While the folks in Kansas live in Tornado Alley, I believe here in the Mid Atlantic region, we live in Tomato Alley (Jersey tomatoes, anyone?). That’s right- in this region ( within 125 miles of D. C. where produce comes to our farmers markets), we have access to some of the best tasting tomatoes that summer has to offer.In last week’s tomato-centric WaPo Food section, writer Jane Black took a gutsy stand in an article entitle Snob Appeal, and called out “heirloom tomatoes” as being, well, not all their cracked up to be sometimes. With glorious names (and let’s just say it, a “face for radio”), these much-hyped fruits at times do not deliver on taste, or texture. I’d gladly look past the lumps, knots and crevices for the sake of preserving the seed’s heritage if only the taste transcended the ubiquitous Early Girls and Big Boys (which can be terrific, by the way). After all- organic, biodiversity, and independent farmer’s sweat equity are quite sexy these days.
I grew up eating great tomatoes. Each summer, my family planted a garden where tomatoes would fill our salad bowls and dinner plates long into the fall. During the summer months, we’d pluck the tomatoes as they ripened, and at the end of the season, when the aging vines yielded to the weight of still-green tomatoes, we’d relieve them of their burden, thank them for the bounty that they provided, and marched laundry baskets full of fruit into our basement to wrap in newspaper-stowed away until by some miracle, under the shade of newsprint, they blushed.
Even as I write this, I know that in a small patch of soil on the side of my house, a few tomato plants are growing. One is a plucky, hearty sort, that finally in the throws of August heat is giving me many tiny cherry tomatoes. Whoopee! Two more plants-heirloom varieties, the names which I can not recall now-have inglorious red-tinged lumps here and there. Hanging, hardly growing, just waiting to succumb to rot, they torture and taunt me with their imminent failure.
Honestly, I don’t think we’ll enjoy one damn tomato from those vines. Which leaves me in the predicament of having to buy tomatoes from farmers markets. And, having to pay a pretty price for them. Or not. Here’s a tip-go to several farmers markets to scout out the best prices, and the best product. Sometimes, if your lucky, you get both. I purchased tomatoes for this recipe from Toigo Orchards at the Del Ray Farmers Market. Lately, they’ve been keeping a box of “seconds” tomatoes on the ground. You’d probably walk right by it if you weren’t looking for it. My tomatoes cost $.99 a pound-that’s about a third of regular cost, more or less. And, if you don’t find a “seconds” box of tomatoes, ask your farmer if they sell them. This comes in handy if you are buying bulk for canning or freezing in quantity. The funny part of this story is this- in my bunch of tomatoes, I had one large red fruit, and several red and green-striped tomatoes. Quite interested to find out what variety they were (because lately I’ve become a bit obsessed with the provenance of my food) I held them up and asked, “What type of tomatoes are these?”"Field Tomatoes.” Go figure.
That brings me to this week’s recipe from the Washington Post Food section. Each week, I look forward to this section of the paper, where I find at least one recipe to try out and post on The Houndstooth Gourmet. As a home cook with a bit of experience under my apron strings, sometimes I use what I have on hand, or make substitutions when necessary. Joan Summers of Arlington submitted a recipe for Agave Tomato Jam. This recipe made her a finalist in the Top Tomato 2009 recipe contest and got her condiment featured in the Washington Post. Now you might be thinking “what the heck is agave?”, and “do I have any agave”. For me the answers were “not a clue” and “no”. So, I did what any respectable home cook would do- I googled it. Agave is a plant that is widely cultivated in Mexico. It’s nectar, when fermented, produces Tequilla (OK-now this is ringing a bell). The nectar is also 90% fructose, and has a low glycemic index level compared to table sugar. It’s often used as a substitute for sugar by diabetics, people who are insulin resistant, and for those watching their carbohydrate intake. Since I did not have agave nectar, I decided to see what else I could use. Common substitutions are honey, maple syrup, simple syrup and sugar.
Further investigation lead me to a recipe for Tomato Jam from the New York Times, which interestingly, is remarkably similar to Ms. Summers’ submission. So, with my field tomatoes in hand, I decided to go with the ingredients I had in my kitchen, and riff on the NYT recipe. In the end, the taste was as promised-spicy and sweet. Oh, the peaches? Now, don’t be scared of the peaches! I was able to decrease the amount of sugar used in the original NYT recipe by 50%, just by adding one large peach (which also added to the texture of the jam in the end). Out of season-skip the peach and increase the sugar to 3/4 cup.
Tomato and Peach Jam
Adapted from the New York Times recipe for Tomato Jam
Serve as a condiment with bread and cheese
- 1 1/2 pounds good ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 tablespoon fresh grated or minced ginger
- 2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon salt1 jalapeño or other peppers, stemmed, seeded and minced, or red pepper flakes or cayenne to taste. I used a nice big pinch.
- Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan, Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often.
- Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 hour 15 minutes.
- Taste and adjust seasoning, then cool and refrigerate until ready to use; this will keep at least a week.
- Yield: About 1 pint.
Store covered in the refrigerator for up to one week. You can also make this in bulk and can in jars using proper technique.
The Wrap Up
Although I had some trepidation using peaches with tomatoes, this combination really worked. It brought the refined sugar content down significantly, which I felt was in the spirit of Ms. Summers’ Washington Post recipe which uses agave nectar. As far as taste, the smoky cumin and red pepper flakes balanced the sweetness imparted by the sugar, ground cloves and cinnamon. This is a surprisingly refreshing and unique way to use summer tomatoes. And, if you can, you can enjoy this year round.
This condiment would be a terrific addition to any cheese plate; I think it would pair nicely with soft or hard cheeses.
Sources- tomatoes and peaches came from Toigo Orchards.