WHAT IT IS - Tomato jam is one of those new old things that once was a condiment staple on the dining tables of American vegetable farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Perhaps they came up with the idea near summer's end - when tomatoes were often in overabundance and farm families grew tired of canning whole tomatoes in jars, and they didn't need another bottle of ketchup on their shelf to make it through winter. So they took tomatoes, added an equal amount of sugar, stewed the mixture for hours, and then jarred it in the manner of making strawberry preserves. In their farm kitchens, they produced a delicacy some have called a cross between marmalade and ketchup that they could put on everything from breakfast toast to BLTs. Somewhere along the line, as ketchup and other commercially produced spreads soared in popularity, tomato jam became scarcer than hen's teeth. But recently, chefs like Lucas Manteca at the Red Store in Cape May Point have rediscovered the sweet/savory condiment. And so have their customers. "People began asking for it so often to take home that we had to start jarring it and selling it," Manteca said. His restaurant uses it on brunch dishes such as the delicious Chorizo Torta breakfast sandwich ($11), or the ABLT ($13), a seemingly simple avocado-added BLT that goes the ever-popular apple-wood-smoked-bacon-on-a-croissant route, but makes a sharp turn toward signature taste by replacing the tomato slice with tomato jam.
WHEN IT GOT HERE - When Manteca and his wife, Deanna Ebner, opened the Red Store five summers ago, they began producing their own tomato jam (renamed Jersey Jam) along with various hot sauces, pickles, and cured meats they use on their menu dishes and specials. The seasonal variety of incredible produce available in the Garden State dictates what the couple offer for brunch and dinner, the two meals served at the restaurant. "Our idea has always been to make everything ourselves that we can do better. It has to be better than what we could bring in, because otherwise, what's the point?" Manteca said. The popularity of the tomato jam evolved from the menu items, as well as its placement in a seasonal bread basket rather than butter.
"It's an item that we've been so excited to use and that people are so wowed by when they taste it," Manteca said.
WHY IT'S SO TASTY - Manteca says his Jersey Jam "walks a fine line between sweet and sour and savory." He uses aged balsamic vinegar, sugar, and spices to "pull the flavor out of the tomatoes and play with the acidity" when preparing the condiment. The restaurant started jarring Jersey Jam in small batches ($8 for 8 ounces) over the last couple of summers but has never been able to keep up with demand. "We put out 200 jars, and in two days it would be gone," Manteca said. "It kind of started as a little hobby for me because so many people were asking for it. But it's a good way to connect with our customers and for them to take home a little piece of the Red Store and of the Shore. So we want to expand the availability a bit." Next month, Manteca and Ebner will open a new small-batch kitchen facility nearby that will exclusively produce the restaurant's signature condiments, which will be for sale online and in the small retail/bakery area in the front of the restaurant. Manteca sources only Jersey tomatoes in the production, which takes more than nine hours of cooking to prepare. "It's an item that we produce that I am really proud of," Manteca said.
WHERE YOU CAN GET SOME - The Red Store is at 500 Cape Ave., Cape May Point, N.J. 08204. 609-884-5757. Open every day except Wednesday, 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. for dinner. More information about obtaining Jersey Jam online may be obtained at www.capemaypointredstore.com or www.picklegirlpickles.com.