Today’s recipe harks back to the simplicity of great cooking, using the bare minimum of ingredients to create a simple red onion chutney which tastes utterly beautiful. This simple relish contains all of the delicious zingy sweetness that a good chutney should have. It’s utterly beautiful slapped atop splinters of crusty bread alongside a summer spread of meats, fish, salad or during a sun drenched picnic.
Earlier this week, I decided to make a red onion chutney, jam, marmalade, whatever the hell you want to call it. I’m going with chutney, I think jam or marmalade needs more sugar and less vinegar. Anyway, my first port of call was research – to the internet! Barrages of recipes, flavours and ideas had quickly engulfed my reading list proposing a vast range of styles and names for a red onion relish. People were extolling the benefits of multitudinous ways of making this simple condiment, using varying amounts of sugar, tons of red wine, port, parsley, chilli, spices, the list went on and on, featuring quick recipes, long recipes, easy ones and complex ones. The amount of choice that the internet gives us is enough to make a grown man cry.
A flash of inspiration came upon me, because last year I made a distinctly underwhelming chutney. It sounded utterly seductive, containing lots of luscious ingredients. Yet, it resulted in a spaghetti-junction of intertwined flavours and the whole thing lacked oomph, because there was no clear winner. It was like a game of ‘Where’s Wally?’, trying to pick out the individual flavours from the synaesthetic melee. Sometimes in life you need to ask whether it’s better to be a jack of all trades, or simply to master one. This recipe was trying to be Jack, hence failed to master anything.
Whilst writing this blog I’ve discovered that if I attempt to make a dish interesting by adding extra flavours, I often end up confusing it. Attempting to be clever with flavours is incredibly alluring and seductive, yet for me, simple is best, I’ll leave Heston and his pals to deal with complex. Therefore, having read 10 different chutney recipes I broke down the facts of chutney life into a few basic existential prerequisites.
White or red
Oil, butter or both
Wine, juice, port, etc.
Any type will work
Herbs & spices
By understanding these basics, devising a simple recipe was incredibly easy, using whatever I had in the cupboard, therefore avoiding any shopping. Yes, I keep at least 1kg of onions in the fridge at all times, even though I live alone. There are also lots of herbs in my fridge, I currently have mint, parsley, tarragon and thyme. Perhaps I have a deep fear of nuclear isolation or something and feel the need to maintain a month of provisions at all times. In fact, my fridge is literally overflowing. It’s completely and utterly stuffed to the max, which you could argue, is a slightly peculiar thing for a single man, living on his own. It’s a lot of food. The stereotype of a bloke’s fridge having a Ginster’s pasty, half a takeaway pizza and two cans of John Smith’s is a far cry from the charcuterie, cheeses, juices, yoghurts, fruits, vegetables, sauces and mustards that are bestowed upon me every time I venture into my utility room. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. A full fridge makes me happy.
Cooking this red onion chutney is also an exercise in tolerance for the aromas that cooking can create in your property. It bloody stinks. Vinegar contains acetic acid, which sends out rather unpleasant fumes when cooked, so you need to do this with the extractor on, the windows open and when your nearest and dearest are not in the kitchen simultaneously. Don’t, for any reason, cook this whilst entertaining guests, they’ll dislike you and won’t come back. OK, on reflection, there could be a good reason to cook this whilst certain people are visiting.
The far more diplomatic and caring thing to do is cook this when no-one else is in the kitchen, then invite everyone around a few days later when you’ve got a massive board overflowing with cheeses, crackers, charcuterie, olives, cornichons and fresh bread. Then, dive in and enjoy the sweet, unctuous twang of this chutney when generously heaped upon fat wads of bread and greedy portions of cheese.
Delicious & Simple Red Onion Chutney
By Gavin Wren
Makes about 500ml
Uses 1 large saucepan
1kg red onions, peeled, halved, sliced.
60ml extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon caster sugar
3 thyme sprigs tied together
500ml red grape juice
150ml sherry vinegar (you can substitute this with balsamic, or any other vinegar for that matter)
Cook, stirring regularly for about 45-60 minutes. Watch for two things – browning and softness – you don’t want the onions to brown, they should simply be reducing in size and getting softer and softer. They are ready when you taste them and they’ve lost their oniony sharpness, instead being sweet and soft.
Now, open the windows and turn the extractor on.
Add the juice, vinegar and thyme to the pan, increase the heat to full blast and cook, stirring occasionally until reduced to a thick, chutney-esque consistency. A good guide is when you pull the spoon across the bottom of the pan, the fluid only slowly creeps back across.
Turn off the heat, then leave to cool in the pan. Store in sterilised jars for a long time, especially in the fridge. I can’t tell you how long they’ll last, just use your nose, but we’re talking about months.