Small, Good Things: Relish the Experience

Balsamic onion relish (Photo by J. Dizney)

by Joe Dizney

relish, v. [Old French, relechier — to lick or taste anew]: To taste or eat with pleasure; to like the flavor of; to partake of with gratification; to enjoy; to experience pleasure from; as, to relish food.

The last column’s chermoula recipe got me thinking about all the other “little dishes” of the world — the pestos, chaunks, ketjaps, chutneys and beyond — smooth or chunky, assertively seasoned condiments that define the numerous distinctive cuisines of the world.

Though they’re wildly varied in flavor, texture and name, there are certain unifying principles to all these preparations: These little sauces and concoctions rely on indigenous and seasonally appropriate ingredients; they are typically highly spiced and seasoned in culturally specific ways. Functionally they exist primarily to enhance or complement the most common, plentiful and seasonal local staples — meat, fish, vegetables — after simple cooking processes, say, grilling, frying or roasting.

Originally foods were highly seasoned for practical reasons: spiced to mask possible “off flavors” of meat or fish in the millennia before modern refrigeration; or pickled, spiced or salted to preserve their seasonal fruit, vegetable or herbal ingredients. The flavor profiles of many cover all the bases: sweet, salty, sour, spicy.

Variations on a given theme were as much a function of geography as culture or taste. Even the vocabulary of these small, good things is almost comically generic in primarily descriptive but universal ways — “pesto” translates as “paste”; “salsa” means simply “sauce.”

These little culinary memes propagated organically with civilization and commerce — a Chinese concoction of pickled fish or shellfish and spices — gwai zap — became kecap when it spread (no pun intended) to Malaysia. From there it traveled to the Netherlands as ketjap, then England where it became a mushroom-, walnut- or oyster-based paste called “catsup” or “ketchup.” Finally, in 20th-century America it has been embraced as the sui generis tomato “sauce” applied to hamburgers and French fries (OK, frites) — and with great relish!

Then there’s relish: Most Americans likely identify relish as the too-sweet, green-yellow, pickle-y jam that is generally applied to ’burgers and ’dogs in concert with and as enthusiastically as ketchup (particularly, it seems, in Chicago — if you’ve ever eaten a wiener there you know what I mean).

This relish more than likely began its historical, condimental life as a chutney or chatney — a chunky, fruit-based, spiced and pickled melange native to India. (Curiously, the word “chutney” derives from the Hindi word chattni, meaning “to lick.” See the opening definition of the verb “relish” to lick anew!) The summer season seems an appropriate and opportune time to reclaim the idea of “relish” from this modern culinary wasteland.

First, appreciate a more (shall we say) adaptive definition of the dish suggested by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, in their compendium of “little dishes,” Salsas, Sambals, Chutneys and Chowchows: “If you don’t know what it is, call it a relish. You may not be precise, but chances are you won’t be wrong.”

Their vagueness is somehow liberating, and Schlesinger and Willoughby run with it, suggesting concoctions such as mango-jicama relish with Scotch bonnets, cucumber-watermelon relish or green-apple-chipotle. The recipe presented here is based on their grilled onion relish with black olives and has been a summer staple in my home for years.

A big combination of caramelized, slightly charred sweet onions, garlic, oil-cured black olives, fresh basil and a bright-sweet dressing of lemon juice and balsamic vinegar, this relish “reads” as more than a little Mediterranean and naturally meshes well with open-fire-cooked meat (particularly a big, juicy black-peppered steak), seafood (strong-flavored varieties like bluefish, or shrimp) or vegetables (say, Portobello mushrooms).

Balsamic onion relish     (Photo by J. Dizney)

Balsamic onion relish (Photo by J. Dizney)

While Schlesinger and Willoughby (also the authors of many excellent grilling cookbooks, The Thrill of the Grill being a notable favorite) lean to the open pit, here their recipe is adapted for year-round use with alternate instructions for roasting. This relish works just fine with a roasted chicken in February (although admittedly fresh basil will be a challenge).

Regarding ingredients: First, don’t scrimp on the balsamic vinegar — Joe’s Italian Marketplace in Fishkill has some authentic ones that are definitely worth the expense (particularly in this season when you can also do things like drizzle a bit on fresh ripe strawberries for dessert). The optional Tabasco sauce adds a little heat and depth.

Sweet yellow cooking onions are fine for this relish, but at this time of year don’t resist grilling the fresh red and white spring varieties from the farmers market. Madura Farms was selling some beauties labeled “candy onions,” and I suggest including a handful of large shallots for additional complexity.

And don’t forget that this relish is as flexible and adaptive as its definition is vague. Try these variations:

  • Onion relish tossed with pasta: Serve as either a hot meal or cold salad with an extra drizzle of olive oil.
  • Crostini with shaved Romano or Parmesan: Top olive oil–brushed and toasted baguette slices with relish and shavings of hard cheese for an appetizer.
  • Bean salad: Toss with cooked cannellini or chickpeas and cherry tomatoes for a cold salad.
  • Pan bagnat: For a great summer picnic sandwich, split small ciabatta rolls and top with onion relish, quality canned tuna belly (Ortiz brand, available at Adams Fair Acre Farms) and any of the following additions: more basil, sliced radishes, hard-boiled eggs or anchovies. (This sandwich is actually better wrapped and pressed a bit, and allowed to sit, refrigerated, up to 24 hours, to soak up the juices.)

However you adapt it, this “small, good thing” is sure to have you licking your lips or even fingers, relishing every bite.

Balsamic Onion Relish With Basil and Olives

Adapted from Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby; makes about 4 cups

3 pounds onions (yellow, red, Vidalia or any combination, including shallots)

3 tablespoons plus ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and cracked black pepper to taste

2 to 3 cloves minced garlic

¼ cup good quality balsamic vinegar

¼ cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

Tabasco sauce to taste (optional)

¼ cup pitted black olives (Kalamata preferred), chopped roughly

¼ cup fresh basil, cut into thin chiffonade

  1. The onions:

Grilling: Light the fire; peel dry skin from onions, trim and cut into halves with root ends intact. Toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt and cracked pepper. When fire is ready (medium-hot), grill until soft and charred in places. Remove and allow to cool, chop roughly, discarding root ends, and transfer to a large bowl.

Roasting: Preheat oven to 450 degrees; peel dry skins from onions, trim and quarter (if really large, cut into sixths) with root ends intact. Toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil, salt and cracked pepper. Roast on a parchment-lined baking sheet until soft, golden and slightly charred in places, about 40 minutes total, checking and turning regularly. Allow to cool, chop roughly, discarding root ends, and transfer to a large bowl.

  1. The relish:

Whisk together balsamic, lemon juice, remaining ¼ cup olive oil, garlic and Tabasco. Add to onions along with olives and basil and toss to mix. Correct seasoning.

Note: Relish will keep covered and refrigerated for four to five days, although it is best served close to room temperature.


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