06 October 2011

Concord Grapes - One of Autumn's Sweetest Gifts

Last week, in my post on foraging, I promised to write more about making Concord grape jam with grapes that are ready to be harvested this time of year. Concord grape jam has such intense flavor and fragrance - there is nothing else like it! While we are picking the grapes, the aromas wafting from the vines and even down the road are strikingly vivid.
 Looking up under the wild vines, you see the grapes hanging down, plump and fragrant.
 The baskets we use for picking the grapes happen to be made out of grapevines, themselves, which somehow adds to the fun of it!

Grapes don't have much pectin in them, but (as with all fruits) the less ripe ones have more pectin than ripe ones. So I always try to combine some under-ripe berries with the riper ones. I also happen to like that they make the jam just a bit tart - not overly sweet.

The first step in making jam is to pick through the grapes, discarding any that are past their prime. They can be very ripe, but you don't want anything that is brown or moldy or smells "off". Then I rinse them in a strainer, under cold water. (Technically, if you are using organic produce you picked yourself, washing shouldn't be necessary, but I always do anyway.) Only wash the grapes right before you use them. You don't want them to become waterlogged.

Making any jam is all about proportions and cooking time. For Concord grape jam, the proportions are easy: 5 lbs. (2 1/3 kg) grapes to 5 cups (1 1/4 liters) of sugar. I measure my grapes on a digital scale, after I've picked through them and removed the stems, but before rinsing them.

This year, I made two different batches of grape jam, one incorporating the pulverized skins and one with the skins discarded after they had cooked. The batch with the skins produced a thicker jam, but no difference in flavor. The following pictures are of the former process:

If you do incorporate the skins, you must first separate the skin from the meat of each grape. This is surprisingly easy, as these grapes are of the slip-skin variety. Just a squeeze and the grape pops open...the inner grape will actually shoot across the kitchen if you're not careful where you aim! (Don't let your kids catch onto this fun little fact!) This part does take a while, which is why some people prefer to skip the skin separating stage.
 You end up with little Pac-Man shaped skins!
(You can always spot someone who likes to prowl around in the woods, by the scratches on their arms!)

Then, before cooking the grapes, pulverize the skins in a food processor, with a small portion of the sugar, before adding them to the pan with the grape meats and the rest of the sugar. I also add a generous splash of lemon juice. This helps activate the natural pectin in the grape skins. As happens so often, once I got into making the jam, I completely forgot to take pictures. However (luckily) Jessie, the author of one of my favorite food blogs, The Hungry Mouse, posted a superb description of this process, including her own great photos. Also included is this video submitted by one of Jessie's readers:

One thing I do a little differently, is to add some additional liquid fruit pectin to the pot, if needed (and I find it usually is). I add it sparingly, as I don't like my jams to be stiff. As I said above, cooking time is an essential part of making any jam. If you don't want to use pectin (although there is no reason not to, as it is completely natural) then you need to simmer your jam for longer, to reduce the amount of liquid in it, thereby thickening it. The main reason I add pectin is that I find the grape flavor is fresher when not cooked so long. I hate to smell so much of the flavor goodness going up in steam!

If you decide to go the easier route and just use the grapes whole in the jam pot, then you want to crush them with a potato masher. In either case, I strain the jam through a finer sieve than shown in the video, because, while the seeds may seem huge in your mouth, they are still small enough to pass through the holes of many colanders. They are quite bitter, if bitten into, so I like to keep them out of my finished product.

The finished jam has an incredible perfume to it, evoking for me, a combination of sweet red wine and jasmine flowers in full bloom - very heady.

I always end up making a lot of jam (and many different kinds), so I do process my filled jars in a boiling water bath, just to insure that the airtight seals will last a long time. Here's what we still have, after giving away quite a few jars:
Just divine!

Okay, so now I'm dating myself, but who remembers begging their mom to buy Welch's grape jelly in the Flintstone glasses? I always find it shocking when I discover something from my youth available at antique sales! LOL

Bon appetit!
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