Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vanilla-Tomato Jam

When I was ten or eleven, I read an article on the state of French cuisine. It began with a description of a dessert being prepared at a high-end Parisian restaurant. Fresh tomatoes were hollowed out, stuffed with a mixture of lemon and orange zest, chopped nuts, and spices, then braised in vanilla-infused caramel for 45 minutes. By cooking the tomatoes in hot caramel, constantly stirring it around the tomatoes without actually touching them, the chef was able to concentrate and intensify their flavor without turning them into tomato sauce.

This seemed technically impressive. However, I found it somewhat questionable from a culinary standpoint. Sure, tomatoes are fruits. If you've ever roasted them until the sugars caramelized — or eaten Sungolds or Honeydrops in any form — you know they can be candy-sweet. But still. Vanilla? With tomatoes? It didn't seem like a good combination.

Then, last week, I was making tomato jam and found myself with some extra base. (In order to try several new recipes at once, I chopped and cooked down a huge pot of plain tomatoes first, then divided the base and added the other jam ingredients to small batches.)

Method notes: I started out with about nine pounds of organic tomatoes — I think they were Brandywines, but I'm not positive. Not paste tomatoes, though. Did not skin or seed them: just chopped them into small pieces, put them in the stockpot, and simmered until they collapsed and the skins got soft, about 20-30 minutes. To retain some texture, I then strained it to separate the juice from the pulp, reduced the juice on its own until it was nice and thick, and then stirred it back into the pulp.

So, I had a few extra pints of tomato base. I'd already made a spicy tomato jam with smoked paprika, ginger, and chili. I wanted to try something that really played up the sweetness and fruit character of the tomatoes, and thought about that Parisian dessert. Ignoring the spices and nuts, just playing the vanilla and a little citrus note off the tomato — could it work? I had a couple of vanilla beans in the fridge, and another one infusing a jar of sugar. No reason not to try.

To be on the safe side, I started out with just a pint of tomato base, so I wouldn't lose much if I had to throw it out. Added 1/4 cup of vanilla-infused sugar, gave it a big squeeze of lemon juice, and scraped in half the seed paste from one of the vanilla beans. Stirred it over low heat until the sugar dissolved, and cautiously took a very small taste.

And then another, significantly larger taste.

And then I added all the remaining tomato base that I had, bringing it to 5 cups, and scaled up the rest of the ingredients. If I'd had more base, I would have added it all. It was that good.

Both vanilla beans went in — I scraped the rest of the seed paste in first, then threw the skins in whole, to infuse while it cooked. (I fished them out before transferring the jam to jars.) There was no need for any more sugar — the original quarter cup was plenty. I squeezed in the other lemon half, added the whole lemon's worth of zest, and simmered it on low for another 10 minutes or so.

There is the question of what exactly to do with the finished jam, besides eat it with a spoon. We may have to do a cheese pairing taste test — playing it off an aged hard cheese in place of the typical figs or dried apricots; emphasizing the tomato flavor against a fresh or smoked mozzarella; or complementing a creamy, smooth ricotta or farmer's cheese in a crepe. It could work well as a glaze for barbecued or roasted meat. And there's always my favorite: just slathering it on a slice of good bread.

Recipe (all in one place)


4 or so pounds of tomatoes, reduced to 5 cups
2 vanilla beans
1/4 cup sugar
juice and zest of 1 lemon


Chop the tomatoes. (Don't bother to remove skin or seeds unless they're really tough.)

Put the tomatoes in a big pot and simmer until they've reduced in volume and gotten nice and thick. (I like my jams to have some texture, so I simmered 20 minutes, then strained the juice out from the pulp, put the juice in another pan, simmered that down until it was thick (about 10 minutes, stirring frequently), and then mixed it back into the pulp.)

Slice the vanilla beans lengthwise and scrape the thick gooey stuff out of the middle. That's where all the vanilla flavor is. Put that in with the tomatoes. (There's still more flavor in the vanilla bean husk or pod. You can simmer it in the jam (just remove it before you put the jam in jars). Or you can put it in a jar of sugar, and make vanilla-infused sugar, or simmer it in the cream you're using to make creme brulee or vanilla ice cream... you get the idea).

Add the juice and zest of 1 lemon.

Add 1/4 cup sugar (or to taste).

Stir everything together and simmer for another 10 minutes or so.

Put it in jars or anything else you want, because you're not going to do the whole canning thing with the seals and the bands and the boiling water. Instead, you're going to PUT IT IN THE REFRIGERATOR OR THE FREEZER.

This is really important. This is not a shelf-stable jam: it needs to be kept frozen, or refrigerated up to about 3 weeks. You can put it in a jar if you like, but then you have to put it in the refrigerator or freezer. If you put it on the shelf, you may get food poisoning and die. Or at the very least, it might get moldy and bubble and smell bad and make the jar explode. Either way, you don't want to risk it. If you want to make a shelf-stable jam, use a recipe written for that purpose. It will contain enough acid, salt, alcohol, sugar, or other preservatives to kill any bacteria, and will have very specific instructions about temperatures and timing. Got it?