Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Summer's Echo

Ahh, dear reader, I've missed you. Hello! I hope our sabbatical has been fruitful and peaceful for you, and that you're flourishing despite this difficult economy... or at the very least, eating well. This return post is due in part to my dad, who informed me he enjoys reading my posts even though he has zero desire to cook anything I talk about. In that spirit, I give you a story about how to make grape jelly. I imagine no one who reads this will be buying jelly jars anytime soon, but it should be be a delightful romp for us all.
Without further ado...

We begin with the grapes. Because home canning uses such simple ingredients, it's important to have the best. My dear friends Tanya and Erik have a house once owned by an old Italian man who brought grape vines from his homeland to make wine. He also planted fig, orange, grapefruit and lemon trees; they pretty much live in an urban orchard. Their vines run wild and all the grapes burst forth at the same time, too many for any one family to eat.

So when the vines explode I come with buckets and fight the spiders for the best grapes I've ever eaten.
I always pick the fruit in the late afternoon, when the light is most golden and warm. After a few minutes of chatting, Tanya usually goes back to the house to check on tiny Sadie, and then it's the grape vines and me, alone, bathing in the afternoon sun. I pull the clusters off the vine the same way people have for thousands of years, and in that moment I am no different from any of them. I feel the silence of the trees and the ground, disturbed only by the buzzing of drunken bees, and drink in the colors of pale, delicate periwinkle to a deep and lush velvet purple. There is a simplicity and connectedness I feel there, back and forwards in time, and up and down to the fiery gold above and the cool earth beneath.

[Pause. Breathe.]
To resume with the process: This year I got 55 cups of grapes, a great haul. Do you know how long it takes to de-spider, pluck and wash 55 cups of grapes? I do. It takes TWO hours... Next year I'm getting a jelly intern, jeez.

Then you briefly boil the grapes before turning your kitchen into a serial killer's den. (Yeah, you read that right.)

Every time I do this, all I can envision are heads in those bags.

Anyway, this is an area where crafting skills come in handy. I guess someone sells a product called "jelly bags," but not in the city of Los Angeles, my friends. So I bought lengths of cheesecloth (four yards), layered them in a cross shape and then tried to hang them up with kitchen twine. Except, oh, I have no kitchen twine. sigh. You know what else works as kitchen twine? Cords to electronic devices that you no longer own. That's right, that day they got a promotion from 'junk in drawer' to 'no-cost twine.' Sweet!

So then you let the bags hang for a couple hours or overnight. Here is something that makes me crazy: All the books say the same thing, "DON'T SQUEEZE THE BAG." In canning terms, it seems to be the equivalent of, "Whatever you do, don't push the red button!"
I don't know about you, but the minute someone says that, what do I desperately need to do? SQUEEZE THE BAG. It's all I can think about. It's all I want. It would feel soooo good. And yet, I DON'T. Why not? Because I didn't wash and de-spider 55 cups of grapes to f-- it up now. Damn!
Whew. That was a close one.

"When color is at its richest, form is at its fullest." -C├ęzanne

Then I put all the juice in the fridge for a couple days because I'm sick of grapes. I need my kitchen back.
Did I mention this makes the most delicious grape juice ever on earth? Complex, deep, rich. I sip this juice and understand why early Christians used it to represent the blood of Christ- if I tried this in church I'd be a convert too. Turns out it's also divine in cocktails. So then the challenge becomes not to drink more than a cup or two- there's jelly making to be done!
For you mathematicians out there, this year I got 22 cups of juice for my troubles. (I'll include an equation at the end. Hot.)

So before I go nuts and throw a party with the best grape punch on earth, the jelly making begins!

Homemade grape jelly consists of just a few things: grape juice, a little water, sugar, lemon juice and some cut up apples. You may be wondering, why apples? The answer is cool: grapes don't have enough natural pectin (a soluble dietary fiber that causes jams and jellies to firm up and take that gel-like viscosity). You can buy powdered pectin for canning, or you can use the pectin that occurs naturally in other fruits. Apples have a lot- I say, why not go the natural route? It increases the cooking time a little, but if I'm going to the trouble to do this from scratch then I want it to be the real deal. No factory-made shortcuts. I want it Great Grandma Pat-style.

Meanwhile, I sterilized the jars. They say you can wash them in soapy water, but I'd just as soon dunk them in boiling water, it's quicker.

After the jelly has boiled for a while, you start skimming off the scummy foam just like you do for chicken stock. Except this scum looks like a silly purple cloud.

And these are the tools of this sticky, sticky trade:

After what feels like 42 hours of some weird facial-by-jelly boiling (it's at this point that I start having abusive thoughts: Why am I doing this to myself? I can buy this at Trader Joe's for $3! This is not lucrative! This is not efficient! I've entered some sick Twilight Zone, my jelly is f--ed up, it will never set and I shall spend all of eternity in this sticky, steamy cauldron of a kitchen!):

the jelly finally, finally starts to set, and it's time to start pouring it into jars.
See the difference in color between the initial grape juice and the ready-for-jars jelly?
(At 1am, this is a profound moment.)

Then, the ladling into the hot sterilized jars begins. Here is my late night attempt at an artistic perspective:

And here is what it actually looks like:

I fill up the rack with full jars of jelly, their lids screwed fingertip tight (just loose enough that air bubbles can escape, thus they won't explode in the pot), lower them into the roiling depths and wait 15 minutes while they're processed. It takes several batches, and I should note that by this point both I and my kitchen are completely covered in a thin layer of delicious purple stickiness. I believe I legally qualify as a grape now. My arms stick to the counter. *sigh*

When the time is up, I carefully transfer the jars to a towel-covered table in a non-drafty portion of my kitchen-- which also helps avoid jars exploding. Who knew making jelly was so high stakes? Look at these babies, they're gorgeous:

Then comes the most satisfying sound on earth (or at least at 2am in my kitchen): Thhhhhunk! Thhhhhunk! Thhhhhunk! Thhhhhunk! As the jars cool, the lids seal themselves and make that sound. (It's similar to opening a Snapple bottle.)

Then I shower, pass out and dream of ANYTHING BUT JELLY. Later, when I'm rested, I make cute labels for the jars.

For you mathematicians, here is this year's equation: 55 cups of grapes + 4 yards of cheesecloth = 22 cups of juice, which ultimately = 17, 8-ounce jars of The Best Grape Jelly On Earth. Yes!

But the best part of the jelly making process? It comes months later, nay just days before Thanksgiving on a freezing rainy Sunday when I open a jar and sit down with my toast and coffee. They say God gave us memories so we could have roses in December, but I say God gave us jelly so we can taste the sweet warmth of summer on even the coldest, shiveriest morning.