FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Ancient Flavor

Condiments. They're so common you probably don't even notice them but they're on every table in America, and around the globe for that matter. From local diners to fancy restaurants, tables are often laden with an assortment of condiments. In one form or another these flavor boosters are utilized in every culture -- from the crisp salsas of Latin America to the sweet and sour chutneys of the Near East, and fiery harissa of North Africa to pesto, rouille and aïoli of Western Europe. And let's not forget our modest ketchup, mustard and hot pepper sauce.

Sweet and spicy, hot and sour, chunky or smooth, the options are limitless when creating condiments. These full flavored accompaniments are loved by all and with today's quest for low fat/high flavor (and low labor) they are a perfect choice; they're also a great way to stay cool in the kitchen during the hot weather. The versatility of condiments is unparalleled, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the universal appeal they have. Interestingly, like most foodstuffs condiments began out of necessity, as a form of food preservation. In fact the word condiment is based on the Latin condimentum; its derivatives are condire and condere, which mean to season, pickle or store.

While ketchup and mustard are the two most likely candidates as the American favorites they have actually been surpassed by salsa in retail sales. With America's seemingly insatiable appetite for full flavored and spicy foods this doesn't really come as a surprise, but it gave ketchup companies a pretty good wakeup call. In response to the public's demand for spice in the early 1990's many ketchup producers began to make a variety of flavored ketchups, including spicy, barbeque and smoked-flavored.

English Sailors first encountered ketchup in the Far East where it's been produced for centuries. They discovered Chinese cooks using a pungent sauce they referred to as ke-tsiap, the Chinese word for pickled fish sauce. Believe-it-or-not it was originally made from fermented fish entrails. This aboriginal seasoning that the sailors discovered was probably not unlike nuoc mam, the famous fish sauce of Vietnam and Thailand, or the ancient sauce Garum -- a ubiquitous ingredient in almost all Roman cooking; both are based on fermented fish. The sailors loved this seasoning not only for its ability to spice up their monotonous diets, but also because it would not become tainted during long voyages. When this mysterious sauce was brought back to Britain, not surprisingly, it was not well received. And because the thought of consuming the liquid of fermented fish guts didn't sit well with many British, in England ketchup was initially made from mushrooms, anchovies, fruits and even walnuts. It wasn't until the tomato made its first appearance in Britain that it was used to make ketchup. In our country the Heinz Company has been producing ketchup since 1876. Ironically, today chefs across the country are pairing their foods with a variety of homemade ketchups, and some are based on such eclectic ingredients (or more appropriately, original ingredients) as mushrooms, fruits and walnuts.

Prepared mustard is also one of those condiments that is so universal it's hard to imagine that it's actually derived from a little seed, and that it hasn't always been available in little clear jars on supermarket shelves. The word mustard is derived from the Latin must arde, meaning burning wine or must (unripe grape juice or unfermented wine). Though mustard seed has been cultivated in China and the Mediterranean region for more than 3000 years it was the Romans who first carried mustard seeds to France, where the legendary Dijon mustard was born. The most famous of the Dijon mustards, Grey Poupon, was founded in 1777 by Monsieur Grey and Monsieur Poupon. The original building, at 32 Rue de le Liberté, in Dijon, now serves as a mustard museum. What's really interesting is that prepared mustard is made the same way as it always has been -- whole mustard seeds are macerated in wine or vinegar and allowed it to steep.

Salsa translates from Spanish and Italian simply as sauce, and can apply to every thing from a cream sauce or tomato sauce to brown gravy for beef. Though whenever the word salsa is mentioned it is the spicy chopped raw tomato mixtures from Latin America that come to mind. The word salsa is actually derived from the Latin word saltus, meaning salted or seasoned. The most common salsa is pico de gallo, or "rooster's beak," aptly named because all of the ingredients are large enough to be picked (or pecked) up with your thumb and forefinger, similar to a rooster pecking. Pico de gallo is also called salsa cruda (raw sauce), and consists of raw chopped tomato, onion, and hot peppers, and sometimes cilantro and garlic. Like it's counter parts -- chutney and relish -- salsa is meant to complement, heighten and season a meal rather than overpower it.

Relish is another example of a food that was first created not only for its flavor but also practical purposes. Early American cooks, for instance, began to pickle excess fruits and vegetables to enjoy them throughout the long winter months; perishable items also withstood long journeys prior to refrigeration -- the salt, sugar and vinegar acted as a preservative. One such recipe I discovered first hand when I inherited a small recipe collection that was handwritten by my late grandmother. She was born in the beginning of the last century and of German decent; most of the recipes had a definite German slant to them and were on the utilitarian side, but the one that interested me the most was listed simply as "pepper relish." I had vague recollections of eating it as a child (on hot dogs and chicken), and when I made it myself I remembered how delicious it was. Today, I'm sure, my grandmother would find it quite ridiculous and frivolous to learn that I have served her humble relish in white tablecloth restaurants on such unlikely items as Pan-Roast Seabass, Grilled Tiger Shrimp, and even Chicken Paupiettes. She would probably also be very proud, because no matter when it was served some of the biggest compliments of the evening were for her pepper relish.

Myra's Old Fashioned Hot Pepper Relish Yields 3 quarts

1 pound Spanish onions
1-1/2 pound ripe tomatoes
4 pounds bell peppers
8 jalapeno peppers
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons whole mustard seed
1 tablespoon ground allspice
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

Grind the onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, jalapenos and garlic in an old-fashioned hand-crank meat grinder, or, if you do not have one, an electric food processor will do a satisfactory job but it won't be quite the same. Place the ground vegetables into a heavy saucepot. Add the salt, sugar, vinegar, mustard seed, allspice, cinnamon and cloves to the vegetable mixture and mix well. Bring the relish to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, pour it into a glass or steel bowl and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.

Place a colander in a clean bowl and pour the relish into the colander. Strain the relish for 5 minutes (save the juice for pickled vegetables for drizzling over chicken or fish). Spoon the relish into glass jars. The relish will keep refrigerated for 2-3 weeks, and if it is sealed using proper canning procedures it will last throughout the winter.

Salsa Pico de Gallo Yields 1 quart

4-5 ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
3 serrano chilies, seeded and minced
1/2 cup loosely packed chopped cilantro
3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt

Mix all of the above ingredients together in a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1/2 hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Five Herb Pesto Yields 1-3/4 cups

1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup fresh parsley (flatleaf)
1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves
1/4 cup fresh tarragon leaves
1/4 cup fresh minced chives
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup pine nuts, almonds or walnuts
1/2 cup virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese

In food processor combine the basil, parsley, oregano, tarragon, chives, garlic, nuts and olive oil; puree until smooth. Add the cheese and run the food processor for 10 seconds or until the cheese is just incorporated into the pesto.

Tapenade Yields 1 cup

2 cups pitted black olives
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon minced garlic
5 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons virgin olive oil

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth.

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