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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Tomato - fruit or vegetable?

"Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put it in the fruit salad"

I love this quote and it is so true! In my mind, the terms "fruit" and "vegetable" should be used to describe the way the food is eaten rather than the technical botanical definition. If used in sweet dishes then they are fruit, if used in savoury, they are vegetables. Using this rule, rhubarb is a fruit and tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are all vegetables.

That may be wisdom, but that does not change the fact that tomatoes are in fact the fruit of the tomato plant. So the question is, can you make a jam out of tomatoes? Maybe another question ought to be, would you want to? I can't quite imagine reaching for a jar of tomato jam to spread on my breakfast toast! Maybe wisdom would be to use the knowledge that tomatoes are a fruit to make a preserve that sets like a jam but that can be eaten in a savoury way.

I had 6lbs of tomatoes left in my freezer and with the soft fruit about to ripen, it was time I used the tomatoes up to make some space. So here was my chance to try making some tomato jam.

The jam making technique requires the fruit to be cooked gently to extract the natural pectin from the fruit. With the addition of sugar and by bringing the mixture to a vigorous boil for several minutes the pectin reaches its setting point. When it cools down, the jam will set to something that can be spread. This is quite different from the chutney making process, which relies on simmering the mixture for several hours until enough water has evaporated that it becomes thick. In a way, chutney making is easier because with enough patience it will always become thick but on the other hand after hours of reducing you can end up with a lot less than you thought you might! I figured it would be nice to use the natural pectin in the tomatoes to thicken the preserve rather than having to reduce it to almost nothing to get it thick enough.

Using this technique would make the preserve a jam but I wanted to make something savoury so I decided to add some savoury flavours to the mixture such as herbs, chilli, onion, celery and just a dash of balsamic vinegar. As it was just the flavour of the onion and celery rather than the texture that I wanted, I decided to chop these but wrap them in muslin so they could be removed after cooking.

After 10 minutes or so of cooking to thoroughly infuse the savoury flavours, it was time to add the warmed sugar and to continue as if making a jam. After 15 minutes or so of rolling boil the mixture began to show signs that the setting point had been reached but as I suspected it was only a light set, producing something of a sauce consistency rather than something you could balance on the back of your knife. I was pleased with this - a sort of ketchup feel to it but without the tangy vinegar flavours. In fact, I think I had created a sweet tomato and chilli dipping sauce. Hmm... sounds more appetising than tomato jam, I think! So what shall I use as the official name on the labels?

My new quote is:

"Knowledge is knowing you can make jam from tomatoes, wisdom is knowing not to spread it on toast."

Sweet Tomato & Chilli Dipping Sauce (Tomato Jam)

6 lb of tomatoes
750ml passata
1 tablespoon tomato puree
Juice of 1 lemon
About 1 fl oz of balsamic vinegar
1 onion
1 stick of celery
3 teaspoons salt
3 teaspoons of crushed chilli
1 bay leaf
About 3 lb granulated sugar
A bunch of fresh marjoram
A bunch of fresh basil

Puree the tomatoes and pass through a sieve to remove the skin and seeds. Add the passata to the puree and measure it. For every pint of tomato liquid, weigh out 1 pound of sugar. Place the sugar in an oven proof dish and heat in a low oven. Pour the tomato liquid into the preserving pan then add the tomato puree. Squeeze the juice from the lemon and measure then make up to 3 fl oz with balsamic vinegar. Pour this into the tomato liquid. Peel and chop the onions and chop the celery then wrap them in a piece of muslin and place in the pan. Finally, add the salt, chilli and bay leaf to the pan. Bring to the boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Next, remove the muslin and bay leaf and pour in the sugar. Stir well until the sugar has dissolved completely. Bring to the boil and allow it to boil for 15 minutes or so then test for a set. Once set, remove from the heat and add the finely chopped fresh herbs before ladling into warmed jars.

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