Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Wild grapes, cont'd.
The last time I posted something on wild grapes, I had found some growing along the chain-link fence that separates the bike path from Miller parkway, just near the stadium. I tasted one, but did not attempt to harvest any, since they were most likely covered with car exhaust and other noxious substances coming from the the road. This year, however, I found that there were many other vines growing within a mile from the place where I first laid eyes on this plant I remember from my childhood.
I finally decided that I would actually challenge myself to do the thing I didn't believe I could do: make grape jelly. For some reason, I hd always been intimidated by the thought of the effort it took to make jelly. Perhaps it was the mysterious pectin, or perhaps the thought that I would have to learn canning methods that prevented any bacteria from killing me. In any case, it was kismet that I read the chapter on wild grapes in Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus; there, he gives a recipe that just seems manageable. I also discovered that the only reason to can something is if it won't be put in the fridge and consumed within a month. These two bits of information allowed me to conquer my fear of jellies and jams.
In order to stalk some great vines and fruit, I biked almost every day near the place I had first seen the many vines growing over a 3 mile stretch on a bike trail near my house. When I had finally figured out which stretch had the nicest and ripest fruit, I called my foraging partner, Mike, and we made a date to harvest that next weekend.
Starbucks, 8 am. We caffeinated ourselves with admittedly very un-local beans, and set out to the harvesting spot. Each of us armed with plastic bags and a pair of scissors, we walked about a one and a half-mile stretch. From vine to vine we filled our bags with mostly ripened, but a some green, grapes. (Most recipes say to use a mixture since the unripe ones have more pectin in them.) When finished, we each had about 1.5 to 2 quarts of bunches of mostly dark purple, pea-sized, surprisingly insect-free grapes. We could not of course stop ourselves from eating a few, although eating is not really the right word. You mostly suck the juice and spit out the relatively large seeds and tough skin.
When I got home, I put the grapes in a big pot of water to wash them, then I drained the water and put them back in the pot. The question now was whether to boil or not to boil...Gibbons says yes and Sam Thayer, a more recent foraging expert says no. I went with Euell (No offense Sam, but Euell has been a hero of mine for a long time.)
I put enough water in the pot to almost cover the grapes but not quite. I then used a plastic potato masher, being careful not to crush the seeds, and mashed the fruit until it seemed as though all of the juice that could be crushed out, was crushed out. I then put the fruit on a medium high flame for about 15 minutes, after which I drained it in a jelly bag. I read somewhere not to squeeze the bag, but I did anyway, since there was so much more juice in the fruit left over after I drained it. I threw away the pulp and the bowl of juice was covered and placed in the refrigerator for two days, in order to let the tartrates in the grapes sink to the bottom of the bowl. This substance is not wanted and will make the jelly gritty.
After two days in the fridge, I carefully poured the juice into a pot, making sure not to get any of the silt that had settled on the bottom in the juice. I then followed Euell's recipe, which calls for a cup of sugar per cup of juice. I dissolved the sugar in the juice and cooked it until it boiled, then I dissolved some pectin (Euell's recipe does not call for pectin, but I was afraid that this grape variety did not have enough in it to really make a jelly) in a little water and put that into the juice. Once it was boiling hard for about three minutes, I took it off the stove and poured it into a sterilized pickle jar and put the lid on. As soon as it was cool enough to touch, into the refrigerator it went. The next day, it had set; the flavor is much more intense than the stuff you buy. It has a tartness reminiscent of currants. Imagine a fruit growing everywhere, but no one but the birds enjoying it! It's well worth the time to notice these little purple berries. If you're into local food, what could be more local?