Friends know: When you've got a fruit tree that's going crazy, call Erika Kerekes.
"I can't pass it up," said the Santa Monica woman who writes the food blog In Erika's Kitchen. "I'm constantly finding myself with a big basket of fruit thinking 'What am I going to do with those cherries before they go bad?' "
Bored with making fruit jams, Kerekes began experimenting with fruit ketchups. Well, not ketchup exactly, as the federal government requires tomato to be an ingredient in anything labeled ketchup.
And that's how "Not Ketchup" was born.
Kerekes last week unveiled a new line of sweet-and-savory condiments. The texture will remind you of ketchup, but the flavors are something else entirely: chipotle cherry, blueberry white pepper and a smokey date.
They can be used for just about everything: Spicing up a rotisserie chicken, accenting a grilled cheese sandwich or cheese plate, or slathering on burgers. (I used them as dipping sauces for freshly grilled spicy sausages. Highly recommended. It's what I'm planning to bring to a Super Bowl party.)
The "Not Ketchup" dipping sauces are on the shelves at several top stores, including Bob's Market and Wine Expo in Santa Monica, Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City, Luna Garcia in Venice and Busters Baskets & Flowers in Culver City. It will be featured in a demonstration at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this weekend.
"I feel like the idea came to me in a dream," Kerekes said. "I spent the summer experimenting."
But this venture quickly grew beyond the home kitchen as Kerekes dreamed of "Not Ketchup" showing up on store shelves.
As a result, she had to develop shelf-stable recipes that could be manufactured in big batches for a reasonable cost, while also avoiding ingredients such as sulfites and high fructose corn syrup that wouldn't be welcome at some specialty food stores.
Kerekes insisted that the first ingredient on each label be fruit. (Other ingredients include onions, apple cider vinegar, honey, Demerara sugar and spices.)
Kerekes, an online marketing consultant, turned to Heiden's Foods in Fullerton, a contract manufacturer that welcomes small start-ups.
Kerekes had to hire a food technologist to help her develop a formula that could sit on shelves for months yet still taste fresh, and had to seek out advice for the best ways to position products for upscale markets.
In all, she said, she has invested about $15,000 in the project. But she said her extensive research makes her believe that the investment is worth it, and that she has a shot at breaking into the bustling condiment market.
"There was nothing like it in the niche," said Kerekes, who is also cofounder of Food Bloggers Los Angeles. "This is something that seemed unique ... and I said, 'OK, I'm going to start doing this.'"