Cucumber and apple chutney

On Saturday I had the pleasure of eating black-eyed peas, an ingredient that hasn’t crossed my path in a long time. They were part of a succotash that was served with two fried, goat cheese-stuffed squash blossoms.

I was eating at Café Flora with my sweetheart to celebrate (albeit several weeks late) our anniversary. We sat in the garden. A tree snowed tiny purple blossoms into our water glasses.

A sweet plum tomato chutney tied the meal together, like morning kisses do a long-term love affair. A little on top was enough to make it vibrant: the sweetened vinegar stung the blend of mustard, black-eyed peas, corn and limas.

When flavors mix well, it can be hard to pin down exactly what makes a meal great. Perhaps that’s why some food writing is bland. They say to avoid general words, like “delicious,” but when a bite crosses your lips and you enjoy it, that’s the first word you say. How to describe flavors and textures that settle together and pop out individually? What do you say when the evening light is starting to go, you’re sipping the other’s wine and the air is almost too chilly for the dress you’re wearing – then, you cut into a reservoir of warm, soft cheese and the first bite has crunch and cream and the sweet prick of mustard? The addition of a tomato that has burst its skin in a bath of sugar and cider vinegar is too much. You give up on words, write down the name of the restaurant and tell a friend they must, the next time they’re in Seattle, stop in for dinner.

And how to describe, to a curious friend or, worse, a new acquaintance, what works in a marriage that’s closing in on twenty years? “He’s wonderful” doesn’t do justice to the fact that he does dishes. Does them as he’s cooking. That is, as he’s waiting for the pasta dough he just made to chill in the refrigerator. He doesn’t do it for efficiency’s sake (though there’s that, too) but because he doesn’t want us to have to clean up after the kids have gone to bed. Because, he says, he wants me to have time to write.

You know how this goes. How do you describe it when someone is selfless and kind without using those words? How about easy-going and intelligent? They don’t describe someone who can watch the game and discuss the latest peer-reviewed article with equal enthusiasm. A descriptor can’t capture his ability to derail our son’s fear of the dark with tickling games. Or the way he insists, so nicely, that our daughter not complain about school again at the dinner table, prodding her in the best way there is to prod: with honesty and insistence because he loves her and when he asks what happened at school, he wants to know.

So it comes down to something unnameable that makes it work, that makes me observe his jawline from across the room, the way his hand connects to his wrist. The something means I can pick out his voice in a crowded room because it’s altogether noticeable and comforting. It’s this familiarity, of all ironies, that quickens my blood. It’s a surprise, a sudden oh, yes that is both relief and arousal, like biting into a small tomato to find it is, yes, a tomato, but extra soft, extra sweet.

Cucumber and Apple Chutney

I could have tried to recreate the condiment I had this week. There are plenty of tomatoes. But the cucumbers are exquisite and a crunchy option for a sweet-tart condiment. I used slicing cucumbers from Calliope Farm and lemon cucumbers from Wobbly Cart Farming Collective. I still had one Zestar apple from the incomparable Brownfield Orchard, a place I’d like to visit very soon. Zestars are my new favorite, beyond Honeycrisp, if that’s possible. I read, with a tiny arch of my brow, a card at the co-op that described them as having “notes of brown sugar.” I thought it was a lark of a claim until I went home and tasted one.

I based this recipe on what I could discern about chutneys from The Joy of Cooking and on a recipe I found here.

1½ pounds of cucumbers to yield about 3½ cups, chopped and peeled.
(I seeded the lemon cucumbers.)
1 large apple, to yield about 2 cups chopped apple
¾ cup sugar, about 5 ounces.
(I used a combination of dark brown sugar and raw cane sugar.)
½ lemon, seeded; rind and flesh chopped
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1½ tablespoons chopped candied ginger, about ½ ounce
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon mustard seeds

Combine sugar, lemon, vinegar, ginger, salt and mustard seeds in a medium pot and place over medium heat.

Add cucumbers and apple and heat until the liquid is almost boiling.

Turn the heat down, cover and simmer until cucumbers, apples and lemon pieces are soft, about 20 minutes. Test a piece of lemon peel and return to the stove for an extra five minutes if it is not yet soft.

Serve alongside dal, with goat cheese on crackers or on your own version of succotash.

25 thoughts on “Cucumber and apple chutney

  1. My friend Beth used the term “mouth orgasms” for eating experiences you describe. So the next time you are searching beyond “delicious” and comparing delectable food with a splendid man – maybe this expression will come to you.

  2. Oh my. I think this time you have reached a new high. You caught me completely off guard when you began describing what it is about your “sweetheart” that makes him the love of your life (along with your kids, of course). So tender, it brought tears to my eyes. The discussion of food was suddenly a means to talk about what was uppermost in your mind and heart. But that brings front and center how all aspects of life are part of a larger whole. Well done!

  3. I’m afraid I find cucumber to be detestable… However, the recipe without it sounds wonderful and it certainly looks delicious. Though i would probably have to add more apple…

    • Interesting. When I was writing this I came across something that said a “vocal minority” of the population finds cucumbers as you describe. Do they taste bitter to you? So funny – I’m in the, I guess, silent majority. They taste mild and watery which is why I thought they’d work here – taking on the flavor of the other ingredients. You could use apples exclusively and it would work here. Also green tomatoes – they make fantastic chutney.

    • Yes, after seeding I chopped it all up together, like The Joy indicates. If you’re worried about the pith making it bitter, you could use only the zest and juice. For me, it didn’t taste bitter, probably because there are so many strong flavors mingled together.

  4. Firstly congratulations on nearly 20 years, secondly a superb piece of writing – just wonderful.
    And I’m loving the idea of the chutney

  5. Such a beautifully written piece. I was captivated by how you captured the quiet comfort and thrill of a love that is settled yet always fresh. Congratulations on your anniversary.

    Your thoughts about food writing and your description of your meal make me consider my own writing. I struggle against banal descriptions, yet find myself using the same adjectives over and over. Thank you for showing what I should be aspiring to.

    • I think we all struggle with that. We all have our pet adjectives. The best advice I’ve heard is to do away with them altogether and use strong verbs instead. Adverbs, too. That’s challenging but helpful.

      Thank you for your well-wishes and kind words about this post. It turned into something I wasn’t planning (I was going to tell you all about going to see Ira Glass). I appreciate your encouragement and also the nominations – thank you!

  6. I am still smiling after reading this post. And now I want to eat at Cafe Flora more and say delicious less. :) I just had a peek through my Cafe Flora cookbook, which has both a tomato jam and a tomato chutney recipe. I might have to make the chutney tomorrow, and if it’s good I will send you the recipe!

  7. This was such a sweet surprise and joy to read this morning.. your words, your images, .. what a lovely and loving description of your husband. I bet he was touched to read this. It must have been such an enchanting night (‘a tree snowed purple blossoms’ … says it all!!) xx

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