This jam is intense. It embodies the complexity of Moroccan food: sweet yet savory, bordering on sour, spicy but not from a specific source. Except for the standout tart lemon peel, and maybe an occasional bite of ginger, the ingredients dissolve into a magical compote that is anything but subtle. If I didn’t know that the base was tomato, I might not have called it out as the main ingredient. Wow.
The jam is the brainchild of Mourad Lahlou, owner and chef of a restaurant in San Francisco called Aziza, and the author of a recent cookbook entitled Mourad, New Moroccan, The Cookbook. I am naturally skeptical of an eponymous publication with over 30 contemporary photographs of the author. However, his turns out to be not only an interesting story, which he insists you read first, but also a very instructive course in the underpinnings of Moroccan food. Growing up in a household with an influential and discerning grandfather whom he accompanied to market, and a tableau of women whose cooking and serving of family meals was central to their cultural and social existence, he later uses his memories to reconstruct and, in the process, re-imagine Moroccan food. The trope works and the food comes alive because of the stories, aided by the book’s logical construction, excellent writing and beautiful photography. This book is a winner.
While flipping through the book in our public library (which some brilliant person endowed to purchase the latest cookbooks), tomato jam caught my eye. Every year, as I am canning tomatoes and tomato sauces for the pantry – in abundance – I experiment with tomato jam to serve as a condiment alongside a vegetable, poultry or fish dish, or to serve with soft cheese and croutons as an appetizer. Last year, my tomato ginger ketchup was outstanding and while I’ll make it again, Mourad’s tomato jam was in my sights. I was already under a Moroccan influence after my recent experiments with chermoula, and having just put up a jar of preserved lemons for the pantry.
Mourad suggests that the recipe may be canned “in the usual way,” which I would have figured given the amount of acid – from sliced lemons, vinegar, lime juice and tomatoes. He made it with cherry tomatoes, a boon for those of us with way too many of those during the season. I didn’t like the red cherry tomatoes that I had on hand, as they were not as flavorful as the jam deserved. So I substituted small field tomatoes with relatively thin skins since the skins are not removed. This meant that I had more liquid than he did and thus cooked my jam longer to get it to the consistency that I wanted. Also, since I intended to can the jam, I eliminated the butter he used during the process of cooking cherry tomatoes with sugar until bursting. I figured butter had more to do with that process than the mouth-feel or the flavor. All the above made my jam less chewy and more tomato-like than his but it was as stunningly delicious a concoction as I have made in some time.
In the first of the book’s opening seven chapters on technique (seven being an important number in Moroccan culture and even in its cuisine), he makes a few excellent points about spices. One is the obvious: toast and grind your own. The corollary, which he touches on, is to buy them where they’re sold in bulk so you don’t overstock and let them go stale. I’m lucky to be able to do that, so for this recipe I bought 1 tablespoon of dried rosebuds (really) and just 20 juniper berries.
The other point is more important and literally more global. The commonly used spices in Moroccan cuisine are not unique to Morocco (we knew that from the example of, say, cumin that spans from India to North Africa to Mexico). Since the Egyptians started trading spices 4000 years ago, major spices have found their way around the world, and many of them passed through the strategic trading hub of the Moroccan coast. That’s the origin of the conception of Moroccan food as spice-centric, and Mourad tells us so many ways of using and combining them – in a uniquely Moroccan fashion — that this cookbook will provide culinary adventures for a long time. As he says, it’s not which spices you use, it’s how you use them.
Moroccan Tomato Jam adapted from Mourad, New Moroccan, The Cookbook
2 organic lemons, preferably unwaxed
1 three-inch piece ginger (weighing 52 grams), peeled and cut into slivers
1 tbsp whole cumin seeds, toasted
1 tbsp dried rosebuds (if you can find them)
20 juniper berries
10 whole cloves
½ tsp black pepper, preferably Tellicherry
4 pods green cardamom, cracked
5 allspice berries
2-3 cinnamon sticks (weighing around 10 grams)
2 lb cherry tomatoes or other small tomatoes (the latter coarsely chopped)
2 c granulated sugar
Optional (if using cherry tomatoes and not canning the jam): 2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 c champagne vinegar
3 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp molasses
1 tsp kosher salt or to taste
If canning, prepare the canning kettle and jars (plan for 8 four-ounce jars or four 8-ounce jars).
Prepare the lemons. If they’re waxed, dunk them briefly in hot (just boiled) water for 20 seconds or so and dry them in a towel, rubbing the skin brusquely. Quarter the lemons lengthwise, removing the seeds and the center spine. Slice them thinly crosswise into little fan shapes.
Prepare the ginger. Peel it and slice it crosswise into 1/16-inch rounds. Slice the rounds into thin strips, 1/16 inch wide.
Prepare the spices. Place the spices into a muslin sack or fold and tie cheesecloth to make a sachet. The cinnamon stick can be set aside to add to the jam separately.
Place the tomatoes, sugar and butter, if using, into a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pan and warm the mixture over medium-high heat, stirring, until the tomatoes render their liquid.
Once the sugar has melted, add the vinegar, lime juice, molasses and ginger and stir well to combine. Add the spices.
Bring the mixture to a boil and cook at a gentle simmer until the jam is reduced by about half. This could take 30-60 minutes depending on the juiciness of the tomatoes. Taste and stir in salt. Leave chunky or use an immersion blender to smooth the jam a little (as I did) or blend to a smooth puree.
If canning, spoon into hot jars, making sure to release air bubbles. Cap and process for 10 minutes after the water comes to a boil. Remove canner lid, turn off heat, and let sit for 5 minutes before removing the jars to a counter to cool undisturbed.
Makes about 4 cups, filling 8 four-ounce jars or four 8-ounce jars.