When Chicago chef Gregory Ellis makes a pork belly sandwich, he doesn't stop at the belly. In addition to a fried egg and kumquat chow-chow, he adds a mystery ingredient -- bacon jam.
"People don't know what to expect," says Ellis, chef at the breakfast, brunch and lunch spot 2 Sparrows. "When they think bacon they're not expecting any of the sweetness that comes with it. It pleases everyone and they like it after they try it." The jam's next stop on his menu: French toast.
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Bacon jam may coast on its key attraction -- that would be the bacon -- but the idea of savory jam has been around for ages. Hot pepper jam has long been a Southern staple, topping slabs of cream cheese at cocktail parties and luncheons. But today, chefs, gourmet food companies and home canners are taking savory ingredients to the next level, turning everything from garlic and onions to carrots and saffron into sweet condiments.
"I'm always looking at ways to open people's eyes to the different opportunities in preserve making," says Marisa McClellan, creator of the blog "Food in Jars" and author most recently of "Preserving by the Pint." "One of these things is savory jam."
The trend in home canning and preserving took off around 2009, fueled by the do-it-yourself movement and the poor economy. Savory jams, observers say, offer the next stop for people who've already mastered strawberry and blueberry. Savory jams are most often glossy, sticky, sweet-ish concoctions that occupy the space between chunky relishes made of pickled items and smoother spreads and purees.
Their popularity is still growing, canners say, pushed by the gourmet world's unrelenting appetite for new items. For instance, gourmet food purveyor Stonewall Kitchens introduced a bacon jam just this year. Company executives say demand for their savory jams continues to rise, and that the items sell as well as their sweet jams.
McClellan might set apricot rosemary jam next to goat cheese, spread tomato jam on roasted sweet potato rounds or whirl it in the food processor with cream cheese for dip. A dollop of caramelized shallot jam livens up a grain bowl, she says, and a ramekin of peach-Sriracha jam makes a great dipping sauce.
Sean Timberlake, founder of Punk Domestics, an aggregation site on all things canning and preserving, features recipes for strawberry rhubarb jalapeņo jam, onion jam with rosemary, even zucchini marmalade, a concoction of shredded zucchini, orange and lemon. And of course, there's bacon jam. But the number one search on his site? Tomato jam.
"It awakens people to the idea that tomato is actually a fruit," Timberlake says. "We always think of tomato as a vegetable, but when you taste it in this other setting, people are like, 'Oh, I totally get it.' They experience the fruit differently than they have before."
McClellan says tomato jam also is the most popular item on her blog. She has several versions -- peach and yellow tomato jam, orange tomato with smoked paprika -- but straight up tomato jam is the perennial favorite on both sites. Perhaps tomato jam does well because it is familiar, just a baby step from ketchup.
"And yet it's a world apart," says Timberlake, who spreads tomato jam on burgers, BLTs and macaroni and cheese. "It's not ketchup. It's definitely tomato."
Savory jams complement cheese plates, act as condiments on sandwiches, and make great gifts, say the people who make and sell them. But they also can turn a potentially ordinary dish into something special.
"To keep people interested in the same old food that they can get at home, you need to put a twist on it," Ellis says. "Why are they going to come to my restaurant to get toast and jam? ... I'm not going to serve them just plain blueberry because they're paying for it. I want to give them a unique experience."
• Michele Kayal is co-founder of www.AmericanFoodRoots.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmerFoodRoots