Tag Archives: Jam

Tomato jam, updated (aka the best ketchup)

It’s almost Memorial Day here in the US, and that means the start of barbecue season. For our crowd, that means burgers. Lots and lots of burgers. And for me, a burger just isn’t a burger without a big splodge of ketchup.

But, after a lot of pretending that everything was fine between me and ketchup, I’ve had to admit defeat. As usual, onion is the culprit. The classic American ketchup (rhymes with “Shmeinz”) contains onion powder, and even such a small amount is apparently enough to rumble my stomach. It’s also sweetened with high fructose corn syrup, which isn’t an issue for me but causes trouble for some of my friends.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative. I first made tomato jam years ago, and loved it, and then more or less forgot about it. When I started bellyaching to Sam about my new ketchup-less life, he suggested that tomato jam might be worth a revisit. And he was right. This stuff is basically ketchup 2.0: thicker, sweeter, spicier, with a more interesting texture and intense tomatoey flavor. It’s the best thing that ever happened to a burger. And it’s lovely on a sandwich, with cheese and crackers, or alongside whatever configuration of eggs and potatoes you like for breakfast.

For this go-around I turned to Food in Jars, which is my favorite online resource for canning and preserving recipes. (Marisa also commented on a blog post here once, so that basically makes us friends.) This recipe is explicitly designed for water-bath canning, meaning you can put up a batch during tomato season and portion it out throughout the year. If processing the jam for shelf storage feels too daunting, though, it’s just fine as a fridge or freezer jam.

tomato jam jars

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Apricot jam

“I am overwhelmed.” It’s a sentence that’s been floating in and out of my consciousness a lot lately. I hear it, clearly, in my own voice, echoing in the windy rush of everything going on in my head. Scrambling at work to hold on to every last balloon string; churning at home to keep up with chores and groceries; bouncing through weekends from parties to game nights to family gatherings to dinners out. “I am overwhelmed.”

I’m not a high-energy person. I’m a deliberate thinker, a night owl, a long sleeper. So I don’t feed off of this kind of stuff. It grinds me down. I’m not really sure what to do about it, since I can’t give in to the urge to lock the door, turn off my phone, and hibernate for a week. So I’m trying to find and open my release valves, and manufacture projects for myself that will let out some of the steam. More and more, I’m realizing that jam-making is one of those valves for me.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor Jess and I got together after work for a Monday night canning session. I had a big haul of apricots from a friend’s tree, so ripe and ready that they were disintegrating in the bag. We threw them in a pot with a whole lotta sugar and some lemon juice, and cooked them down into a chunky, spreadable goo. Then we threw some jars in the oven, boiled some lids and rings, and processed everything a jar or two at a time in my little mini-canning pot. No flash, no fuss, no extra herbs or spices or tea leaves or booze; apricot jam doesn’t need any of that. It’s absolutely incredible when it’s simple like this, treacle-sweet and fragrant, cheerful and familiar. It’s an old-fashioned food, apricot jam, and that stodginess seems to suit me right now.

At one point while transferring jars in and out of the hot water, I snapped my tongs closed on my finger. The next day I had an irregular reddish bruise that engulfed most of my fingertip. It was tender but not painful, and I could look at it for several days as a reminder that “I am overwhelmed” doesn’t need to be my default state. There are still a lot of balloon strings to hold onto, a lot of chores, a lot of social obligations, but sometimes it’s necessary to shut all that out and just make something good to eat.

apricot jam (plain)

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Kumquat cinnamon marmalade

Confession time: I made this marmalade in July. And then I sat on the recipe for months, waiting for it to be citrus season. And then I forgot about it. Until now. Which is a shame, because this is a delightful batch of jam.

This was actually the thing that kick-started my canning streak last summer. I was over at a friend’s parents’ house, and discovered that they had a kumquat tree. I’d never eaten a kumquat before, but suddenly here was an enormous tree speckled with ripe orange nuggets. They were ripening and falling faster than the family could eat them, so they just stayed on the tree till the squirrels got to them. That seemed like an awful shame to me, so I grabbed a bag and plucked as many as I could reach.

It wasn’t until later, when I got them all home, that I realized I had no idea what to do with them. I consulted the internet, and got one resounding answer: marmalade. And when the internet gods call, I answer. It was a labor-intensive process, slicing and seeding several dozen kumquats, gathering the seeds into a cheesecloth bundle to add pectin to the jam, and simmering the whole business until it was thick and glossy.

But I’m glad I stuck with it, because the end result was gorgeous. Some of the kumquat slices stayed whole, like tiny pinwheels, while some unfurled into long, slightly chewy strands. The flavor itself was unmistakably orangey, very honeylike, with just a touch of bitterness. I threw in a cinnamon stick, which was an unexpectedly brilliant decision. The kicky warmth of the cinnamon played perfectly against the honeyed sweetness and slight sharpness of the kumquats. You could flavor this marmalade with a lot of other things: vanilla bean, sliced ginger, whole spices, even booze.

Oh, and as far as what to do with this marmalade, it’s an amazing partner with all sorts of dairy. I ate most of my first jar swirled into Greek yogurt, and I can’t even describe how delightful it was: cool, creamy, sweet, and tangy, with little bits of rind interrupting here and there. My next jar is definitely destined for a cheese board–I can’t wait to try it with blue cheese.

kumquat cinnamon marmalade

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Spiced plum butter

I have been swimming in plums recently. My friend Sarah’s tree started dropping ripe plums right before she went on vacation, so Sam and I went over and helped her clear out the branches. We were allowed to keep whatever we picked; within a few minutes we’d collected a paper grocery bag full of tiny red-fleshed fruit. The past couple weeks have been all about putting them to use.

A fair number of the plums got eaten straight from the bag, standing over the sink to catch the juices. I set a few aside for a cooking experiment I’ll write about later; a few more went into a riff on my favorite nectarine tart (verdict: plums need way more sugar than nectarines). That left me with about two pounds of quickly softening plums, a small canning pot, and–thanks to the BART shutdown–a lazy work-from-home afternoon. So I ignored the heat outside, turned on the oven, and made plum butter.

Fruit butters are a slightly different animal than jam–pureed smooth, softer and less jelly-like than jam, made for spreading rather than dolloping. Think applesauce, but richer, darker, thicker, in every way more so. The recipe I found calls for roasting, rather than boiling, the fruit; after an overnight soak in sugar and spices, the plums went into a heavy pot and then into the oven, where they slumped and wrinkled and filled my little apartment with hot syrupy perfume. From there, it was just a matter of pureeing the fruit to baby-food smoothness, and ladling it into hot prepared jars for the water bath.

In the jars, the plum butter is inky purple-black, the color of the blended-in skins; when I scraped up the dregs from the pot onto a spoon, it glowed translucent red. The flavor is concentrated plum, sweet from the flesh and tart from the skins, brightened with orange zest and prickly with cinnamon and cloves. I will be spreading it on popovers the first chance I get; I could easily imagine filling a cake or topping a scone with it, and even possibly using it as a sweet plum sauce on poultry. Well done, little plums. Well done.

spiced plum butter

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Strawberry honey jam

I’ve been bitten by the canning bug.

I used to think that canning had to be a full-day affair, with pounds of fruit and showers of sugar and a clatter of specialized equipment.But lately many of my favorite food blogs have been singing the praises of small-batch canning: a pint or two at a time, perfect for using up the odd pound of fruit or experimenting with new flavor combinations. Small batches of jam also generally set beautifully without added pectin, and pectin was one of the things that put me off canning the most.

I rarely eat jam, usually just a spoonful at a time, swirled into yogurt; I have no great interest in putting up a whole larder of preserves for the winter. So a pint of jam at a time is plenty for me. And now that I’ve started, I’m totally hooked.

Part of this process has been educating myself thoroughly on the basics of canning and safety. Unlike many of the cooking projects I’m familiar with, canning requires a fair amount of precision and attention to detail. I’ve found the blog Food in Jars to be a great jumping-off point for recipe inspiration, and the USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation website has been a lifesaver when it comes to food safety. The New York Times has thorough instructions for canning in a water bath, which I pretty much have memorized by now. I’m very new to this, so I’m sticking to tested recipes, keeping the proportions of fruit and sugar the same, and only ever adding more acid, not less. (I’ve found that I often want more lemon juice than a recipe calls for, to cut the sticky sweetness of the jam itself.)

This particular strawberry jam recipe struck my fancy because it uses honey instead of sugar as a sweetener. As it turns out, strawberries and honey are a wonderful, slightly unexpected combination: cook them down together, and you get something rich and treacly and intense, yet with all the comforting familiarity of old-fashioned strawberry jam. I was originally going to add thyme, as per the source recipe, but the thyme in my fridge was old and furry, so I decided to skip it. The jam on its own is delightful, and I could imagine it providing an agreeable backdrop for any number of herbs. And as fabulous as it is now, in the height of summer-fruit season, I’m especially looking forward to smearing it on soda bread in the fall.

strawberry honey jam 2

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Onion jam

I can’t believe it.  This blog is well into its second year, and I haven’t written about onion jam yet.

This is the secret recipe I keep in my (metaphorical) back pocket.  It’s my chosen way of winning friends and influencing people.  I think I’ve made it for every shindig I’ve hosted for the past two years. My friend Anthony is so smitten with it that he brings a bag of onions every time I invite him to a party.

Onion jam is, well, my jam.

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…I say tomato

When it comes to cooking for others, my dad is definitely my most reliable taste-tester.  It’s not immediately obvious that that’s the case–like any good parent, he will ooh and ahh over everything I make, whether or not it actually deserves the fuss.  Even if it burns, or curdles, or collapses in the middle, Dad will cheerfully scarf it down.

But there are little signs.

If he’s the first to reach for seconds, it’s good.

If he keeps going back for more until nothing’s left, it’s really good.

If he starts quietly hogging the serving dish, it’s practically ambrosia.

I made tomato jam last week, and he took possession of the bowl and ate it directly from the spoon, ignoring just about everything else on the dinner table.  I don’t believe higher praise exists.

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