Last Friday was November 5th. In England, where I grew up, it’s Bonfire Night, the celebration of the failed plot by Guy Fawkes in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate King James. When I was a kid, each family had its own bonfire and fireworks in the back garden, with a lovely, gory burning of poor Fawkes in effigy. Like all the dads, my father lit the fireworks, and my mum put potatoes and chestnuts to roast in the bonfire’s embers. “Dinner,” which we ate standing around the bonfire, was usually rounded out with grilled sausages and toffee apples. In these more namby-pamby, regulated times, Bonfire Night has mostly dwindled to orchestrated community events, and even those are petering out as the American-style Halloween has swept in. Too bad, because a bucket of mass-produced candy can’t compare to a bonfire-baked potato, eaten with your family under a sky lit up with colored sparks. It was so much fun, I still get a tingle hearing the date (by which I mean November Fifth. If you said “1605” to me, I wouldn’t know what you were talking about). I still love baked potatoes and roasted chestnuts, too.
Back to the present: This week, I finally wrestled the last of my enormous crop of tomatoes into submission. I’ve already canned a zillion ripe ones, the freezer is bursting with sauce and soup, and I’ve made dozens of jars of chutney and marmalade. (Green tomato marmalade with lemon zest and fresh ginger is delicious, by the way). Yesterday, I turned the last of the green ones into mincemeat, which, as you probably know, has nothing to do with meat but is a delicious, fruity concoction you can use as a pie filling or to stuff baked apples. One bite of a mince pie transports me to my childhood Christmasses.
I adjust the recipe according to what I have on hand, but here’s a rough guideline — it’s hard to go wrong. If your green tomatoes are a distant memory, or you never had any to start with, you can just use apples. Traditional mincemeat has beef suet in it, but this fruit version is just as good. One thing though: candy your own peel rather than use the store-bought stuff full of corn syrup. Just dice some orange and lemon peels, blanch them a couple of times, then simmer them in equal parts sugar and water for 30 minutes and you’ve got a much better-tasting ingredient.
3 qt green tomatoes, diced • 2 qt tart apples, peeled, cored and diced • 1½ cups currants • 1½ cups raisins • ½ cup diced candied oranges and/or lemons • 2 tsp ground cinnamon • ¼ tsp ground allspice • ¼ tsp ground cloves • 2 tsp salt • 3 cups brown sugar • ¾ cup apple cider vinegar • ¼ cup lemon juice • ¼ cup brandy
Combine all the ingredients in a big, heavy pot and cook slowly for a couple of hours, during which time it will make your kitchen smell wonderful. Stir frequently so the mix won’t stick. When it gets thick, ladle it into hot, sterilized jars. All that sugar and vinegar and brandy means the mincemeat keeps for months in the fridge or even at room temperature. Let it sit for at least a week for the flavors to meld — the longer it sits, the better it gets.