On the vine
One thing I have missed from our house in Seattle was our mini-orchard. We had so many fruit trees (plums, apples, pears) that came with the house and produced abundantly. I love being able to walk barefoot in the yard and pick some fruit to eat. Our current house has a much smaller yard (less maintenance!) and while we could plant fruit trees and wait, there’s something satisfying about established trees in your yard. We found out last year that we have a monster Rainer cherry tree that produces fruit higher than we can pick and an amazing grape vine. It’s rooted on our neighbor’s side of the fence, so hopefully they don’t get rid of it any time soon. Most of the vine grows onto our side of the fence and I expected to get a few bowls of grapes for snacking. Try thirty pounds!
What we’re working with
My parents grew grapes and I always enjoyed snacking on them and spitting out the seeds. The concept of seedless grapes to me was always strange, those were “grocery store” grapes. I have a distant memory of my parents making grape jam one fall. They took over the whole kitchen and I’m sure there was frustration in the air because grapes stain and they are messy. And they have skins and seeds. But the taste of that jam was SO delicious. Better than any Welch’s sugar syrup with grape flavor. I think they only made the jam once and left most of the fruit for the birds.
So I’m not sure if I was crazy to attempt to process our grape harvest but I am not one to let things go to waste. I had an encouraging canning partner, the Mayor of Hooperville beside me with ideas and energy and a shared passion for domestic arts. We went to town on those grapes. It was a project that lasted more than one day and included some fails and some wonderful stand-bys that I plan to use this fall (much more efficiently I might add). Our plan: grape jam (lots of it!), grape juice concentrate and pickled grapes (of course). No wine trials this time around. There is way too much to go wrong and a lot of equipment needed that I am not ready to invest in.
The pickled grapes were relatively easy and the flavor was good. I found a recipe in the September 2009 edition of Vegetarian Times for them. It was very straightforward and was a fun savory experiment for grapes. My only gripe was that this recipe is for seedless grapes (which I disregarded) so when eating these pickles you end up spitting out a lot of seeds. I’d rather make pickles from cucumbers and save my grapes for jam and juice.
Jam on Toast
The jam was the main goal for us and after some trials and staining most of my dishtowels, a great success. We tried the recipe from epicurious (Concord Grape Jame Oct 05) but the process was very laborious and time consuming. You have to peel the grapes, puree the skins, then add them to the naked grapes and cook it down, THEN strain it and cook it down some more. It seemed like there were a lot of unnecessary steps but I wanted to try the recipe because it didn’t call for any pectin. Which is too bad because it never gelled. We had it on the stove for hours and ended up burning it. We tried a batch in the crockpot and ended up caramelizing it (grape molasses, anyone?). It was a waste of time and now I know.
I am in love with Pomona’s Pectin. Most pectins rely on sugar for gelling so that’s why the majority of jams and jellies out there are loaded with sugar. When a fruit is ripe and at it’s peak, you don’t need to add much sugar, which is why I adore Pomona and her genius. After our epic fails, we followed the recipe in the Pomona box and not only did it gel, but it turned out tasty and not overly sweet. For those of you who want to try it, for one batch I used 7 pounds of grapes to make 8 cups of juice, 1/2 cup of lemon juice (I wonder if apple cider vinegar would work?) and 3 cups of evaporated cane juice to yield 6 pints of jelly. I figured for the first time I would go in the middle of their sugar recommendation range. This method was much easier, used less equipment (less cleanup) and we didn’t have to peel the grapes and go insane and it took two days because the juice needs to drip out overnight, which wasn’t a big deal. I don’t have a jelly bag and I just used 3 or 4 layers of cheesecloth in a strainer over a bucket. It involved some waiting time but I’d rather deal with it the next day than have to peel grapes ever again.