I was sitting on the floor playing with Lucie when my mother-in-law, Jane, asked if I wanted her to bring over some grapes. They were harvesting them from their grape arbor, she said, and would we like some? I gladly accepted, not knowing what kind of grapes they were or how many we were talking about. She brought over a large basket full of concord grapes, and after tasting a few I sat down to look through my various canning and preserving cookbooks .
If you've never had fresh concord grapes, now is your chance. Concords are harvested in late September, and they are the essence of what a grape should taste like. If you've ever wondered why things that are labeled as "grape flavor" don't taste anything like grapes that you eat, it's because they taste like Concords.
To eat a concord grape, you pop it off the stem, which creates a small tear or hole at the base of this grape. Put your pursed lips against this hole, and while squeezing the skin, pop the grape into your mouth. Gently chew, spitting out the 1-3 large seeds you will find in the grape. Then repeat! I gave one to my 10-month-old, Lucie, and she seemed to like it so I sat, peeling and seeding a little pile of grapes for her. It took me about 5 minutes to do that and her about one minute to eat them.
I decided to make Grape Jam from one of my favorite canning and preserving cookbooks, Put 'Em Up. Grape jam is a little bit crazy to make, mainly because it requires you to peel the grapes first, collecting the skins in one saucepan and the insides of the grapes in another.
The reason you do this is because you eventually want the grape skins in the finished jam, but you don't want the seeds in there. It also takes a really long time-- at least an hour for that amount of grapes.
You simmer the grape flesh until it loses its shape, about 5-10 minutes. As it does that, you can see the seeds separate from the flesh. Once it simmers, you can pass it through a food mill (if you have one, which I do not) or press it through a fine mesh sieve, which is how I did it.
With a little bit of water to prevent sticking or burning, the skins simmer for longer, about 15-20 minutes. I wish you could smell what's happening in this photo, because the smell is amazing-- it smells like Welch's grape juice, and like being a kid.
Once the grapes flesh is seeded, you mix the two together and stir in some lemon juice. Because this jam has no added pectin, it can take a bit longer to get to the gel stage than the recipe says.
Sadly, this is where I stopped taking pictures. I say sadly because it would have been really helpful to photograph the gel stage or lack thereof, but this was the point where my baby woke up crying and her other mama Katie had to go--repeatedly and without nursing ability-- comfort her and get her back to sleep as I tried desperately to make the jam gel. The recipe said 10 minutes-- my jam took 40. I also learned a valuable lesson: to cook the jam until the gel stage, regardless of the time listed in the recipe. I don't think I realized that before, and I've had a couple soup-y jams that I just couldn't figure out.
I turned to Facebook for help when it seemed that my jam wasn't working, and I think my favorite advice to test for gelling (and the one that worked for me) was the freezer method. You stash a small plate in the freezer. When you think the jam might be gelled, you place a large drop on the frozen plate and let it sit for a minute, then run your finger through it. If your finger goes right through the middle like a sauce, it isn't ready. If the little bit of jam wrinkles, or pulls at the sides a bit, it has gelled.
It worked! After 40 minutes and the plate going in and out of the freezer at least five times, my jam gelled, and then I --finally!-- I processed it using the boiling water method.
It is more ruby-colored than purple once you get it out of the jar, and sweet and tart too. I was so inspired that I asked Jane if hey had any more grapes, and she came over the next day with about 30 more pounds. What did I do with 30 pounds of grapes? If you think I peeled them all, you've got another thing coming. To be continued...
Classic Grape Jam
From Put 'Em Up
8 cups grapes (about 2 pounds)
1/2 cup water
4 cups sugar
1/4 cup bottled lemon juice
1. Pinch the grapes to separate the skins from the flesh. Put skins in a large nonreactive saucepan and the flesh in a medium pan as you go. Add the water to the pot of skins and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, bring the grape flesh to a simmer until it loses shape, 5 to 10 minutes. Cool slightly and run through a food mill to remove the seeds.
3. Add the milled grape pulp to the saucepan with the skins and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Stir in the lemon juice. Bring to a boil and simmer, stirring, until you reach the gel stage, about 10 minutes. (This took me about 40 minutes. Make sure your jam is gelling before you stop cooking it, or else you will have a grape sauce rather than a jam.)
Refrigerate: Ladle into bowls or jars. Cool, cover, and refrigerate for up to 3 weeks.
Can: Use the boiling-water method. Ladle into clean, hot 4-ounce jars or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Release trapped air. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 10 minutes. Turn off heat, remove canner lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.