“The juice of the grape is the liquid quintessence of concentrated sunbeams.”
Thomas Love Peacock
Grapes are a berry of a deciduous woody vine of the flowering plant Vitis. The name is old English and comes from the tool used to harvest them—“grap hook.” Grapes are eaten fresh, or squished for wine or juice. They are cooked for jelly, dried, or fermented. Even the seeds of the grapes are pressed for their precious oil. Cultivation of this multi-functional fruit has been traced back 8,000 years to the country Georgia. Wine and grapes are depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics dating back 5,000 years. Also significant to the Greeks, Romans, and Christians—grapes appear in the sculptures of Dionysus, the god of agriculture, Bacchus, the god of lust and wine, and represent the blood of Christ in Christian art.
There are 8,000 varieties of grapes in the world. Most are either Vitis labrusca, the wild grapes that grow in North America, or Vitis vinifera, European grapes native to to the Middle East and Mediterreanean. They produce both male and female and are self pollinating. One grapevine can reach 50 feet in length and produce up to 40 clusters. Each cluster can contain five to 40 individual grapes. They come in green, red, black, yellow, pink, and purple colors. Grapes range in size from a pea to a ping-pong ball, with seeds or seedless (actually they do have seeds, but they do not have the hard coating and are infertile).
The oldest grape vine in the United States is called the “Mothervine”. First sighted in 1584 on Roanoke Island, VA. It’s a Scuppernong grape and the two foot thick trunk from the original vine stretches along arbors for almost one acre. Early settlers planted cuttings from this vine and developed 20 different varieties of grapes.
Many varieties of grapes grow in New York, none of which lack taste like the commercially grown miniature water balloons available in the local grocery stores year round. We are all familiar with the Concord grape, that got its name from the town in which they were developed, Concord, MA. Of the table grapes, one of the best varieties to grow in our area is Seneca white. It has excellent taste and texture and ripens around the first of September, yet will keep off the vine, refrigerated until Thanksgiving. It is cold hardy and bears a heavy crop. Some other varieties worth looking out for are: New York Muscat, Buffalo Blue, Steuban, Sheridan Blue, Yates, Urbana and Golden Muscat. Each with its own unique taste.
Wine grapes, although they have a higher sugar content, have much thicker skins which makes them unpleasant to eat. The skins are what impart most of the flavor in the wine and they contain tannins which cause your tongue to feel fuzzy and dry. Wine grapes tend to have a lot more seeds and less juicy flesh as well. Their compact, dense clusters may look enticing hanging on the manicured vines, but beware!
Grape vines are prolific when happy. Good vertical support, well drained soil, full sun as well as hard pruning and lots of air circulation are the key components in successful viniculture. They are prone to mildew and pests, including birds and insects, but in general, they are easy to care for.
Raisins are sun-dried, seedless grapes. The name is from the French language where it refers to the fresh fruit. “Grappe” which comes from our word “grape,” which refers to “grappe de raisins” or bunch of grapes. The dried “currants” you enjoy in your breakfast scones are actually a dried Zante Black Corinth grape. They are not related to red or black currants which are in the Ribes family.
Grapes are 80 percent water and one cup contains about 100 calories. They are high in vitamin C, K, B and minerals such as copper, iron, and magnesium. Most of the goodness is in the skin, so it is very important to purchase organic whenever possible.
Yeast, one of the earliest domesticated microorganisms, occurs naturally on grape skins leading to the discovery of alcoholic beverages, such as wine, but that is another article.
What can you do with grapes besides pairing them with a salty, aged Gouda?
Concord Grape Pie
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Roll out two portions of pre-made pie pastry between sheets of wax paper large enough to cover a 9-inch pie plate. Refrigerate until ready for use.
4 cups concord grapes
1 cup sugar (white granulated is best)
2 tbsp instant tapioca
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Wash and stem grapes. Squeeze the pulp out of the skins into a sauce pan, leaving the skins in a separate bowl.
Mix sugar and tapioca together in a small bowl.
Cook pulp over medium-low heat until seeds are just released, stirring often.
Using a spatula, press the pulp through a fine mesh colander into the bowl with the grape skins. Gently fold in the sugar, tapioca, and lemon juice.
Line a 9-inch pie plate with pastry. Pour in the filling. Get creative with the top of your pie—make a lattice crust, or cut fun shapes out of the pastry, like circles or stars.
Place the pie on a foil-lined tray in the middle of the oven. Bake in preheated oven for approximately 50 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and the crust is golden. Cool completely before cutting.
Grape Avocado Salsa
1 ½ cup chopped, seeded grapes
2 avocados, pitted and diced
1 small red onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
Juice of one lime
Salt to taste
Gently fold all ingredients together in a medium serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips, or as a side to rice and beans.
Roasted Grapes and Sweet Potatoes
Preheat oven to 375 degrees
4 cups whole, seedless grapes
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 medium red onion, cut into wedges
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Toss all ingredients together in a large bowl, coating evenly with olive oil and sprinkled with cumin, salt, and pepper. Roast for approximately 20-25 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Be sure to gently stir halfway through so ingredients roast evenly
Globalization has triumphed in the produce aisle. More than half the fresh fruits and one third of the vegetables in our supermarkets are imported from other countries. But anyone with taste-buds knows that just because it looks good, doesn’t mean it tastes good.
We are incredibly lucky to be living in one of the most fertile valleys in the Northeast. The soil in the Rondout Valley is called unadilla silt loam. It is a mineral rich, glacially deposited topsoil ideal for growing fruits, vegetables, and grains. Our region’s farms produce a wide variety of seasonal crops which are bursting with flavor and personality. Here is our Autumnal locavore’s dilemma.
We have so many varieties to choose from; butternut or hubbard? – or should we try kabocha, acorn, buttercup, golden nugget, delicata, pink banana, neck pumpkin, turk’s cap, Long Island cheese, cushaw, cocozelle, Rouge Vif d’Etampes and many, many other squash and pumpkin —which are technically in the same family “cucurbitaceae” varieties—in various colors, shapes and sizes. What does this all mean?
The name “squash” comes from the Narragansett Native American Indian word “askutasquash”. Originally believed to have been from Central America or Mexico, humans have used their hard shells as containers for utensils and have eaten the flesh, flowers, and young shoots raw or cooked for almost 10,000 years. Learning from the Native Americans, European settlers adopted squash as a staple in North America. They baked the squash and then cut and mixed it with animal fat, maple syrup or honey.
Saving Seeds and Pollination
The reason we have so many varieties is because people learned to save seeds from squash with the unique qualities they preferred. Many different varieties developed all over the world. Squash are pollinated by insects, so in order to avoid unwanted hybrids, you must make sure that the plant was pollinated by another member of the same variety. The first generation of fruit gets its characteristics from the mother plant, so you will indeed enjoy the delicata you had planted. But say your delicata squash was pollinated by a sugar pie pumpkin, the genes within the seeds will be altered and the following year, when you grow that seed, you will get a pumpcata, or is it a delikin? You need at least ¼ mile between squash varieties to avoid Frankensquash (unless you like that sort of experiment, who knows? You may come up with a fabulous cross that you can name after yourself … Pink Jenana d’ Etamps perhaps?).
Did you know the seeds are edible of all squash and pumpkins? The seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc and potassium, as well as iron, protein and fiber. So don’t compost them with the stringy guts… Here is what to do with them.
2 cups raw, rinsed and dried squash or pumpkin seeds
1 Tbs. olive oil
½ tsp sea salt
After cutting open the squash, scoop out the “guts”. Pick the seeds out of the stringy fiber and toss them into a colander. Rinse under cold water, then pat dry with a tea towel. Spread the seeds into a baking tray and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Mix it around until all the seeds are coated. Place into a preheated 350 degree oven and roast in the oven, stirring occasionally until they are lightly golden. Allow to cool before snacking. Pumpkin seeds are best soon after roasting.
Curried Coconut Squash Soup
1 medium kabocha squash ( about 3 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped yellow onions
2 ribs celery, sliced
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 ¼ teaspoon cumin
1 ½ teaspoon curry powder
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 can coconut milk
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock
2 teaspoons salt (more or less according to taste)
Hopefully the squash you just harvested the seeds from is a kabocha because curried, coconut squash soup is on the menu tonight and the kabocha, with its thick, solid, waxy, orange flesh that is ideal for soup. Take the two sides of your squash, rub with olive oil and place on a baking tray inside a preheated 400 degree oven for 45 minutes (or until completely soft).
Saute the onions, celery & garlic in olive oil in a heavy bottom, 8 quart soup kettle until golden brown. Sprinkle the spices into the kettle and saute until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes). Slowly add the vegetable stock and bring to a simmer.
Once the squash is soft, place the roasted flesh into the pot with the vegetables (I leave the skin on the squash for added vitamins & fiber, but you can remove it if you prefer). Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and partially cover for 8-10 minutes.
Turn the heat off, and add the coconut milk. Puree the soup with an immersion blender. Add salt & pepper to taste. Serve with chopped cilantro & a squeeze of lime juice.
Maple Cinnamon Roasted Neck Pumpkin*
8 cups cubed Neck Pumpkin (*butternut squash can be used as replacement if you can’t locate this graceful giant at your local farmers market. This squash is ideal because it is tender and juicy, yet holds its shape), about 3 lbs of peeled cubes
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp maple syrup
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp cinnamon
2 pinches cayenne
Preheat oven to 425
Line a baking 2 baking trays with aluminum foil (or use a silpat silicone liner so when the sugars caramelize it won’t be too hard to clean) Spread out the cubes evenly on the trays.
Drizzle the squash with 1 tbsp olive oil and maple syrup per sheet.
Sprinkle each sheet evenly with ¼ tsp cinnamon, salt & pinch of cayenne
Toss the squash on the sheets with clean hands to coat evenly
Place the pans in the preheated oven and roast for 30 minutes, switching racks halfway and cooking until all the squash is tender. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and turn on the broiler. Take turns placing each sheet under the broiler for 1-2 minutes to caramelize (be careful it does not burn! The sugars cause it to brown very fast).
This dish is delicious served warm or cold. As a side , or tossed onto a bed of raw spinach and dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice.
No matter what you call it – squash or pumpkin, our valley is flush with these disparate cucurbits this month. Whether you carve a jack-o-lantern or create a delicious meal, get out there and support our local farmers buy purchasing from your local farmstand.