Saturday, September 1, 2007

My Current Obsession: Concord Grapes

In my endeavor to eat as locally as possible this year, I've been searching out local growers of foods that can be processed and preserved for eating throughout the winter. Finding local tomatoes was a cinch. Finding local peaches was a bit more of a challenge, but it could be done. Finding local apples isn't a problem at all. And then I started thinking about grapes. I remember as a child seeing grape vines in all of the neighbor's yards, but I haven't seen grapes offered at the farmers' markets. Grapes! A staple! A standard! Whose grandmother didn't make grape jelly thirty years ago?!?

So I started inquiring of my friends who all said that they just buy their grape juices, jams and jellies and don't bother with the mess. While I do have access to a local manufacturer of jellies and jams that don't contain high fructose corn syrup, I don't know where the fruit comes from. I kind of doubt that it's exclusively locally-grown. It's not that we wouldn't eat things that weren't local, but I felt pretty sure I could find someone who could point me to some locally-grown grapes.

After thinking about it for a while, I remembered a former co-worker who'd mentioned that she and her husband had a vineyard of Concord grapes. I stopped by her office and she took me to the kitchen where she had some vine-ripened grapes just waiting to be tasted. We set a time for me to do some picking.

What a fabulous way to start the Labor Day weekend. A beautiful day and a beautiful drive through the countryside, Natalie Merchant on the tape player (thrift store find--25 cents), my husband by my side and the three youngest children tagging along--who could ask for more?

But we were given more.

Have you ever seen 2,000 grape vines up close? When Kathy lead us to the vineyard, I was overwhelmed by the abundance! Grapes hung in pregnant clusters under twining vines and protective leaves. Armed with half-bushel boxes and clippers, Kathy, Bo, eight-year-old Sweetheart and I started harvesting. After about an hour of picking, we'd filled eight half-bushel boxes. And we'd only moved about ten feet down the first row. Kathy told us that the big Concord harvest will take place on Saturday, and they'll have less than a dozen people doing all the work.

A sun-warmed grape is a beautiful thing, and these grapes were breathtaking. I was tempted to crawl under the vines and stretch out on my back, just staring up at the full and perfect light-bathed fruit. But even a beautiful thing has its limits. One can only eat so many fresh Concord grapes (and I did eat so may fresh Concord grapes), and I wasn't about to down four bushels. The plan was to make juice and maybe a couple of jars of jam or jelly. With my new toy and a special grape seed spiral for my new toy, I planned to turn out quart after quart of delicious grape juice concentrate.

And then, a serendipitous moment arose. Just after our grape-picking venture, we headed for our friend Sara's house for a hot-dog roast. When I told her what we'd done with our day, she said, "Then you have to see what I have!" She led me to the basement, to rows of purple liquid in quart Ball jars, beside which stood a gleaming, stainless steel Norpro Krona Steamer. Sara beamed, "Just put water in the bottom, grapes in the basket, and the juice comes out the tube, straight into your scalded canning jars! Wanna borrow it?"

Did I ever!

Watching the steamer at work was a lesson in appreciating the simple things. Basically, the steamer works like a double-boiler with a steamer basket on the top and a clear lid over that. You wash the grapes, drop them into the basket (the instructions say that you don't even have to remove the stems, but we did), and boil the water until the steam extracts the juice from the grapes. Within about forty minutes, light-purple juice appears in a clear tube that's held closed by a clamp at the end. When the juice is ready, about an hour after you begin steaming, the grapes look pale and slightly empty. Open the clamp, empty the juice into a prepared, sterile, hot quart-sized jar leaving 1/4 inch headspace, wipe the rim, top with a two-part lid, hand-tighten and then process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. Set the jars in a draft-free place and listen for that satisfying "POP!" that means the lids have sealed properly.

We saved a bit of the juice out, of course, and found that we could use about one part juice to two parts water, a bit of sugar to taste, to have a very delicious drink.

The pulp that was left in the top of the steamer looked like it still had some use, so we put it through the Roma strainer and ended up with a very substantial puree. I added some sugar, froze a bit of it and then brought the rest to a boil, poured it into prepared quart jars and boiling-water bathed them for 15 minutes. That grape puree will be used to flavor vanilla yogurt, will be poured on pancakes, and might even find its way into a batch of ice cream.

I was thankful for my husband's help and companionship in the kitchen as the grapes were being processed. I asked him what he thought he'd be doing with his Labor day weekend if he weren't married (certainly not canning grape juice, I thought), and he wasn't really sure. A camping trip, maybe. Something outdoorsy. "What would you be doing?" he asked me. I thought about it for a moment, and then realized with a giggle that I probably WOULD be canning grape juice. It's just part of who I am, what I love to do, what inspires me. It's a beautiful thing to see those multi-colored jewels marching along the fruit-cellar shelves, promising sustenance long into the winter. When a child complains because he's come to the bottom of the jar of home-made applesauce (when he'd never TOUCH the commercial version) or proclaims the grape juice better than store-bought, it's just icing on the cake.

Tomorrow, a bit about butter--apple butter, that is.

Tomato-Basil Biscuits

The basil keeps coming, even while I'm working in the kitchen freezing corn with my new toy (I'll post on that soon) and making apple butter with my other new toy (that post is also in the works), but as soon as I'm done with all of this other bounty, I'll bake a batch of tomato-basil biscuits, maybe even freeze a few, though I haven't tried that yet. For sure we'll eat a batch warm with real butter.


Tomato-Basil Biscuits

1 cup unbleached flour
pinch of sugar
pinch of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
4 tablespoons cold butter, in small pieces
1/4 cup half and half
2 ripe tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup fresh basil, chopped

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a large bowl, sift flour, sugar, salt, baking powder together. Cut butter in with two knives until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the milk and the tomatoes and stir. Work in basil and mix thoroughly.

Transfer the dough to a lightly-floured surface and knead lightly for about 30 seconds. Pat out the dough to about an inch thick and cut into rounds or squares, about 2 inches around. Arrange one inch apart on a baking sheet. Bake until puffed and golden, about 15 minutes. Cool and serve with real butter.