This project started when I stopped at the produce store for a few things, and as I was checking out, the saleswoman asked if I wanted some of the grapes she had sitting by the register for a euro a bag. I asked if they had seeds and she said yes, so I said no, thanks.
So yeah, I’m greatly exaggerating my communicative ability – she said a whole bunch of words I didn’t understand but I did catch “Trauben” and “ein Euro,” and it helped that she was also gesturing toward the bags of grapes, and then I wracked my brain for the word for seeds, remembered that pumpkin seed bread is Kürbiskernbrot, and came up with “ummmmm, Kerne?” with a questioning sort of inflection, and at her “ja,” responded, “nein, danke.”
I was putting my purchases in the car when I remembered the half-empty jar of delicious Ginger Grape Jelly that Kara sent us from Reid’s Orchard in PA. Why not try to make my own? I went back in the store and asked the lady if the grapes would be good for jam. Yes, exaggerating again, although at least I knew the word “Konfitüre” from buying jam in the grocery store – but she knew what I meant and nodded, “genau, ja, ja” and we were in business.
I had never made grape jam before, so once I got home, I turned to the trusty Farm Journal Home Freezing and Canning book that my mother-in-law gave me back in the late 70s. The grape preserving recipes all said to slip the skins, but the skin on these grapes just wouldn’t slip off. I went online to research further and that’s when I learned that the American Concord-type grape traditionally used for jam and jelly is a “slip-skin” grape, and I obviously had some kind of European “tight-skin” wine grapes. Hmmmm. This called for more research.
The method I settled on to extract the goodness from the grapes is described in greater detail in this Grape Preserves recipe. Although the Reid’s Orchard jelly is really good, I like a little more body in my fruit spreads, so I decided to include grape pulp as well as juice.
First, I mashed the grapes with a potato masher. I started out putting a layer of grapes in the bottom of a shallow plastic container but quickly realized the juice was going to squirt out all over the place so I swapped it out for a deeper container, and that helped contain some of the spray. I stemmed a bunch at a time, squashed them with the masher, and dumped them into a big heavy stainless steel pot (the same one that serves as my make-shift canner). The whole grape-squashing process reminded me of the scene in A Walk in the Clouds after the harvest, when the girls jump in a giant wooden vat to stomp the grapes to a pulp, and I bet it must have been a really fun scene to shoot. I settled for humming the sound track as my grapes popped under the potato masher, and it was a strangely satisfying little task that yielded a surprising quantity of juice.
After all the grapes were mashed, I brought them to a boil, stirring once in a while, and let them simmer for 15 minutes. By this time they smelled fabulous and the juice had turned a beautiful deep plummy-purple. There was probably a gallon of mashed grapes and juice. I let it cool and then used a food mill with the fine screen inserted to separate the seeds and skins from the good stuff. A few seeds snuck through the mesh, but I fished them out when I was transferring the juice/pulp to my jam cooking pot. If you don’t have a food mill you can use a wire sieve lined with cheesecloth and push the grape pulp through with a glass or small round bowl. I ended up with 2 ½ quarts of thick dark purple juice. I used 7 cups for this jam and put the other 3 cups in the freezer for another time.
My husband thought he would like a stronger ginger flavor than the Reid’s version, so I decided to use all the ginger I had (probably not quite ¼ pound). From my reading I thought it would be a good idea to use commercial pectin, and I had Sure Jell brand. Well, I’m normally an instructions-reader, but for some reason, although I’ve only made French-style long-cook jams and jellies with no added pectin until now, I thought I knew what I was doing. I mixed the package of pectin into the sugar and stirred it into a roughly equal quantity (by volume) of the grape-ginger blend. Then I looked at the instructions and learned I should have mixed the pectin into the juice and brought it to a full boil before adding the sugar. At that point I figured, what the heck? and kept on jammin’, and the result is perfect – a very intense grape and ginger flavor with a spreadable but not runny consistency. I ended up with four big jars and four small ones, and I think this jam will taste great with brie or slathered on fresh hot corn bread. Here’s how to make it:
First, get the jars and lids ready. Of course, they need to be clean and hot; an easy method is to put the jars in a water-bath canner and boil them for a while. I also recommend processing jam in a boiling water bath for five minutes. I know some people skip this step and depend on the heat from the jam mixture to seal the jars, but I think if you are going to this much effort, it is better to go a step further to ensure that you can safely store the finished product on the pantry shelf (for more info, see all the tips from the National Center for Home Food Preservation at UGA, including recommended adjustments to processing time for higher altitudes). I don’t have a real canner, but any big pot with a lid will work, just so it is deep enough that you can cover the jars with boiling water. You can put a folded towel in the bottom if you don’t have a rack that will fit inside.
Gingery Grape Jam
- 7 cups grape juice/puree mixture (see explanation above – it is really more of a thick juice than a puree)
- 2/3 cup lemon juice (bottled juice is fine for this)
- A big chunk of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced or finely grated (I had about 2/3 cup when the slices were pressed down into a cup; it made a very gingery jam, so use less if you want a milder ginger flavor)
- 7 cups sugar
- 1 package Sure Jell Pectin (I’m sure any brand will work, but the jam recipes I found online seemed to vary the quantity of fruit somewhat, depending on the pectin brand)
Put the grape puree into a large pot – I would go with stainless steel rather than aluminum, and the one I used will hold 6 quarts. Place the ginger slices in a blender with the lemon juice and a cup of the grape juice and process until the ginger is chopped into tiny little particles, or you can grate the ginger instead (we’re all about power tools around here). Pour the ginger/juice into the jam pot. Measure the sugar into a separate bowl, stir in the pectin, then stir the sugar mixture into the fruit (I don’t recommend simply measuring the sugar straight into the fruit cup by cup, because it is too easy to lose count).
Stir over medium heat until the sugar is completely dissolved, then you can increase the heat some and stir occasionally until it comes to a full rolling boil that you cannot stir down. While the juice mixture is heating, get the water going for the boiling water bath.
The pectin package recipe says to boil the fruit mixture exactly one minute, and the Grape Preserve recipe I found says exactly two minutes, but I probably let it boil hard for 3-4 minutes. I don’t have a reason based on deep insights into kitchen chemistry and physics, but it just seemed right, and it worked.
Carefully ladle the mixture into hot jars, leaving about ½ inch head space at the top of the jar (I bought a jar funnel this summer and it greatly simplified jar-filling). Wipe the jar rims with a damp paper towel and tighten the lids, using a folded paper towel to protect your hand from the hot jar. Carefully lower the jars into the boiling water, cover, and process for 5 minutes – a jar lifter is another really handy little tool. At the end of the processing time, set the jars on a folded towel to cool, and soon you will hear that rewarding pop, pop, pop of the jars sealing.
Yield: four 230 ml. (approximately ½ pint) and four 440 ml. (not quite a pint) jars, plus another cup or so that I poured directly into a little jelly bowl and refrigerated.
One last tip – if you live in a hard-water area like I do, the jars might be covered with mineral deposits. After the water in the canner cools, pour in a half-cup or so of any kind of cheap vinegar and dip the jars in for a minute. Rinse and dry, and they will be nice and clear.