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Sweet and Spicy Tomato Jam

When I was a kid, the word “jam” meant Welch’s Grape Jelly.  That was what my mother kept in our house, and it’s the only kind of fruit spread that I remember ever eating.  It came in Flintstones jars, and each jar featured a different Flintstones  character.  After the jelly was used up, you could use the jars as juice glasses.  We had several sets of those Flintstones glasses.   The Flintstones [1] were hot, hot, hot when I was little, so this was a great marketing strategy .  While it was an animated series, it was one of those cartoons designed to appeal to adults as much as children  Even my parents loved to tune in.  So, who wouldn’t be thrilled to have their very own set of Flintstones jelly jars/juice glasses?    Yabba Dabba Do!

It wasn’t until we moved to Florida that I realized that there was a whole world of jams, jellies and preserves out there.   You see, the supermarkets down here didn’t carry Welch’s grape jelly in those days.  They only had “exotic” sounding brands like Smuckers [2] and Bama.  And, while there were all sorts of flavors available,  grape was hard to find.  So my mother adapted.  And as a result, my spreadable fruit horizons were broadened to include strawberry, raspberry, apricot and peach.

By the time I got to college, I thought I was pretty jam savvy.  That is, until my friend Lauri introduced me to tomato jam.  Tomato jam?  I had never heard of such a thing!  In my little Italian mind, tomatoes were for sauces and salads – certainly not jam.  But then I tried some, and I fell in love.  It was lush and sweet, but not too much so.  The tomato flavor was subtle, with slightly grassy undertones.  Although I wouldn’t have served it on a peanut butter sandwich, it was divine paired with cream cheese and spread on crackers. 

Smuckers used to make a tomato jam.  I don’t know if they still do, but I haven’t seen it in my grocery store in years.  So, when I was able to get my greedy paws on several pounds of beautiful heirloom tomatoes a while back, I decided to try my hand at making a batch of tomato jam from scratch.

For years, I shied away from making my own jams because I thought it would be too complicated.  I was wrong.  While it is time consuming, it actually isn’t difficult at all.   You basically just dump all of your ingredients into a pot and cook them down until they turn into jam.  And when you make your own, you can experiment with all kinds of different flavors to get exactly what you want.

For this tomato jam, I was looking for something that was both sweet and a little spicy.  In addition to the tomatoes and sugar, I put in cinnamon,  cumin, smoked paprika, and a few whole cloves.  I also added some lime juice and zest, sherry vinegar and believe it or not, a splash of fish sauce.  Yes, that’s right – fish sauce.  It is well documented that fish sauce has a high umami quotient.  Umami [3] is one of the five basic “tastes”  along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter.   It intensifies the sweet and salty, and rounds out the sour and bitter.  Since umami is known to accentuate the other “tastes”,  I wanted to see what it would do for my tomato jam.

Another jam-making trick I’ve learned is to add some grated apple to the mix.  Apples are naturally high in fruit pectin and help jams and jellies to thicken without the use of commercial pectin products.  The grated apple breaks down during the cooking process, and by the time the jam is ready, has completely dissolved.   You won’t really taste the apple, unless of course, you’re making apple butter or jam.

Jam needs to simmer low and slow. This tomato jam needed about two and a half hours of simmering to get where I wanted it to be.

I didn’t can this jam after I made it because it was a small batch and I knew I would use it up quickly.  If you’re making a lot of jam or are planning to give some away as gift, I would advise you to can it.   Canning is also not difficult to do.  You just need to have the right supplies and good instructions.  When I do can, I use the guidelines from the USDA Guide to Home Canning [4].  It provides detailed instructions on canning and preserving, and is a great resource.

So, I’ll bet you’re wondering how this jam tasted. In a word, fantastic!  It was sweet, but the sweetness was rounded out by the spices, giving it a warm, earthy quality.  The jam had a deep, intense tomato-y flavor. I can’t say for sure that this was from the fish sauce, but I’m guessing that it helped.  I think it works equally well in both sweet and savory dishes. I spread it all over bagels, muffins and scones, as well as on my beloved cream cheese and crackers. This jam would be wonderful served alongside a beef or pork roast.  I could even see it used in place of cranberry sauce to go with your Thanksgiving bird.

I also used some of my tomato jam to make this easy peasy tomato galette. All I did was schmear some of the jam on a round of pre-made refrigerated pie crust and roll in the edges. Then, I baked it at 350 F. until browned and bubbly. It was a nice little nosh to have with my morning coffee!

Now that the cooler weather is rolling in, this is a great time to play around with making your own jams and jellies.  Get a batch simmering on the stove, put on your fuzzy slippers and curl up on the couch with your Kindle.  I guarantee it will inject a little sunshine into any gray, chilly day.