Monday, October 30, 2006

Grape Jammin'


Few things are as easy as making grape jam. Truly. You've heard the adage "as easy as pie," an old saying I could easily argue against from my own experience. Jam is not only simple to make but a long way from the annoyance of the fuss and extra steps of jelly bags. If you have a good pot and a countertop and a ready supply of grapes, you can make jam. But be warned, I didn't say making jam is not without a certain degree of mess but once you get organized, the process develops its own smooth rhythm. However, the unbelievable sensory experience of color, fragrance, and taste ~ as well as the satisfaction of lining a cupboard with jars of jam for gift-giving and family use ~ will make you glad for any bother. Kids will enjoy helping too ~ ours couldn't wait to be involved in each step. Everyone seems to love jam and remember that even Tom Sawyer had to whitewash his Aunt Polly's fence because he'd been caught eating jam in her pantry.



Several years ago our friend Bill told us that you couldn't make grape jam (he and his wife were prolific jelly makers). It was a challenge I was happy to take. My husband, several years before we married, installed a grape arbor along two sides of our barn. He constructed it with slender granite posts that he cut himself and cross-pieces of wood above. It is a work of art. At first he planted a variety of New York grapes which proved too fickle in New England winters. He replaced them with the Concord, a reliant and hardy stalwart and true native fruit (along with the cranberry and blueberry ~ both equally easy to transform into luscious jam or conserve).



For several years we have not had many grapes due to damp summers, improper ventilation or whatever the reason. Last year my husband cut the vines back rigorously and this year we are enjoying the fruits of his labor. Bushels and bushels of them. There are probably still a few left on the vines but we are truly graped-out. We gave some away and still we had three big 5-gallon buckets full for ourselves. I made two into grape jam and had hoped to make a third but between being sick, having my pantry book galleys back to review and attend to (more about those later), there just wasn't enough time. This is my first major grape-making attempt in almost ten years when we last had a great grape year (a few since but often not able to find the time so we have given them to our Shaker friends in Sabbathday Lake, Maine or let others come pick).



The trick of any jam is to make it in small batches. Grapes have natural pectin and you can utilize that to its best advantage if you don't cook too much at once. I've learned from experience that as tempting as it is to quadruple your efforts into a large stock pot, it is best to go no more than double on a recipe. I've found my small blue Le Creuset is the perfect size for a double batch and contributes to a a good thick blend. Have your kids help with the mouly-ing! [My husband is an expert picker and de-stemmer, too.]



4 cups grapes (free of stems--no need to wash them if you don't spray)
3 cups sugar

Mix grapes and sugar in a sturdy stockpot. Bring to a boil on medium heat while stirring occasionally (make sure there are no pockets of sugar to stick to the bottom). Once boiling, turn down to low and cook for 20 minutes. Pour grape mixture into mouly and work through into a clean pot (the blade will turn and push at the same time). Mouly the mixture until pulp is pressed through: you will be left with a lovely and sticky goop of seeds and skin. Discard. Stir the thickened jam (the consistency of a heavy syrup or molasses) and pour into clean and sterilized jars (a dishwasher works great for this). Can in hot boiling water bath for 15-20 minutes according to canning instructions. One batch makes about 3 1/2 cups and the jam will thicken up as it cools.

The rich, full grapey taste will be like nothing you've ever had from the store. You see, easy as jam! Now, to better learn that pie crust so I can make a grape pie...another delight (but one that involves de-seeding the little pulpy things). Maybe next year.

Red, Ripe Apples


Last week it was "Apple Day" at my children's school. As our youngest is in first grade this year, it was particularly special for him to participate. The day is devoted to the wonders of the apple! The kids make apple pies to bring home, play games with apples, even write a newspaper about apples. A few days later I went up to one of my favorite fall destinations: Gould Hill Orchards in Contoocook, New Hampshire. They had not only saved a bushel of Winesaps for me but I was able to pick up some Rhode Island Greenings for pie-making (my friend Rosemary is planning to teach me her perfect crust technique--I am a miserable crust-maker but can make a sublime apple crisp). I forgot some of the chestnut crabapples and will just have to go back to get some for Thanksgiving stuffing.

With grape jam-making behind me (see separate entry), I can now focus on putting up quarts and quarts of applesauce! My boys won't eat any applesauce except the kind we make together. I can think of no better compliment.

Here is an excerpt from a recent article I wrote for the October 2006 issue of "The Occasional Moose", a monthly publication of The Monadnock Ledger-Transcript:


A few years ago we discovered Gould Hill Orchards in Contoocook while on the hunt for the Stayman Winesap (a small, crisp and spicy October apple—my favorite for sauce or pie). The orchards grow nearly 100 types of apples and other fruits, including many with endearing and old-fashioned names like Sheep Nose, Rhode Island Greening, Roxbury Russet, and Blue Pearmain—even the diminutive and lovely Chestnut Crabapple. Now called heirlooms, these once prevalent apples were grown on American farms for different uses and have been revived for specialty markets today because of their distinctive tastes, color, and form.

In the farm stand each apple variety is described by taste and suggested culinary use and you can readily assemble a sampler bag of heirlooms to bring home for your own apple tasting. Gould Hill Orchards also press and sell an intoxicating cider blend. More familiar apples are also available and you can pick your own while overlooking a beautiful sweep of orchards and a panoramic mountain view to the north. Children, especially, will enjoy The Little Nature Museum in the large barn of this historic farm. Not far up from Henniker near Routes 202 and 89, you can call or consult their website for directions.