By Spencer Ackerman
A caveat up front: We learned from Saint-Ex’s misguided attempt at homemade ketchup that ketchup is best bought in a squeezebottle. Whether our palettes have been conditioned thoroughly for decades by the Heinz family or its wonderful vinegary concoction has simply perfected the Thing once known as catsup, it matters little. Nothing I write below is to apply to ketchup. You should buy ketchup.
But yesterday it occurred to me what a better experience you’ll have at summertime grilling when you apply your love for fresh food to the stuff you put on your fresh food. store-bought relish is OK. But making your own relish makes the iridescent green dice you’ve been buying taste like a pale facsimile of sweet and spicy flavors. You just need to learn some basic principles so as not to consider it beyond your grasp. I’m here for you.
What follows is not a recipe for cucumber and red onion relish. Recipes boil the pleasure away from improvisational cooking. What follows after the jump is a basic set of principles to facilitate your experimentation. But I should say I was writing a piece while Roger Mooking’s show was on and he made me want to make my own relish, so credit where due.
So a relish depends on pickling, and pickling is basically — not that I really know what I’m talking about — the pleasant application of vinegar, sugar and some spices on vegetables. With a relish, you want to concentrate and intensify the process, so we’re going to do this over the stove.
Heat a skillet with some olive oil and put in a diced red onion. Cook until translucent. When you start to see the onions go translucent and carmelize, add some chilis of your choice. I used some Sriracha since I had it handy. You’re adding heat and reinforcing sweetness. How much should you add? Whatevers. How hot do you like your food? Now throw in some salt and pepper.
Take about half a cup of white vinegar and add it to the pan. This is where you must, sadly, suffer. Few things on earth smell worse than hot vinegar. But do it. After you add the vinegar, add about a quarter cup of granulated sugar and whisk until it dissolves. Now throw in a couple of diced cucumbers — seed them first — and cook it down until the vinegar cooks away. It should take about 15 minutes or so on a medium-high heat, and turn the heat down as the pickling liquid dissolves. You’ll be left with a sweet, somewhat hot, somewhat gelatinized but still crunchy vegetables. You might want to salt at the end, but I like more salt than most people not named Emily Thorson.
(What to have the relish with? I made some lamb burgers — Mooking’s influence again — by throwing a little feta into a patty I made out of ground lamb, salt and pepper and then grilled to medium-rare, about 7 minutes per side.)
You guys know how to make mayonnaise, I trust. If you don’t know, now you know: We’re just talking about egg yolks and oil, some salt & pepper and air. Whatever you might choose to infuse the delicious non-Mayo with is great: I like basil mayonnaise in the summer. You won’t go back to the dismal Diabetes-gateway in the jar.
Point being: I now have enough relish for my next two burger or hot-dog grilling sessions, all for considerably less-per-unit and vastly more flavor-per-unit than anything you can buy in a store. Floss on your next cookout this summer.