If the recent shortage of single-use ketchup packets had been announced in summer, when Lancaster County is teeming with fresh tomatoes, I would be leading the charge for kitchen ketchup making, coast to coast. But local tomato season is still three months away, a likely eternity for fanatics of the crimson condiment.
For guidance on homemade workarounds to this ketchup conundrum, I turned to Philadelphia-based preserving expert Marisa McClellan. The author of four cookbooks on small-batch preserving, McClellan recently reminded me that there is a long American tradition of making ketchup without any tomatoes whatsoever. Colonial-era cookbooks written by Martha Washington and others included details for turning pickled oysters and mushrooms into ketchup, derived from the Chinese pickled fish brine known as Ke-tsiap.
By the 19th century, tomatoes were considered a ketchup-worthy ingredient; a recipe for Tomato Catsup was included in “The Virginia House-wife; Or, Methodical Cook” by Mary Randolph, published in 1824. Fruit also would be turned into ketchup; in the 1930 edition of “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook” by Fannie Merritt Farmer, there are three recipes for fruit-focused ketchups, starring apples, gooseberries and grapes.
With this history lesson under my belt, McClellan’s suggestion that I make ketchup from beets — yes, beets — did not seem so strange after all. Plus, it would be a great alternative for people allergic to nightshades, a group of plants including tomatoes, eggplants and potatoes.
Anticipating the inevitable question, McClellan assured me that the beets are not overpowering.
“You’d be surprised at how the beets’ natural earthiness disappears into the traditional ketchup spices,” she said in an email. “Their innate sweetness means that you don’t need much additional sweetener to make the ketchup delicious and their dense texture means that the cooking time is a whole lot shorter than with tomatoes.”
She’s right. The end result is smooth, rich and minimally beet-y. Even my beet-hating husband gave the
purple stuff a thumbs up. We spread it onto turkey burgers and declared it delicious — and an exceptional Plan B to the same ole tomato story.
Adapted from “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars” by Marisa McClellan.
Makes 4 to 5 (half-pint/8-ounce) jars.
- 2 pounds red beets, thoroughly scrubbed
- 2 cups cider vinegar
- 1 cup coconut sugar or brown sugar
- 1/2 cup diced onion (from about 1/4 medium onion)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- About 1/2 cup water (as needed)
1. Place the beets in a large saucepan, completely cover with cold water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium, cover and cook the beets until a paring knife pierces them easily, about 1 hour. Drain and let cool under cold running water. Once cool to the touch, peel and finely chop the beets. Note: You can do this step a day in advance.
2. Place the chopped beets, vinegar, sugar and onion in a large saucepan over high heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Bring to a vigorous boil, then lower the heat to medium, cooking until the beets are soft and they have broken down into a thick pulp, about 20 minutes. (You can use a potato masher to test their readiness.)
3. Remove from heat and cool for at least 10 minutes. (Hot splattering beets landing on your skin is no fun.) Puree the beets with an immersion blender, high-powered stand blender or food processor until very well blended, up to 5 minutes, depending on the appliance. The mixture will be thick but it should not be chunky.
4. Wipe pot as needed (especially if using a blender or food processor) and return puree to pot. Add salt, cloves, coriander and black pepper, stirring until combined, over medium heat. Add a few tablespoons of the water to help keep the puree from scalding, adding more as needed. Cook until the puree is thick and smooth, 15 to 30 minutes. Taste and re-season as needed.
5. Remove from heat and cool completely before portioning into small jars. Keeps in the refrigerator for a few weeks and for a few months in the freezer. If freezing, be sure to use freezer-safe jars.
Note: This recipe was developed for water bath canning. If you would like to process the jars using the water bath method, process for 15 minutes in half-pint jars.