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Gramps & grapes.

22 Sep

'Red' looking dapper.

This is my grandfather, known to friends and family as Gramps, or ‘Red’. He was born in Italy in 1901. At age 8 he boarded a boat in Palermo and sailed to Ellis Island, on the way to his final destination of Albany, NY. In Albany he met my grandmother and they had 2 daughters (the youngest would one day become my mom.) He and my grandmother lived next door to his brother and sister-in-law. And in the yard between their two houses, Concord grapes were planted.

The family mythology is that these grapes are from a parent plant that was smuggled traveled over on that boat from Italy. Except, Concord grapes are native to Northeast America. But allegedly the variety was introduced to Italy before Gramps emigrated, so I suppose it is possible. I’m certainly not going to be the one who calls shenanigans on a great story. Regardless of where the plants originated, the arbor inspired memories of home. And over the years family members used its bounty to make jelly, juice, and (probably questionable) wine.

grape arbor

This year I decided to get in on the action. Concord grapes typically ripen near the end of September, so I stopped at the house (now owned by my Aunt) a couple of days ago. Unfortunately I arrived about a week too late. The smell of fermentation was heavy in the air and it was pretty slick and squishy as I walked along, searching in vain for decent bunches. I gamely filled up my spaghetti pot anyway, determined to make at least one jar of jam. When I got home I patiently washed and sorted the overripe bunches, picking off any good grapes, salvaging as much as I could. I ended up with a bit over 2 lbs of usable fruit.

So, what did I make? A recipe from the 1953 book Old Time Pickling and Spicing Recipes for Spiced Concord Grape Butter. The ever-encouraging Stephen came over to help me through my first time making something that needed to set/gel. Our friend Alex also joined in to lend an arm (stir! stir!) and learn more about canning. From my tiny harvest we managed to fill 5 jelly jars and a wee sidecar.

Oooooh, it was tasty. Deep purple grapey goodness, with a hint of tang and spice to add depth. We tried it plain. Then we tried it on bread with peanut butter. Stephen talked about filling cakes and Alex suggested it would be good as a cheesecake topping. Funky cheese was mentioned, so we pulled out crackers and the Dorset from the Cheese Tour and spread the last leftover drops over that. The only thing I’d change would be to pick the dang grapes on time so I could have 5 times as much haul. Lesson learned: next year I’ll start checking earlier.

Gramps passed away long ago, but I’m grateful we still have this family legacy.  His birthday would have been one week from today. I’ll enjoy some delicious grape butter in his memory.

spiced grape butter

Spiced Concord grape butter = happy tastebuds


Spiced Concord Grape Butter
Old Time Pickling and Spicing Recipes by Florence Brobeck 

3 lbs grapes
1/2 c cider vinegar
3 c sugar
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp salt

Press grapes out of skin and save skins and pulp. Cook pulp, covered in agate or enamel kettle [note: I used a non-reactive pot] until soft, about 10 minutes. Stir frequently with enamel or wooden spoon. Rub cooked pulp through sieve to remove seeds. Heat vinegar, sugar, spices, and salt together in kettle, add skins and sieved pulp. Cook over low heat, boiling gently for about 20 minutes, and stirring constantly though slowly. When juice thickens to jamlike consistency, pour into hot sterile glass jars, seal at once. [note: I processed for 10 minutes]

Makes 2 pints.


My new raised beds!

20 Sep

two raised beds

This past weekend I harvested the remaining tomatoes and cleared out my containers, which was a bit sad. When I left for Sunday’s swap there were saw noises coming from the garage, and I came home to two cedar plank raised beds built by a certain handy (and handsome) man replacing the stretch previously occupied by containers! Time to start composting again and dream up next year’s garden. I’m thinking less tomatoes, no peppers, same amount beans and way more greens. What do you plant in your backyard?

A “green” alternative for seasoning wood.

9 Sep

Ikea GROLAND: Seasoned v. Unseasoned

I’m adamant about keeping the wood in my kitchen cared for, and I’ve long relied on mineral oil to season and protect. Thursday’s post about “herbal oil” on Re-Nest was the first time I’d considered the possibility of greener alternatives.

The product mentioned, BioShield Herbal Oil #2, comes in at a much higher unit price for household sizes: $7.50 for 3.4 oz (!) or $17.50 for 25.4 oz, compared to $5.29 for 16 oz of CVS branded mineral oil. Is this just capitalizing on the “green” movement? Or is this fancy version of linseed oil significantly better for the environment and/or oneself? I’d be willing to sacrifice some performance and some pennies if there’s a major difference. My amateur sleuthing (i.e. scanning wikipedia) isn’t helping to clarify much.

Until I learn more I doubt I’ll throw out the bottle of mineral oil I’m using now, but maybe when the container’s empty I’ll experiment with something new.

Surprise rhubarb!

1 Jun
hidden rhubarb

In the game of homeownership surprise rhubarb is way better than surprise asbestos.

M’s mom was on the deck scoping out our plants and said, “Hey! You’ve got rhubarb!”

Me: “I do?!”

Surprise! Turns out there are two big plants tucked along the side of the deck, hidden behind lilies and rhododendron. I’m not sure why it was planted there, it’s a bit of a shady spot, and getting to it requires walking through other plants. I’d like to try to make something with it, though, so I’ll just step gingerly. The kitchen isn’t completely settled yet, so it’s probably best to stay simple. Maybe rhubarb liqueur, or a rhubarb syrup? Now, where did I unpack the heavy-bottomed pot?…

Our new place.

31 May

Hipstamatic pic by Claudia, who helped us move in.

I officially vacated my apartment last Monday, and M. turned in his own apartment keys yesterday. We’ve shacked up, Albany residents for the foreseeable future. Since the move it’s been a blur of cleaning, unpacking, arranging, re-arranging, meeting neighbors, planting, planning, painting… the list of to-dos seems endless. But I’ve never been so happy to be so exhausted.

It feels great to be home.

Caring for your wood.

11 May

[Note: republishing a post I wrote for my old blog, Eat In Albany… it’s still a topic that’s important to me, so I’m giving it a new home here!]

In my misguided youth I’d blithely buy a wooden cutting board, use it for a year or so while it grew drier and drier and more and more stained and nicked. Then I’d start thinking it looked gross and would throw it out, or perhaps I’d accidentally leave it in the sink soaking in water and the thirsty wood would suck up too much moisture and crack and then I’d throw it out. Looking back I’m a bit embarrassed. But I just didn’t know any better.

Then a woman named Frances took me in hand and taught me her ways. Not only did I learn to care for my boards, but I stopped being fearful of butcher block counters and tables, too. Now, I’m not claiming to be the ultimate expert on the care and maintenance of wood. But the following simple techniques, built on from Frances’ first lessons, have been working for me for years. And I haven’t had to chuck anything since.

  1. Clean
    Google will provide you with plenty of opinions on how to keep wood clean and sanitary. For me the everyday answer is soap and water. If extra vigilance is needed I’ll wipe down the surface with full strength vinegar. For lingering onion and garlic odors I use ‘The Frances Method’ which consists of scrubbing with a lemon that’s been cut in half, letting it sit a bit, then wiping it off.
  2. Sand
    To remove roughness and nicks use the finest sandpaper you can find and rub in the direction of the grain to smooth the surface. This will help with stubborn stains, too. Sand with a light hand all over vs. focusing on one spot in order to keep things even. When finished, wipe down surface with a barely wet cloth to remove dust.
  3. Season
    Apply a thin coat of oil, wiping with the grain. Forget the fancy branded wood treatment stuff, just get regular old mineral oil. I get mine from our local CVS. Don’t freak out that they sometimes keep it in the laxative section, you won’t be ingesting it in any significant amount.
    Let the oil soak in for a bit, then wipe away any excess. If it’s been a while you may need to do this a few times. But, please note: if your wood is really dried out don’t try to make up for it by slopping on a lot of oil! Be sparing and build up coats gradually. Too much moisture too quickly is the culprit that causes cracks–the same reason you don’t want to let your boards soak in the sink.
    I usually treat my wood about once a month, more like once a week in the winter when the heat is on.
  4. “Seal”
    The prep surface of my island will get an extra step after seasoning: beeswax. For this I did splurge on a premixed mineral oil/beeswax blend, but you can mix your own (Google if you’re feeling motivated). The beeswax makes the surface slightly more water-resistant, fills in tiny nicks, and helps keep moisture in the wood.

In the photo you can see the difference in color between my butcher block island’s seasoned tabletop and the untreated legs–


Ikea GROLAND: Seasoned v. Unseasoned

Bottom line: don’t treat wood like it’s disposable. With a little easy maintenance you’ll be able to love it for years.