The Critic Cooks: Homemade Condiments

October 10 2013, 10:30 AM

To beat the autumn chill, I spent a recent weekend preserving the Concord grapes from our arbor. Taking no shortcuts, step one of the recipe for Concord Grape Jam from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook (easily one of my favorite cookbooks), called for pinching the translucent, plump innards out of their deep purple skins. Ten pounds of grapes: One. By. One. The process took an entire day, and I sent my husband to the hardware store for more jars four times that weekend.

I love to cook, I have certainly made jam before, and I have absolutely spent entire weekends in the kitchen for any number of occasions. But there was something about painstakingly working with every single grape that gave me newfound respect for all the house-made condiments that are gracing restaurant tables these days.

More and more, we are given the chance to splash a house-made Sriracha into our bowl of noodles or dunk our fries into a scratch-made aïoli. Across the Denver area, chefs are turning out inventive condiments that are every bit as worthy of our attention as the main affairs they adorn.

At ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro in LoDo, gratis rice crackers with a tomato-chile jam begin each meal, much like chips and salsa. This vindaloo-inspired dipping sauce gets its heat from cayenne powder and green Thai chile, and it cooks “for several hours at a low simmer so the flavors intensify but it doesn't scorch,” chef Lon Symensma says. In Cherry Creek, Elway’s Culinary Director Tyler Wiard celebrates the recent fermentation craze and makes his own kimchi for the restaurant’s crispy duck wings with charred scallions. “It is a two- to three- day process to make, and then it takes up to 20 days to ferment,” Wiard says of the spicy Korean condiment, which he lets age in authentic kimchi pots. Reminding us of the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, chef Mary Nguyen of Parallel Seventeen in Uptown and Street Kitchen Asian Bistro in Englewood serves pho not only with the traditional flavoring elements (Sriracha and hoisin) but also with her great grandmother’s recipe for a caramelized-onion chile marmalade.

Hand-cranked kielbasa, leberkäse, and boudin noir need something to cut the fat, and at Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen in Larimer Square chef de cuisine Jorel Pierce makes four mustards: plain yellow, Bordeaux, spicy brown, and horseradish. These take only 10 minutes to put together but two weeks to mature. Similarly, across Larimer Square at Russell’s Smoke House, owner Frank Bonanno serves the restaurant’s smoked meats with a selection of three sauces all made in-house. A trio of “sweet,” “vinegar,” and “spicy,”—each served in a glass bottle labeled with blue painter’s tape and a black Sharpie—allow guests to choose their barbecue region of choice.

At Lola in Highland, don’t miss the hot sauce made of dry-toasted chiles de arbol, affectionately known as Salsa Muñoz after a former cook who helped create it. The spicy sauce is served only by-request to customers who want to amp up the heat. “It’s sort of a regulars’ thing that's not printed on our menu,” says chef Jamey Fader—who keeps it at his house and brings it to picnics.

If keeping a chef-made condiment at home sounds appealing, look for the red pepper jam from Frasca Food and Wine’s Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson. The chef serves a dollop of his maternal grandmother’s recipe on the restaurant’s cheese plate, but it is also sold at select specialty foods stores. There’s nothing like the pride of popping open a self-sealed jar of preserves, but serving jam from a Beard-winning chef is a close second. 

Want More? Check out our story on additional from-scratch condiments. 

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