Tomato and ginger make a happy mistake

How to screw up a sauce ... and end up making it better

Published December 5, 2009 1:03AM (EST)

In cooking, you can get away with damn near anything.

It’s one of the nice things about living in a global society, where there is rarely anything new under the culinary sun. Half the time when you screw up in the kitchen, you can pretend it’s intentional. Garlic get a little too brown in your sauce? Hey, man, this is Spanish style. Forget to finish mashing your potatoes? Those are crushed potatoes. (Williams Sonoma doesn’t sell a tool for bullshitting, probably because they’d put themselves out of business.)*

And then, sometimes the mistakes can turn intentional. A few years ago, in a fit of mid-'90s nostalgia, I busted out a few hits from the "Dean and DeLuca Cookbook," including a great tomato sauce for pasta with the soothing warmth of ginger. There was a charming and lovely woman, there was conversation, and soon there was a pot of overcooked tomato sauce.

But my lady friend, the daughter of Indian immigrants, kindhearted and open-minded, gave it a taste all the same. She grinned. "That tastes like something my mother makes," she said. "She just always called it tomato chutney." We put away the pasta, and found some Indian breads. We scooped up the stuff, bite by bite, tasting the tomatoes' rich depth, glowing with ginger. "Is this how they do it in Sindh?" I asked.

"Sure. Why not?" she said.

Tomato-ginger chutney

Makes about 1.5 cups

1/3 cup vegetable oil
1  22-ounce can of good-quality diced tomatoes in juice
1 knob of ginger, ¾-inch, peeled with the side of a spoon (It takes off the skin with hardly any waste) and minced
3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed with the side of your knife
1 medium onion, cut in ½-inch dice
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Get a heavy-bottomed saucepan warm over medium to medium-low heat and add the oil. Swirl it around the pan. When the oil moves around the pan as easily as water, add the garlic, flipping it every few moments so that it cooks without too much browning. The longer it cooks without browning, the smoother and cleaner the flavor will be. When the garlic is softened and maybe a little blistered, add the ginger and cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until you can smell it.
  2. Add the onions, stirring them constantly. Don’t let them brown either. Watch how they change, from opaque to translucent. You’re softening them, releasing the juices and sugars without caramelizing them. I know everyone loves caramelizing things, how bold and complex those flavors become, but by keeping those flavors in line here, the ginger and tomato can shine. Taste a piece. When it’s soft -- hardly any snap left -- give the pan a pinch of salt and pepper.
  3. Add the tomatoes and stir to mix well. Add another couple of pinches of salt and pepper, until it tastes OK, but a little under-seasoned. Turn up the flame to get it all boiling, then turn it back down, until the tomato is bubbling gently. Partially cover the pan, and go have charming conversation. It’s best if you can come back to check on the pan every once in a while, to give it a stir and check on the heat level.
  4. Let it ride in the pan until the liquid has cooked off and you’re left with a tight, almost pasty chutney, maybe 30 minutes total. Give it a taste. Does it need more salt? Give it another taste, and notice how the ginger flavor plays a little hide-and-seek with the tomato, a lovely little trick.

What to do with this stuff

Well, as they do it (or not) in Sindh, I love to just scoop this up with parathas or naan, if you can get to a South Asian grocery. Or maybe slather it all over one of those breads and tuck some pan-fried paneer cheese into it, a grilled cheese for the ages. But the chutney is so versatile you can just smear it all over a regular grilled cheese, instead of ketchup. Or make a batch of it the day before Thanksgiving and use it the day after on turkey sandwiches to give them a tart, warming kick. Or, in a pinch, loosen it back up with some water and put it on pasta, and everything will be as it was meant to be. 

* Anyone want to get to work on a secret decoder wheel that says, "If you screwed ______ up by ________ , you can call it _____."? Let’s talk: 

By Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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