Saturday, September 8, 2007

Eat me, Mr. H. J. Heinz!

Where I left the account of the Tomato Bee, I was riding shotgun with a pot of stewed tomato puree on my lap. The brute labor under the hot sun under our belts, but the delicate process of flavoring and cooking-down still to come, for ketchup is emphatically not just a mess of tomato puree.

Good ketchup captures the sweetness of freshly sliced, ripe tomatoes and the comforting flavor of long-simmered tomato soup. It captures the bright tang of a simple tomato and vinegar salad and the satisfying satiness of preserves.

I first became fascinated by ketchup (that's right, fascinated) when I read an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the Sept. 6, 2004 issue of the New Yorker. I was on a trip to Paris, a 23rd birthday gift from my then boyfriend, and I fairly ignored him as we rode the Metro from Montmartre to the 14th Arrondissement, so riveted was I by this tale of the rise of flavored mustards, the apparent perfection of Heinz ketchup, and the Power of Umami.

Umami is the fifth taste and, I have to say, my personal favorite. We all know sweet, salt, bitter, and sour. But there's something else, something that fills the mouth and satisfies the palate, that connotes comfort and savory satisfaction: this is umami. In Gladwell's words, it is "the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother’s milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato."

The Heinz company, according to professional tasters, has achieved the perfect balance of the five flavors in its ketchup, what another blogger has called "a Platonic state."

(Where does mustard enter into this? When Grey Poupon was introduced to U.S. consumers in the 70s, many said it wouldn't succeed, claiming that the American palate was quite satisfied with good ol' yellow mustard. But it did, opening the door for the dozens of mustard varieties now commonly available, from honey to apple cider to wasabi. Some have tried to do the same for ketchup -- chipotle, BBQ, and other such flavors -- but have made little headway. Apparently we are quite happy with our ketchup, and besides, we have America's actual favorite condiment, salsa, for variety)

All this was at the forefront of my mind when I took on this challenge. In a phrase: how to beat Heinz at its own game?

I began with an authentic touch, preparing a cheesecloth pouch of spices -- sticks of cinnamon, cloves, mustard seed, nutmeg, and allspice. I plopped this thick and fragrant cocoon into the puree. Following Bittman's advice, I also added a couple heaping tablespoons of cayenne and paprika directly to the puree, as well as some (though not a lot of) sugar.

The burner set to medium, I checked back every ten minutes or so to give it a few turns of a long-armed spoon and breath in the developing flavors. We turned off the heat when we left for dinner and recommenced the cooking later that night, now at a lower temperature as I was distracted by a movie about snakes on commercial air craft and didn't trust myself to stir regularly.

The next morning, I woke to find the pot once again bubbling gently away and that Dad had removed the spice pouch. One taste of the almost-ketchup and it was clear why: the stuff was picante! Flavorful and complex and interesting -- but also very spicy, maybe too spicy.

Once the puree reached ketchup consistency, we left it to cool. (A viscous consistency is everything to ketchup, its classification by physicists as a thixotropic power-law fluid both its greatest asset, enabling the steady application to a footlong hot dog, and its greatest flaw, a boon to all those faced with the last few drops of ketchup in a glass bottle. We squirted a bit of store-bought ketchup onto a plate to test that we'd gotten the consistency about right.)

And now the final step: we pulled all the vinegars out of the cupboard, and several bowls and spoons for tasting. Dad had been a little iffy about vinegar in the ketchup. I love the stuff, eat it everyday some way or another, and couldn't imagine ketchup without it. After a moment's deliberation he revealed that it wasn't vinegar per se that he was unsure of but which vinegar. The oldest ketchup recipe has none; by Heinz's day, it was a common ingredient. Bittman recommends either cider or red wine vinegar.

We called in the family and tried at least six vinegars in combination with the almost-ketchup, settling on three varieties (and hence three varieties of ketchup): a combination of white and red balsamic; sherry; and spicy green pepper. Each vinegar drew out a different aspect of the ketchup's flavor profile: its full-bodied tanginess; its sweetness; and its fiery potential.

At a ratio of 1/3 a cup of vinegar to 3 cups of almost-ketchup, we put three pots back on the stove, again cooking off the liquid to the right viscous consistency. We canned the results -- a total of about two quarts of ketchup, more than I thought we'd end up with and definitely enough to share and eat through the winter.

The next day, Labor Day, we invited friends and family to come taste ketchup atop hot dogs and burgers. It was a triumphant and ironic moment when our guests dipped tortilla chips into the spicy green pepper flavor. A couple decades ago, ketchup lost its place as America's #1 condiment. And today, our ketchup -- bright with flavor, rich and complicated -- took back the title, at least for a moment. Take that, salsa!

1 comment:

Gardner said...

My goodness. Your goodness! I'd sure love to have one taste of that ketchup you made. Plato may find himself outmuscled. :)

Thanks for linking to my blog--and for this wonderful account of your work.