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"This is a tomato? I thought it was a heaven ball," exclaims Luanne, prompting a quick reply from Hank that "tomatoes don't have any flavor," who is left eating his own words after one bite. I felt a close affinity to that King of the Hill episode, which found the all-American Hank Hill forced into the hippie hell of a co-op, only to discover the beauty of vegetables and meat that exist outside of the average supermarket.
I had a similar revelation many, many years ago when I first joined a CSA and found that tomatoes can be an incredible explosion of complex sweet and tart flavor, with a luscious texture that bridges a line between soft, juicy, and crisp. Prior to that, I'd only seen tomatoes as nuisance—adding no flavor and an unappealing mealy texture to otherwise excellent sandwiches, burgers, and salads.
So, when it comes to prime tomato season in late summer here in New York, I rejoice in the harvest and become excited each time an opportunity arises to chow down on delicious farm fresh tomatoes. Of course, the party has to end, and with that day drawing near, I was left pondering ways that I could extend the peak of the best tomato flavor and thought a jam would fit the bill quite nicely.
I've come to appreciate not only the tomato, but the unique qualities of the seemingly endless varieties that have graced my table. Each possesses a unique character, as well as best uses. To start out my jam, I first had to figure out which type of tomato would be the best fit.
Most recipes I've seen for tomato jam call for Roma tomatoes, but might a more robust and sweeter heirloom variety make for a better jam? What about the smaller specimens like grape or cherry? Might that pairing of sweetness and acidity make a more interesting and layered jam? Or maybe the process of boiling the tomatoes into oblivion with a hefty amount of sugar leaves the question of variety one of little consequence?
To answer these questions, I moved ahead with three different tomatoes—heirloom, a mixed bag of small tomatoes, and run-of-the-mill Romas.
Too many jams are pure sugar, with just a mild fruity accent. The better ones, though, can deliver that sweetness while still retaining the essence of the fruit, which is what I was looking for in a tomato jam recipe. I wanted to coax a more natural flavor out of mine, so in seeking to lessen the load of white sugar, I thought caramelized onions would be a good place to turn. The natural sweetness developed in the onions meant that I could scale back the amount of plain sugar needed—plus I love caramelized onions on just about anything and think they pair excellently with tomatoes.
I started my jam process by making a Dutch oven full of caramelized onions, following Kenji's 15-minute method, which admittedly ended up being not quite as quick due to the large volume (I needed to have enough to split into at least four jams). Still, cooking down three pounds of onions until softened and browned clocked in at under an hour, which isn't bad compared to the two or three hours it takes when I'm using a more traditional method for French onion soup.
As I simmered down my first two batches of jam—mixing the tomato and onion with lemon juice, cider vinegar, white sugar, brown sugar, salt, and a little crushed red pepper—I noticed they were littered with bits of peel that didn't break down. Those skins didn't bother me that much in the end, but for round two, I thought I might improve the texture by peeling the tomatoes. I made quick work of this using the boil and shock method, but I'm also partial to the quick roasting procedure, which requires less equipment to clean later.
Trying to go with a minimal amount of sugar in my first batch also left me with a jam that had a harsher acidity than I wanted. This had me adding more sugar the second time around, but I found upping the amount a mere quarter cup fixed the problem perfectly.
Each of the four jams I made took just over an hour of simmering for the tomatoes to break down and the mixture to become thick and gelatinous. I tried adding some grated apple to one batch for some extra pectin power, but it made no real difference in texture or time, so I let that idea fall by the wayside.
Out of the lot, there was a clear loser—the jam with the small mixed variety tomatoes was way too overloaded with skins, making for an unappetizing experience. It was also more tart than the others, losing the subtle sweetness of the tomatoes altogether.
In the battle between peeled and unpeeled, the peeled tomatoes resulted in a slightly more cohesive jam. It was enough of a difference that I'd recommend peeling, but not so much that it needs to be strictly enforced.
The hardest question was whether the convenient and plentiful supermarket Romas would prove markedly inferior to the more elusive and expensive heirlooms. The heirloom jam had a sweeter and slightly more robust profile than the Romas, but the complexity and texture that made the heirlooms so desirable as a raw fruit was difficult to pinpoint in the jam. The Romas, on the other, made a jam that had a strong intensity of tomato flavor, one that was elevated a lot from their raw state, bringing them closely in line with the marginally better heirloom version.
I say that if you can get away making an excellent jam on the cheap without the pain of ingredient hunting, that's the way to go, so the Roma tomato jam easily won the battle=. It had a nice fruity flavor, thick and chunky jammy texture, a complex sweetness, and a slight tang that all came together to make me happy that I found a way to have a bit of that bright tomato flavor for just a little bit longer.
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