Atchafalaya Houseboat: Better Than Bought Ketchup

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(Scroll down for the Better Than Bought Ketchup Recipe!)

Readers of my book Atchafalaya Houseboat know that when Calvin and I lived in the swamp, much of our time was spent gathering, growing and preserving food. When asked to name our favorite meal, I always say it was whatever we were eating that day.


We enjoyed the bounty of each season whether it was crawfish in the spring, blue crabs in summer or wild game from our hunting friends in winter, but year round our most common main course was crispy fried catfish. We could catch them in hoop nets or on lines most any season, and we never got tired of them. Sometimes we cooked them for both dinner and supper. The fact that we survived all that grease is a testament to hard work and youthful metabolism.Gwen in the Garden

Calvin was the catfish cook. I wouldn’t think of usurping that responsibility with a perfectionist in the house. He would usually start cleaning them as we drifted downstream toward home from our lines or nets. Choosing the smallest fish in the catch, he would make a slit on each side of the head below the barbs. Four swift passes with the fish skinners peeled off the blue hide as quick as most people peel a banana. Holding the head in one hand, he twisted the body with his other hand, cleanly separating the head and most of the entrails from the rest of the carcass. A slice down the stomach and a rinse in the river finished off the job. From start to finish, less than two minutes per small fish, maybe three minutes for a large on

Back home he had a black iron pot reserved for frying fish. He would half fill it with oil and set it to heat on an outside fire or on the kitchen stove while he prepared the fish. First he made three diagonal slits on both sides of each fish, cutting almost to the bone. A sprinkle of hot sauce, salt, pepper and sometimes garlic powder was rubbed on each side and down into the slits. Then came a dusting of cornmeal. When the grease was hot enough to ignite a match thrown into the pot, the fish were dropped in, leaving plenty of room so they weren’t crowded. The oil boiled up, crisping the cornmeal coating on the outside of the fish, along the fins and in between the slits. At exactly the right time, he flipped them over with a long handled fork to brown on the other side. The result looked like a deep golden cornmeal cast of a fish. The inside was moist, white, flaking off the bone. We ate them tail first, crunching the fins like potato chips. Most often they were accompanied by white beans cooked all day on the woodstove, fresh mustard greens in season, and, of course, our homemade ketchup. (Image: Gwen gathering tomatoes.)

We cooked our first batch of ketchup in a blue granite dishpan the year we lived on Bloody Bayou. That was before the 1973 flood destroyed the old house on the bank. Overrun with tomatoes, we kept fooling around with some basic ketchup recipes until we came up with a version that suited our tastes. It had brown sugar, bell pepper and more cinnamon and cloves than the cookbook recipes. Every season after that, we tinkered with the ingredients so that no two years tasted exactly the same, but brown sugar, bell pepper, extra cinnamon and cloves remained in the mix.

In the film based on my book, I make a brief comment about our ketchup. As more people see the film, more requests come in for the recipe. I’ve written it down for a quart of chopped tomatoes, which makes 1 to 2 cups of ketchup in less than an hour, depending on what kind of tomatoes you are using, whether you sieve it or not and how thick you cook it down.

If you have plenty of extra tomatoes, ketchup is inexpensive and easy to make for your own meals or for gifts. The biggest problem is that once your friends and family get accustomed to ketchup that caters to their own preferences for sweetness, tartness, or spiciness, they will complain loudly if you let them run out. In that case, just hand them the recipe and give them your next batch of extra tomatoes.

​Better Than Bought Ketchup

(makes about one cup)

1 quart cored and chopped tomatoes, unpeeled
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped sweet pepper such as bell pepper or banana pepper
1 clove of garlic
½ tsp celery seed *
¼ tsp whole allspice *
¼ tsp mustard seed *
1/3 cup light brown sugar, more if you like sweeter ketchup
½ tsp. salt
¾ tsp paprika
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

Stir the chopped tomatoes, onion, peppers and garlic in a non-reactive pot over high heat until they start to boil. Tie allspice, mustard seed and celery seed together in a bit of cheesecloth or other thin cloth to make a bouquet. Drop the bouquet into the pot of vegetables, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until soft, about 20 minutes.

Mash the vegetables through a sieve if you want smooth ketchup. Calvin and I made such large quantities we didn’t bother with sieving, but these days I push the soft vegetables through a cone-shaped fruit sieve with a wooden mallet. A colander with small holes will also work. Sometimes, before sieving the softened vegetables, I whiz through them with a hand-held blender in order to extract more pulp. There’s a lot of room for individuality in ketchup making.

Return the sieved vegetables and bundle of whole spices to the pot. Add the sugar, salt the remaining spices and vinegar. Bring to a boil on high heat, uncovered, then reduce to medium heat. It will scorch faster than a hen can snatch a fly, so don’t wander off. Some recipes say to cook on low heat at this stage, but I prefer medium for a quicker cook off and brighter flavor. Stand there and stir it until it is almost as thick as you like it, about 25 minutes. It will thicken more as it cools.

Pour into a clean glass container with a lid. It will keep months in the refrigerator but if you make large quantities, process jars in boiling water for 15 minutes. 

* If you will be pressing through a very fine sieve, skip the cheesecloth and just add the seeds to the vegetable mix

Multiply amounts depending on how many tomatoes you have. Larger quantities require longer cooking time. An uncovered crockpot can be used to reduce the liquid for larger amounts. Adjust seasonings and sugar to your own taste.