So, how’s the fair-trade sugar thing going? (and tomato jam)

Back in April I wrote about how I’d decided to focus on less-refined and/or fair-trade sugar. Since then, I haven’t bought any non-fair-trade sugar — though I’ve certainly eaten some in baked goods purchased out, etc.

I think the experiment has been a rousing success so far. The extra cost hasn’t stopped me from doing anything, really; I bought a whole bunch of sugar back in April (including several more pounds of Alter Eco, which I think is my favorite of all the ones I tried, though they’re all good) and I’m nowhere close to finishing it. I haven’t baked a whole lot this summer but when I have, I’ve just used some of the unrefined sugar and it tastes wonderful, richer and more complex. I’ve also mostly switched to white whole wheat flour, instead of all-purpose, and that helps too. Everything just has a deeper flavor. I really like it. I made one batch of cookies with all-purpose earlier in the summer because I wanted a lighter color for aesthetic reasons and they were just more boring!

The one thing I haven’t been using the un- or less-refined sugar for is my extensive jam-making operation. I didn’t want all the jams to come out tasting like caramel, and I was worried about the colors, too. Maybe next summer I’ll experiment a little more; I made a tiny batch this afternoon (really tiny, I got just two quarter-pint jars out of it) out of scuppernong grapes that someone at the farmer’s market had, and the grapes are so fabulously wine-y and rich that I think some brown sugar undertones could work well there….

Anyway, instead I’ve been buying the vegan sugar from Whole Foods, which is fair-trade. (For some reason their regular non-vegan sugar is not.) (How, you will want to know, is normal sugar not vegan? Apparently there’s something called bone char involved in filtering it. I’m not a vegetarian so this doesn’t really bother me, but I do want the fair trade label, for all its complexities, so.) This is about as cheap as you can get fair-trade sugar — it’s $7 for 4 pounds — and it tastes, you know, like sugar, so that’s all good. (I am also slightly concerned, re jam making, that the less-refined sugars might be weirder to work with because they might melt/crystallize in unexpected ways. I need to do some research.)

My favorite new recipe this summer is from a book called Preserving by the Pint, which is by the woman who writes the foodinjars blog. I got this out of the library last summer and liked/used it so much that I bought it earlier this year. I’ve made a lot of stuff out of it and it’s all good (I like that the batches are small, so they don’t take much time, and the technique is really easy — no messing around with pectin or freezer tests or anything.) This recipe is one I didn’t try last summer and it is spectacular. I’ve been spreading it on toast (with or without a schmear of goat cheese) for lunch, and it would go really well with grilled chicken, I think. If you don’t want to bother with the canning, you can just use it right away (it’ll keep in the fridge for at least a week or two, probably longer.)

Orange Grape Tomato Jam with Smoked Paprika

(this can be easily doubled. As written, I got 5 1/4 pint jars (those are the smallest ones, which I like since I don’t take forever to go through them)

2 lbs/900 grams of orange grape or cherry tomatoes [You could do something like this with other kinds of tomatoes too, but orange tomatoes have lower acidity than red ones, so if you use a red variety, you might want to cut the vinegar.]

1.25 cups sugar

1/4 c lemon juice

2 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1.5 tsp salt

1.5 tsp red pepper flakes (or less to taste)

1 tsp fresh grated ginger (or 1/4 tsp ground dried ginger)

1 tsp smoked paprika

1/4 tsp cayenne (I skipped this, figuring the red pepper flakes would be plenty)

  1. Cut the tomatoes in half (if grape/cherry) or chop roughly (if large) and combine all ingredients in a wide skillet or pot. (The more surface area there is, the faster excess liquid will evaporate and therefore the faster the jam will cook.) Bring to a boil over medium heat and stir every few minutes until it’s jammy — maybe 30-45 minutes, though depending on how liquidy your tomatoes are it’ll vary. About halfway through, I used a potato masher to just mash everything up a bit, which I find creates a slightly more even texture and helps the jam firm up once it’s cooled down. You want a texture thick enough that you can drag a spoon along the bottom of the pot and the liquid doesn’t immediately rush to fill the spot. Be careful towards the end and turn the heat down/stir more often so it doesn’t scorch; you can leave it for longer stretches earlier in the cooking time.
  2. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, cover your jars with an inch or so of water and boil. (My water is hard, so I add a slug of white vinegar to the pot, which keeps the jars clear; otherwise I get a mineral residue settling on them, which is harmless but looks bad.)
  3. When the jam is ready, pour it into the jars, leaving a bit of room at the top for “headspace.” (A jar lifter and wide-mouthed canning funnel are extremely useful here, and only cost a few dollars, though it’s possible to manage without.) Wipe the rims of the jars to remove any stray bits of jam that might prevent a seal from forming, apply lids and rings, return the jars to the boiling water, and boil for 15 minutes. After you pull them out, they should all “ping” (that’s how you know the seal’s formed.) Let them rest on the counter overnight and, before you store them, remove the rings and check the seal (if you pick up the jar by the lid, and it doesn’t open, you’re in good shape.) If any jars haven’t formed a seal, you can put them in the fridge and eat normally over the next couple of weeks. Otherwise, store without the rings for up to a year and give to very lucky people for Christmas.