Secret Ingredient: Tamarillos

Secret Ingredient: Tamarillos
 by: Elizabeth Weinstein

When I started working for Melissa’s, I thought I knew a fair amount about produce. The first thing I learned was how little I really knew. Every time I enter our enormous warehouse, waves of cold wind and exotic smells smack me in the face. I weave through the forklifts, crates and boxes, past mountains of potatoes, dried chiles and baby bell peppers, hoping to see something new. And so many things have been new…Sapote. Name root. Myoga. Pink blueberries. Coquitos. Kiwano Melons. Witch Finger grapes. Romano beans. Tamarillos…

Since I first read about them on Melissa’s website in January, I’d been dying for a taste of a tamarillo. Nicknamed the “tree tomato,” this gorgeous New Zealand fruit reputedly had a totally unique savory and sweet taste. So when our tropical fruit buyer, Kevin, walked into my office last month with a box and asked me to play around with them, I got excited. Really excited. What would I do with these strange, beautiful things?

Like 25 bright red Easter eggs, the tamarillos lined up neatly in their case looked almost too perfect to touch. But I had to dive in. As soon as I got home, I sliced one in half and marveled. As if lit from within, translucent, amber-colored flesh showcased a pattern of black seeds that reminded me of the carvings on a violin. A whole world seemed to live inside that tamarillo. Where would it take me?

I scooped the flesh out with a spoon and a pulpy rush of tomato and guava flavor hit my palate. Simultaneously seedy and smooth, the texture reminded me of passion fruit mixed with kiwi. Did I want to chop them onto a fish taco? Slice them thin and top them with mozzarella and basil? Or perhaps smother them with cream? I saw all three ideas in a New Zealand cookbook, but it turned out that none struck my fancy.

Bitter skin made me decide that any skin-on application was out of the question. Peeling was easy (as with a tomato, score an X into the bottoms with a knife, pour boiling water over for two minutes, then peel), but a bit slimy. Drying peeled halves in the oven like a sun-dried tomato: fail.

And then it hit me: we don’t try to eat the pithy part of a grapefruit or the skin of a passion fruit. Why bother focusing on the outside when what was inside was so special? I decided to try making jam, deciding that apricots, with their rich, mellow flavor would make an excellent complement. And oh, was I right.

This jam, a mixture of roughly 40% tamarillos and 60% apricots, came together like a dream. The tamarillos proved to be loaded with pectin, the natural thickening agent found in fruit that gives preserves their gelled texture. No rebranding this one a glaze or a marinade as I’d done with failed jams of days past—this was truly perfect, and I wanted to show it off.

I brought the jam to work, spread it on lots of little squares of toast, and paraded it around the office, encouraging everybody to try. “Call your stores!” I crowed: “Tell everybody: tamarillos make the best jam!” I’m not the only one who thinks so:

“Friggin’ delicious,” said my boss.
“The texture is perfect” said the chef.
“Can I have the recipe?” asked my co-worker.

I wanted this recipe to be perfect, so I did two more tests, found the perfect levels of sugar and lemon juice, and wrote everything down. I promise you’ll love this sun-sweet, cheerfully tart, drop-dead gorgeous jam! A few words of advice:
-  Tamarillos sweeten as they ripen, so wait until your tamarillos are ripe to make jam! When the bright red skin has faded to a slightly rustier shade, the super-smooth texture has spotted with what look like a few small blisters, the green stem has shriveled and turned orange, and the fruit begins to take on a sweet, almost musky smell, you’re ready to begin.       
-  If you don’t have access to apricots, try another rich, sweet stone fruit, like cherry plums, white nectarines or peeled white peaches.
-  Use a kitchen scale! Weighing your ingredients will give you the best, most precise results.

And, have fun cooking! Now, the recipe:

Tamarillo & Apricot Jam

375 grams/about 1 ½ cups tamarillo pulp (approximately 12 tamarillos)
500 grams/about 3 cups chopped apricots (approximately 12 pitted apricots)
475 grams/about 2 ¼ cups sugar
6 ounces/ ¾ cup pink variegated lemon juice

Makes 3–4 half-pints

Pull the stems off the tamarillos, slice lengthwise, scoop out the pulp inside and put in a bowl, discarding the spongy outer shell of the fruit. Slice, pit and chop apricots into approximately 1” pieces and add to a bowl with the tamarillos. Add the sugar to the fruit, and then add the lemon juice, tossing gently until all the sugar has dissolved and the tamarillo pulp begins to break up. Cover the bowl with plastic and refrigerate overnight.

Bring the macerated fruit to temperature and stir well to incorporate any sugar that has sunk to the bottom. Transfer the fruit into a 5½ quart enamel Dutch oven and cook over medium high heat. Stir continuously while cooking, and remove any foam that rises from the surface with a fine mesh skimmer or a spoon. The mixture will thicken and reduce by about one third. Remove the pot from the heat once the jam reaches 220° F or the drops of syrup begin to pour off the spoon in a double-drip pattern, about 30 minutes.

Scald four half-pint mason jars in a large pot of simmering water fitted with a rack. In a bowl, pour boiling water over the jar lids and rings. Place a thick dishcloth or cutting board on the counter. Carefully remove the jars from the pot of water, empty them, and place the hot jars on the cutting board or cloth right before filling them. Keep the pot of water at a low simmer.

With a canning funnel placed over the jar, carefully fill jar using a ladle to ¼” of headspace from the jar rim. Using a moist paper towel, wipe the tops and edges of the jars clean. Remove lids from the boiling water and place on jars. Then place rings on jars and screw on just tightly enough to keep lids in place.

Return the jars to the simmering water bath, making sure jars are covered by at least 1” of water. Bring the water up to a boil, then start your timer and boil the jars for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, wait until the water calms, and then remove jars without tilting them and cool completely on a cloth towel. Let jars sit undisturbed for 12-24 hours, then check to make sure jars have sealed properly. Label jars with contents, date and canning time.  

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