian homecooks below, and freeze for hurried summer or fall meals.

South Indian Tomato Coconut Chutney

This Kerala-style coconut chutney gets its inviting red color from red chillies and tomatoes.The tomato provides a tasty, tangy touch to spicy flavor. Notice the method of tempering. Use this method with other seasonings and whole spices to season soup, rice and dal dishes.

Yields about 6 servings

For Chutney: 2 t. coconut, avocado or canola oil

1 T. chana dal (split and peeled chickpeas)

1/2 C. grated or shredded fresh or dried unsweetened coconut 1 garlic clove 1 to 3 dry red chillies, stems and seeds discarded

1 medium tomato, diced

For Tempering: 1/2 t. dark mustard seeds 1/2 t. urad dal (split and peeled black lentils or mung bean) Optional: 4 to 5 curry leaves (sub 1/4 t. curry powder) 2 t. coconut, avocado or canola oil

Heat small skillet with oil over medium low heat. Add dal and cook until dal become lightly browned. Scrape toasted dal, coconut, garlic, red chillies and chopped tomato in a food processor.

Add 2 tablespoons water and pulse-puree until mixture is a medium-coarse paste. Season with salt to taste. Add water to thin if mixture is thick. Scrape mixture into a serving bowl and stir inmorewater as needed to bring it to the desired consistency.

Tempering: Heat oil in a small pan and add mustard seeds. When mustard seeds sputter, add urad dal and curry leaves. Sauté until dal turns golden brown. If subbing curry powder add now and cook 20 to 30 seconds.

Remove pan from heat and immediately pour tempering over chutney. Mix in if desired. Kerala style red tomato coconut chutney is good with grilled chicken, seafood or vegetables, use it as a garnish to vegetable soup or with any vegetarian based meal. Refrigerate up to 4 days.

Tomato Ginger Chutney (Thakkali Chutney)

Yields about 6 servings

2 T. canola or avocado oil

1 medium to small red onion, peeled and diced

1 to 3 dried red chillies, stems and seeds discarded

1 to 2 cloves peeled and crushed garlic

1 T. peeled and grated gingerroot

2 medium ripe tomatoes, cored and diced

1/4 t. ground turmeric

1/2 t. red chili powder

Heat oil in a heavy skillet. Add onions and dried red chillies and sauté until onions are soft, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in garlic and ginger, and sauté until soft, 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in tomatoes and fry 1 to 2 minutes. Cover and cook until the tomatoes are soft and pulpy.

Season with salt to taste. Stir in turmeric powder and red chili powder.Uncover and simmer 5 minutes medium-lowheat. Cool mixture. Scrape into a food processor and pulse to a fine paste, adding water as necessary. (Add water only if required.) Puréeing is not strictly necessary.

Tomato Mint Chutney (Thakkali Pudina)

This chutney is quick, uses no coconut, which gives it a longer shelf life, and goes well with pretty much everything.

Yields 2 cups

2 T. avocado or canola oil

1/4 t. dark mustard seeds

1/2 C. urad dal(split and peeled black lentils or mung bean)

1 medium (or 2 small) onions, peeled and finely sliced

1 to 3 dry red chillies, stems and seeds discarded, torn

2 medium to large ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped

1 C. packed, chopped fresh mint leaves, no stems

1/4 t. asafoetida powder

Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat. Swirl in mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, add the urad dal and fry until golden-brown. Transfer dal to a small bowl and set aside.

Stir onions into skillet with more oil as necessary, and cook over medium heat. When the onions begin to brown, about 5 to 10 minutes, stir in reserved dal, torn red chillies and tomatoes. Stir well and cook until the tomatoes turn soft, 5 to 10 minutes.

Stir in mint leaves and cook until leaves wilt and soften, 1 to 3 minutes. Stir in salt, and asafoetida. Mix well to combine all the ingredients together and remove from heat. Cool and grind without adding any water.Refrigerate up to a week or freeze for up to a month.

You may substitute cilantro for mint. You can also add some coriander leaves to the mint or fry 1 to 2 cloves garlic with onions.Great on toast, with rice or any vegetable dish.

Sweet and Tangy Tomato Chutney (Tamatar ki Meethi)

Great with fried snacks like corn fritters.

Yields 5 to 6 serving

1 lb. tomatoes, about 5 medium, cored

2 to 4 T. sugar or maple syrup, to taste

2 green chillies (jalapeños), stems and seeds discarded, chillies diced

1-1/2 t. grated gingerroot

1/8 t. ground turmeric

1 t. dried red chilli powder

Optional: fresh lime juice

1/4 C. sliced cilantro


1-1/2 T. ghee

3/4 t. whole cumin seed

1 pinch asafoetida

Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Drop in tomatoes and blanch until skin softens, 20 to 40 seconds. Transfer to a bowl with slotted spoon and cool tomatoes. Peel tomatoes; discard peelings.

Chop tomatoes to a chunky pulp. Place in a saucepan with sweetener, green chilies, ginger, turmeric and chili powder; add a bit of water or fresh lime juice to thin chutney as desired. Season with salt. Bring to a boil on medium heat and cook 4 to 5 minutes. Remove saucepan from heat and stir in cilantro.

Tempering: Heat ghee in a small skillet. When hot, stir in cumin seed. When they crackle add asafoetida and immediately pour mixture over chutney and stir them together. (You can use cooking oil instead of ghee but ghee gives a wonderful flavor.) Rest chutney covered 5 minutes before serving.

Nancy Krcek Allen has been a chef-educator for more than 25 years and has taught professional and recreational classes in California, New York City and Michigan. Her culinary textbook is called “Discovering Global Cuisines.”

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