Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It Must Be Jelly ‘Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That: Part 1

Shortly before we were married, my now-husband planted a Concord grapevine in the back yard. It didn’t produce much other than leaves for the first few years, but last year it finally taunted us with a few tiny, stunted, green grapes. This summer, however, the vine came into its own and we discovered a month or so ago that it was covered with bunches and bunches of fat grapes.

Over the past couple of weeks, the grapes have turned a luscious, rich purple and have begun to send a wonderful, sweet, fruity aroma wafting around the garden. So yesterday morning, I grabbed a basket and a pair of scissors and harvested our first official batch of grapes.

I have always heard that Concord grapes are quite tart and full of seeds, so the best way to use them is to make jelly. Although my grandmother had an extensive garden and a larder that was always chock full of fruits and vegetables and jellies and jams and preserves that she’d canned herself, and during my childhood my mother did some canning on occasion as well, canning is a culinary endeavor I’ve never tried myself. So when I decided to try putting some Concord grape jelly up in jars, I did what I always do when I try something new: I asked for advice on Facebook.

My Facebook friends were, as always, more than up to the task. They sent me recipes, advice, and – possibly most helpful of all – links to online videos that walk the viewer through the whole process, step by step. One of the earliest bits of advice I got was not to wait too long between harvesting the grapes and making the jelly, to avoid attracting fruit flies, so without further ado, I printed out one of the simpler (and smaller batch) recipes I had found, glanced at a video or two, and got to work.

The first step seemed pretty easy: strip the stems from 3-1/2 pounds of Concord grapes and wash them. But how does one measure 3-1/2 pounds of grapes? Obviously, with a scale. I don’t have a kitchen scale that goes up to 3-1/2 pounds, so I went with the only other scale I have in the house: my bathroom scale. I carefully lugged it downstairs to the kitchen and placed the basket of grapes on it, figuring I’d weigh the basket afterwards and subtract. However, there wasn’t enough weight to trigger the electronic scale. No problem, the heavy stockpot I planned to boil the grapes in must weigh enough to register, right? Nope. Undaunted by this complication, I took one for the team and stepped on the scale myself. (Believe me, for any woman over forty with two children who’s not an athlete or a supermodel, this is a true sacrifice.) After the initial shock of seeing those numbers, I weighed myself once more holding the stockpot, and a bit of simple math showed that the pot weighed exactly four pounds.

Okay, now I was ready to start picking grapes. So I picked. And I picked. And I picked. And I weighed. One pound. Only ONE pound? I felt like I must have cleaned about eight pounds by that point. So I picked some more. And some more. And I weighed again. And on and on, until it seemed like I’d been picking grapes for the better part of the day (it had actually been about 45 minutes). But I finally got the scale up to 3-1/2 pounds of grapes (which was, quite conveniently, exactly the amount of grapes I had picked), and I was ready to move on to Step 2: Mashing and Boiling.

Little did I know how satisfying it is to mash grapes! With those firm skins, I expected a nice “pop” reminiscent of bubble wrap with each application of my potato masher (real canners probably have a better tool, but for my purposes, the masher worked just fine), but instead I got a loud, juicy, satisfying “SQUELCH!!” And the more I mashed, the squelchier it got. In direct opposition to the picking part of the process, I felt like I’d only been mashing for a few seconds when I glanced at the clock and realized it had been a full 20 minutes. My grapes were now a juicy, pulpy, seedy, green-and-purple sludge, so I stirred in a bit more water and set the pot on the stove to boil. Checking it a few minutes later, the juice was boiling merrily, stirring up a foamy froth and releasing even more of the grapes’ rich, fruity, sweet-tart aroma. After ten minutes, I turned off the heat and got ready for Step 3: Straining.

Carefully balancing the metal strainer over the largest mixing bowl I had, I poured out the steaming sludge. Rivers of a pinkish-purple liquid ran into the bowl, releasing steam as it poured. With the help of a big plastic spoon, I mushed and mashed the sludge against the bottom of the strainer to get out every last drop of juice. Smearing and squishing like I was spreading peanut butter, I finally satisfied myself that I had extracted every bit of juice that I was going to get.

And then came the hardest step of all: Waiting. I had to leave this bowl of gorgeous nectar overnight to cool, so that my jelly, once made, wouldn’t form crystals. And I’m sorry to say, that means that you, my reader, will also have to wait until tomorrow for the next installment of my jelly-making saga…

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