Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: Transform your season's harvest into a simple, versatile compote, without fancy canning equipment—and without a recipe.
As a great philosopher (or maybe Shakespeare?) once famously mused: Where does compote end, and jam begin? Simply put, compote is like jam, simplified—it doesn't need any additional thickeners, and you don't have to tackle that terrifying process known as "canning." At its essence, compote is pure fruit, broken down with heat into a thick-textured, spreadable mixture, augmented only with the addition of a few flavorings to sharpen its edges and make it sing.
Besides its utter simplicity, compote's best selling point is its versatility. It can be made with whatever combination of fruits you have in fridge, and it's the highest calling of your bruised, almost over-the-hill market haul. With the addition of heat and a few pantry basics, you can transform any fruit into a thick, spreadable compote in under an hour—here's how.
1. Choose your fruit! Go with whatever's in season—we got our hands on some sweet strawberries, but late-summer berries, stone fruits, figs, apples, and even eggplant would work as well. And remember: This is a prime opportunity to use bruised specimens: With a little heat, acid, and sugar, the lovable but slightly bruised-up duckling will transform into a beautiful, fruit-laden swan.
More: Before heading to the farmers market, read this.
Also get out: Some source of acid, such as lemon, lime, or even a splash of vinegar; a sweetener, such as maple syrup, sugar, honey, or agave; a pinch of salt, and anything else you'd like to flavor the compote. I went with vanilla and lemon zest here, but below are some ideas for how you can spice things up (pun certainly intended).
Ground cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander, black pepper, or even cayenne powder would all be great spicy add-ins, depending on the fruit in question. Grated fresh ginger, citrus zest, fresh or dried bay leaves, or fresh herbs (mint, thyme, rosemary, and sage all come to mind) would also be delightful. Try combining some grated ginger with strawberries, peaches, or plums; some ground cardamom or coriander with figs; blueberries with cayenne and a hint of lime. Play around with it until you find a combination that's your jam, pun intended.
2. Cut off any inedible parts of your fruit (here's what to do with your strawberry tops), prep your flavorings—zest your citrus, scrape out your vanilla bean, grate your ginger, prep your herbs or spices—then toss everything into a saucepan. If you want your compote to have a thinner consistency (say, to use it as a pourable sauce for ice cream instead of a thick condiment to spread on toast), add in a few splashes of water or juice.
More: Make sure to compost those inedible odds and ends! Here's how.
3. Set the mixture on the stove over low heat, then forget about it (well, not really, but just about). When the heavenly aroma of fresh berry fields comes wafting from your kitchen, 30 to 40 minutes in, give it a stir or two—it's not needy. Let the fruit break down as much or as little as you like (sometimes I like mine to be more closely akin to fruit swimming in syrup, as in this grits recipe). When the fruit is to your desired level of softness and the whole thing looks glossy, the compote is done. Don't worry if it seems thin—it will thicken as it cools. (That's thanks to pectin, the polysaccharide—aka, sugar-molecule compound—that naturally occurs in many fruits and thickens jams and jellies wonderfully.)
4. Give the compote a taste, then adjust the flavorings until sweet, sour, and savory meet in your ideal balance. If you're feeling frisky, feel free to add a splash of bourbon or rum. You could also stir in some chopped dried fruits—apricots, crystallized ginger, cranberries, cherries, you name it—for texture. Once the mixture cools, you could also purée it in your food process or blender until smooth, thinning it out as needed with water. This will let you more easily pour it over pancakes, or add a splash to brighten up your cocktails.
5. Once the compote's cool, store your beautiful nectar in a tightly sealed jar and keep refrigerated for up to two weeks. Spoon it over vanilla ice cream, swirl it into your morning yogurt, and spread it on fat slices of golden challah bread. Clearly, you can see the first thing we did with it.
More: What's your idea of the perfect compote? Do you like it thick and syrupy? Full of fat pieces of rhubarb? Tell us in the comments!
Photos by James Ransom