The Tale of the Apples
Stuart bought a bag of small apples sometime before he went into the hospital (so over 2 months ago), and they stayed in the fridge until the compressor went out. (That’s a saga for another day.) They were dutifully moved into the cooler on the porch, where they lived, sometimes partially submerged in water, for 2 weeks until some coworkers came over and got my new fridge pushed through the sunroom window. (I told you it was quite a saga.)
While putting things into the new fridge, I gave them a look over and decided that either they needed to be used immediately, or the whole bag thrown out.
I hated the idea of wasting an entire bag (3 lbs, I think) of apples, but the reason why I hadn’t touched them in the past two months is, although I like apples, apples in their raw form don’t like me back. And with my stomach in a fairly perpetual state of upset over the last month or so from stress, I didn’t need to add to the problem.
My mother–who stayed with me lat week–suggested cooking and freezing them to use as topping for pancakes, waffles, toast, etc. But she went back home before we had a chance to process them and I didn’t know what she did to them as far as flavoring went.
So I started going through our historical cookbooks, looking for something to do with 3 pounds of apples.
Improve at the Kitchen
Most people want to turn apples into pies or fritters or something else that involves making pastry dough (which I had no interest in doing). Or they call for an apple to be used in a meat dish or something similar. (I had way too many apples for that.) Finally, though, I found a recipe for a medieval fruit chutney that called for apples.
Or, rather, an apple. But it also called for a pear, 2 cups of cherries, and 1/2 cup of currants.
That’s totally the same as 3 pounds of apples.
When I first met Stuart, I was very much a cooking novice. “Cooking” involved following the instructions on the back of a box or bagged frozen meal. The first time I was in his kitchen, helping with food prep, I had to ask him how to dice an onion.
That was nearly 16 years ago. Since then, I’ve not only helped process 30 pounds of onions–including 5 pounds finely minced–by hand in a single morning, but I’ve learned how to venture off script when it comes to cooking.
Mind you, I’m not at Stuart’s level (yet). He had quite a talent for going to the pantry, picking out a handful of seemingly-random ingredients, and turning them into a meal. Unless it’s something I’ve cooked enough times to remember it off the top of my head, I have to start with a recipe. I need that to point me in the right direction when it comes to spices and what ratio those spices should be in.
But the rest of the recipe is more like a guideline. Occasionally I follow them exactly, but most of the time I don’t. First off, if there’s anything I don’t like, it gets tossed. So we can just skip any lines calling for things like mushrooms or capers. (Although, to be honest, I don’t know if I do or don’t like capers; Stuart never liked them, so we never used them.)
Secondly, it’s usually inevitable that I don’t have a necessary ingredient. Depending on what it is, it either gets skipped or substituted. Some substitutions I make on intuition (I have watered down sour cream to substitute for milk before and it worked fine), but others I look up online.
Ad Libbing the Chutney
First up was dicing all the apples. The cores and any bad spots were cut out and went into my worm bin. (More on the worms another day.)
Sour Grapes Over a Lack of Vinegar
The recipe called for using a white wine or champagne vinegar. I don’t drink and Stuart drank very rarely, so booze is usually not available at our house. (Or, if it is, it’s scotch, which isn’t exactly a cooking alcohol.) When I was the one staying home and doing the cooking while Stuart worked, I built up a collection of booze alternatives. I had a variety of vinegars, plus fruit juice in single-serving containers. (A large jug of fruit juice would go bad long before I used it all; the single-serve drinks kept for much, much longer.) So, if something called for red wine, I could use a red wine vinegar or grape juice, depending on whether I thought the dish would be better tarter or sweeter. White wine vinegar or white grape juice substituted for white wine. And apple juice substituted for liquors, like brandy.
But when I went to the cabinet to get some white wine vinegar, I found we didn’t have any. In fact, we were practically out of all vinegars and were definitely out of all fruit juices.
This is why I keep a shopping list on the fridge door, and as things get low or run out, I write it down on the list immediately. Because otherwise, you never remember to replace weird stuff like wine vinegars the next time you go to the grocery store. (I have since put them on my shopping list and have restocked the collection.)
My options for this dish were rice vinegar (what I use if an Asian recipe calls for sake), malt vinegar (what I would probably use to substitute for beer), and apple cider vinegar.
Apple cider vinegar seemed like the most logical choice to pair with apples.
What Happened to My Stash???
I put the apple cider vinegar in a bowl and, as I cut up apples, I tossed them in the vinegar. Apples brown when exposed to air, and I knew that lemon juice (specifically the acid in it) is used to keep them from turning, so I figured vinegar would work the same. It did; my apples didn’t brown.
. . . At least right up to the point that I cooked them in honey and spices.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The actual name of the recipe I was loosely using is “Last of the Harvest Chutney.” Its intent is to use up whatever odd and end pieces of fruit you have. This works either in the spring, when you have a small selection of last year’s fruits still available in storage–not enough of any one thing to be useful, but enough in the aggregate–or you can use it in the fall when you have some leftover pieces that are too bruised to go into storage or weren’t quite enough to make one more batch of jelly.
That being said, I didn’t want this to be nothing but an apple chutney. So I decided to use up whatever dried fruits we have in the cabinet.
. . . We were out of dried fruit. No figs. No raisins. No cherries. No apple rings. (Not that I needed any more apples, but I still expected to find some.)
This is something else I usually kept stocked because you never know when you want to make some medieval meat, and medieval meat almost always calls for fruit.
Finally, in the top of the cabinet, I found a bag of prunes. I have no need to eat prunes out of hand, so this seemed like a good place to use some.
Then I remembered the fruit tray someone had brought over a few days previously. That definitely needed to be used before it went bad (I don’t usually eat fruit medleys, mainly for the same reason I don’t eat raw apples). So I pulled it out of the fridge and started sorting it. All the melons and pineapple stayed in the tray (they’re not complimentary tastes to a medieval fruit chutney, in my opinion), but the strawberries and blueberries went in with the apples. (The few remaining grapes, however, went into me; they were good and sweet.)
Lastly, I tossed in a bag of cashew pieces. The recipe didn’t call for nuts, but chutneys can have nuts in them, I like the crunch, and I’m not going to eat a bag of nothing but cashews, so why not use them?
The thing that really makes this chutney a medieval recipe isn’t the flavor profile (although that’s certainly a part of it), but rather the fact that it’s cobbled together from a bunch of semi-random leftover things salvaged before they go bad. Be they pies, pottages, or frumenties, medieval dishes were all about using what you had on hand and wasting nothing.
The Shortages Continue
Once my fruits were assembled, I started in on the spices. I had ginger, cloves, and cinnamon–no problem.
I can’t tell you how many years I waited for this setup, which allows me to store all the spices alphabetically.
But when I went to the cupboard for brown sugar . . . no brown sugar. Stuart must have used up the last of it making brine when he smoked meat last.
You can “make” brown sugar by combining regular sugar with molasses. Which I had. . . . Two days previously. But when I was migrating things from the cooler into the new fridge, I got rid of the jar, thinking I had no use for a small amount of super-hard molasses.
Yeah, that one was all on me.
But, I soldiered on with regular sugar.
Old Honey Renewed
The recipe actually starts on the stove with 1/2 cup of honey. (Which I doubled, since I guesstimated that I had twice the amount of fruit the original called for.)
Honey was one of the few things I had. But it was not as easy as just dumping some in. No, we couldn’t have that.
We had a honey bear that was old and the honey in it had gone hard. But hard honey can be liquefied again if you just heat it up. So, while I was still cutting up fruit, I put the container in a pot of water and let it warm up.
Even if you don’t have hard honey, you should strongly consider heating up honey first if you need more than a spoonful or two of it; warm honey pours like olive oil, which makes it a lot easier (and faster) to fill a cup.
Now We’re Cooking With (Electric) Gas
Once my myriad of substitutions were completed, the actual cooking went really fast. I added all the fruit to the simmering honey and let it cook on medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring it occasionally.
As you can see, my careful vinegaring of the apples was all for nought; the combination of honey and spices and cooking turned them brown anyway. (After the mixture cooled, it became even darker, turning rather purple.)
Despite all of the sugar and honey and fruit, it came out surprisingly tart. But it’s tart like a dried cherry; there’s an underlying sweetness that you taste after the initial tartness.
A friend of mine who is an excellent medieval cook tried a bite and declared it to be very good. So I have that as a bragging right.
Now that I have a large pot of medieval fruit chutney, you might well ask, “What are you going to do with it?”
To me, medieval fruit begs to be put on meat.
Normally, I would pair apples with pork, but 1) I don’t eat pork any more and 2) this is much tarter than apples normally are. Like I said, it tastes more like a cherry than apples. Cherries pair well with beef (sweet and sour also goes well with venison and, I assume, any other red meat), but chicken was to hand, so it’s what I used.
The one thing you don’t want to do is put too many things together that are just alike. So, to contrast with the sweetish flavor of the fruit, I decided to make the meat savory.
I thawed a package of chicken breasts and butterflied them and then flattened them with a mallet because it was 8:00 PM by that point and I didn’t have all night to wait for them to cook.
I put some vegetable oil in the bottom of a baking pan (I meant to use olive oil, but forgot and just used the first thing I got out of the cabinet) and dredged the chicken in it as I tetrised all the pieces in. Then I sprinkled them with thyme, basil, and savory until they looked sufficiently coated and popped them into the oven for 30 minutes. I had no recipe for the chicken at all, so I was totally guessing about the time. But after 30 minutes, I cut into the chicken and found it done.
I heated up a can of potatoes, added butter and sour cream to them, and cut a chunk of cheddar cheese. I put everything on the plate, added the chutney on top of the chicken and devoured it so quickly, I didn’t get a picture of it. Suffice to say, it was really, really good.
Stuart would be proud of me cooking so far off script.
Now, to learn to cook over an open fire.
When I ate leftovers the following day, I found that the chutney had mellowed somewhat and was not as tart. It still, however, tastes more like cherries than apples.
Next up: Using it on steaks.