Jampacked Flavor: Both sweet and savory, preserves make entrées pop

Your grandparents were doing this a hundred years ago,” said Wes Johnson, chef at Eclipse in the Loop. “It’s really simple.”

We had just been talking about a very old custom indeed: home canning – in particular, homemade jams, jellies and other preserves. In one sense Johnson is right, since anyone with the curiosity and patience can pick up an old cookbook – he recommended the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, available in one form or another for more than a century – and get going. But talented St. Louis chefs like him are doing the classics one better with newfangled takes on this old-fashioned art.

First, some background. Although some people use the terms interchangeably, jams, jellies, preserves and marmalades all have their distinguishing characteristics. Jams are traditionally made with fruit that is crushed or sliced and then heated to activate its pectin, which serves to thicken the mixture; a really good jam is full of fruit, usually just of one kind, yet perfectly smooth and spreadable. Preserves often refer to the whole category of canned fruits, but on a strict interpretation a “preserve” is just jam made from fruit that remains whole or is canned in larger chunks. Jellies contain only juice and so are thinner and fresher-tasting; the fruit’s strained out at the end for a crystal-clear result. Finally, marmalades, those staples of the British breakfast, are typically made from citrus and often bracingly bitter from the addition of peel and zest.

Until recently most restaurants would serve preserves only with breads or perhaps as a component in a dessert, but more and more they’re popping up on the rest of the menu. Johnson is a fan of an unusual fruit, courtesy of his produce supplier: the persimmon. “Local persimmons are very tannic” like a good Pinot Noir, he said, and his chefly intuitions led him to the unconventional pairing of persimmon preserves with a classic duck rillette, itself a preserved mixture of salty duck-leg confit stewed in its own creamy fat. Johnson has also reinvented the tired duck-orange combination in a plate of grilled duck breast, blood-orange risotto and five-spice marmalade. “Orange sauces have just been done way too much,” he said, and the marmalade, perfumed with anise, pungent peppercorns and the namesake five-spice powder, is exotic without going overboard.
Elsewhere, Amy Zupanci at Fond in Edwardsville views jellies as an ideal bridge between sweet and savory. Take quince, a mottled, bulbous yellow fruit seldom seen outside the Whole Foods produce department. It’s overwhelmingly astringent on its own, but as a jelly it mellows into a magical pairing for red cabbage, which comes out sweet after braising in syrup, and together they cut the fatty richness of braised pork belly. “It’s all about balance,” she said. (Fun fact: The term marmalade originally meant “quince jam,” taken from marmelo, the Portuguese name for the fruit.) Zupanci also makes a citrus jelly which she uses to baste scallops before they leave the sauté pan. “We’re getting known for them,” she said.

The sweet-savory combination is also a favorite of Eric Kelly, chef at Scape in the Central West End. His “American bistro” menu incorporates the traditions of multiple cuisines: “With America being such a melting pot, the possibilities are endless.” To capture the spirit of the Pacific Rim, he coats chicken in chopped macadamia nuts and serves it alongside a cold papaya marmalade and a warm, savory shoyu (Japanese for “soy sauce”) cream reduction. “Lots of Hawaiian food combines fruit with savory,” said Kelly, and serving the marmalade chilled results in a flavor profile that’s, well, “sexy.” A similar idea informs his version of steak au poivre, which features an oversized potato latke topped with applesauce – a classic pairing in Jewish cooking, here given a playful tweak.

Preserves are an Old World tradition, and to honor that, Carl Hazel, chef at The Scottish Arms, serves not only North Atlantic salmon accompanied with a red onion marmalade, but also a lamb burger topped with goat cheese and a fennel jam. The fennel jam on the burger is “sweet with just a little vinegar” for tartness; Hazel only lightly seasons the meat so as to let the toppings shine. The curliness of the shaved fennel atop the smooth ground of the cheese makes for a striking look, even in the dimness of a pub environment and especially when served open-faced.

All in all, local chefs continue to delight in experimenting with preserves in savory dishes. For instance, melted jelly mixed with a little water makes a “great simple sauce,” said Zupanci. Harking back to Johnson’s observation, your grandparents might not recognize that experimentation exactly – but we suspect they’d appreciate it on a plate.