Charlene’s Spicy Ketchup

A few Summers ago, Charlene Benson found herself up in a log cabin in Big Indian with two 6-year-olds, and one of them wouldn’t stop talking.

It was raining, and didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon. She had a few jam jars, but not many, and a large bushel of tomatoes that she had rash-purchased at the market.

Ketchup would be something she could make that would require a lot of reduction. Which would work with the scant few jars she had, and give the kids an activity, besides, she reasoned, there was something very satisfying about a big pot of warm tomatoes simmering on a stove.

Charlene is one of my mentors, a creative tour-de-force; (a slayer of visual dragons!) She was the first person to hire me on magazines in the US (Yes, you can blame her!) and now she also grows vegetables from her wondrous garden in Williamsburg. Shiny purple eggplants and taut, irregular heirlooms. Figs, Peppers and the odd Peach. The tomatoes she uses in her ketchup are Plum, and San Marzano. “The San Marzano,” Charlene says… Are frankly horrible eaten raw, but great in my sauce.”

Last Saturday, Charlene, her husband Brant, and I got together with the Andrea Gentl and Marty Hyers (from the photo duo; Gentl and Hyers) to shoot for the day. Despite warnings of a tornado, some ultimately heavy downpours… the sun, and the ketchup—came out wonderfully fine.

Here is her recipe.

Charlene’s doesn’t use exact measurements. If the sauce needs more sweetener, she’ll add more maple syrup, if it’s not spicy enough, she’ll add another pepper. Note: The spiciness will mellow out in time (as it’s stored) with the influence of the vinegar. You need to taste frequently though, to get it to where the taste works best for you.

Take 35 Plum, Roma or San Marzano tomatoes. Cut in half and de-seed into a sieve, draining the juice into a bowl. Place cut tomatoes face down on an ungreased cookie sheet, with 12 whole Cayenne Peppers, (or other small hot peppers), a peeled whole head of Garlic and a loose handful of Basil and Oregano leaves (fresh only). Roast in a convection oven at 400 degrees for 25 minutes, or a regular oven at 425 for 30 minutes or until the skins puff up and turn black. (See picture.) While the tomatoes are roasting, cut up 4 Onions (can be white, red, or standard brown, whatever you have), 4 Red Bell Peppers (Capsicum) 2 Poblano Chilli’s and 4 cloves of Garlic, into inch size pieces. (This should come to about 7 cups in total).  Place in a large heavy based pot or dutch oven on the stove top. Add 5 cups of Distilled White Pickling Vinegar, 5 Clove sprigs, 1 Bay Leaf, 1 tablespoon of Mustard Seed, 1 tablespoon of Celery Seed, 2 tablespoons of Salt, 1 teaspoon of White Pepper, large grind of Black Pepper. Stir, and put on Medium heat to gently warm. When tomatoes are done roasting, remove from oven and gently with tongs, peel the skins off the tomatoes. Put the entire contents of the cookie sheets into the pot. Bring entire mixture to the boil, reduce untill you have a soft rolling boil, and leave for 2 and a half hours, or until the contents of the pot have been reduced by half. Add 1 cup of Raisins, and 1 cup of Maple Syrup. Taste. Add seasoning or more sweetener, or more spicy pepper if you desire. Use an immersion blender to puree. Simmer another 2 more hours. The sauce will be a very dark red. Pour into 8 oz jars. Process according to canning directions. (See link in ‘Notes’ below). Makes 12 x 8oz jars of ketchup.

Notes: You can use the tomato ‘juice’ from the de-seeded tomatoes later to water the ketchup down, if you so desire, or, put it in a Bloody Mary. When she was a child in Pennsylvania, Charlene and her brothers used to fight over who would get to drink the tomato juice first. Charlene uses Cayenne and Poblano Peppers because that’s what she has in her garden, but you could use Banana Peppers, Scotch Bonnets, Jalapeno, even, whatever you have. For the roasting of the tomatoes, we used a total of 3 cookie sheets for this recipe. For standard info on canning, click here.


PHOTOGRAPHS: GENTL & HYERS: So thrilled and flattered to have Andrea Gentl and Marty Hyers shoot for my blog. True masters in the craft of photography (and great people to hang out with too!). Saturday was an incredible day, blistering sun one minute, torrential rain the next, one of those pinch-me moments you have where you just realize you’re so lucky to know such incredible people, and be able to contribute (even just a tiny bit) to creating something beautiful, with something so simple as the humble tomato. Thanks so much Marty and Andrea!

To check out their work, click here.
To check out Andrea’s blog “Hungry Ghost Food and Travel”, click here.
Concept, Art Direction & text: Dimity Jones.

Much love and thanks to Charlene and Brant x


Captions: 1) Charlene in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn garden, 2) A mix of Peppers, Onions, Garlic and Plum Tomatoes, 3) Charlene collecting Tomatoes and Peppers, 4) Tomatoes are sliced in half, de-seeded and placed face down on a cookie sheet with Cayenne Peppers, Garlic and fresh Basil and Oregano 5) The kitchen 6) Garlic, Basil and Tomato 7) Fresh out of the oven 8) Pulling the skins off, the skins, the tomato juice. 9) Charlene and Brant’s storage pantry; which contains Figs in syrup, Fig vinegar, Peaches in Lemon Honey syrup, pickled Cucumbers, 9, 10, 11) A Sunnyside-up Egg fried in Goose Fat (runny in the middle, and crispy on the edges) with Polish Rye Bread, Unsalted Butter, fresh Oregano leaves and the Spicy Ketchup.


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