A Chef's Roots, In Every Jar

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The first thing Stefano Frigerio does when he makes jam, before he even starts to cook, is taste. He takes a bite of a strawberry, deems it on the tart side and knows what he will do: Increase the sugar. The same goes for the apricots, the figs, the peaches. The only way he can be sure to get the right balance of sweetness and fruit in a jam is to trust his palate.

It is a chef's palate, to be sure. Before he started Copper Pot Food Co. this past spring, Frigerio ran the kitchen at Mio downtown, worked with chef Fabio Trabocchi at Maestro in Tysons Corner before that and did time at restaurants in London and Italy before that. But his earliest exposure to the art of jam-making came long before he set foot in a professional kitchen.

As a kid in northern Italy, he would watch in awe as his grandmother demonstrated how off the cuff home preservation could be. She had a garden in front of her house near Como, close to the Swiss border, and "she would just open her book, go outside, pick something, come back in and make something." He still uses a 50-year-old Italian canning book he inherited from his Nonna. But he also depends on his chef's sensibility to come up with flavor combinations, some of them seemingly obvious (strawberry and vanilla, peach and prosecco) and others not so much (apricot and rosemary, beet and rhubarb).

Frigerio's jams, sauces, fresh pastas and flavored vinegars have been an unqualified hit since he introduced them at six Washington area farmers markets. He sold out within an hour at the 14th and U Farmers Market and soon doubled his sales expectations. Now he works most days from 5 a.m. to midnight just to keep up with the demand. He'll soon hire some help, particularly with pastamaking, so he can manage the addition of online ordering plus sales at the Penn Quarter FreshFarm Market (starting next week), Cowgirl Creamery downtown and Cork restaurant's upcoming wine and food shop on 14th Street NW.

Frigerio, 36, has set the bar high: By selling at farmers markets, he must follow rules that require him to use local ingredients. It's a process he loves, because it lets him stay connected to producers whose bounty he fell in love with when he was at Mio. "Being at the markets, you meet all the farmers, even if you're not trying," he says. "And each one of them has something they do best. The key is finding out what it is."

When he recently borrowed the kitchen at Buzz Bakery in Alexandria to demonstrate scaled-down versions of three of his jams, he and pastry chef Josh Short compared notes about fruit sources and recipes. When Short, wearing his chef's whites, started talking about "amazing strawberries I got from South Carolina," Frigerio, in jeans and a T-shirt, interrupted him. "I can't go that far for strawberries," he said in his thick Italian accent. "Has to be Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland.

"The ones I got early in the season from Maryland were so acidic I had to double the sugar," Frigerio said. "But then I got some from Pennsylvania that were perfect."

Frigerio started off the market season with several hundred jars he had canned at the peak of the season last year after leaving his job at Mio to spend more time with his two young sons. His wife, PR maven Dusty Lockhart, had pushed him to start selling the products once they started piling up in the house -- and filling up the boys' playroom. After depleting that stock, he has been canning as fast as he can, sometimes needing to experiment in advance with fruits that haven't quite come into season locally.

When demonstrating the Apricot Rosemary Jam, he worked with New Mexico apricots. But he knew that the Pennsylvania ones he'd soon get would have much more flavor. He prepares them simply: He lets the cut fruit sit with sugar and any flavoring (in this case a few sprigs of rosemary per pound of apricots) for about 30 minutes, to let the sugar pull out the juices. By not adding water, he makes sure the flavors are concentrated without having to cook the fruit too long. Once the mixture is on the stovetop, he lets it bubble away for about 30 minutes, until the apricots are so soft they're almost falling apart. He pushes them through a fine-mesh sieve to get rid of the skins and herbs, then processes the jam in canning jars.

That's it. The same technique applies to the strawberry vanilla jam and, with some adjustments, to his Beet Rhubarb Jam. No obsessive attention to the mixture's temperature (no thermometer, even), no testing with a frozen plate to make sure it will jell, no worries about air bubbles. He can tell by looking and stirring when it's ready. When it comes time to process, he uses sterilized jars and very hot jam, turns the filled jars upside down and leaves them to seal. If they don't, he processes them in a boiling-water bath until they do. (Ball Corp. and other canning authorities recommend water-bath processing and upright cooling of jars as the foolproof method of guaranteeing a good seal.)

The result is that his jams have a purity of flavor often lost in commercial products that use too much sugar, and they're looser than those that contain added pectin. And that's exactly how Frigerio wants it: By keeping the ingredients to a minimum, he gives each one its due.

"People read the label and they say, 'How come it only says 'strawberry, vanilla and sugar'? I say, 'Because that's all I need.' "

Ultimately, for him and no doubt for anyone who has fallen under the home-preservation spell, the idea is to capture a point in time and revisit it later under much different conditions.

"Right now you can have a strawberry every day of the year, but does it taste good? No. Sometimes in the winter I don't know if I've tasted a strawberry or a lemon," he says. "This way, you taste the same fresh flavor you had in the spring, but in January. What could be better than that?"

For locations where chef Stefano Frigerio's products are sold, go to http://www.copperpotfoodco.com.

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