Muscadine Grapes: A Mystery Unraveling

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In 2002 the New York Times published a food article detailing a rediscovery of native Eastern grape varieties among chefs throughout the city (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/02/dining/american-grapevines-set-cooks-buzzing.html). Chefs in the article espoused the grapes’ unique flavors, and superior cooking characteristics to California and European grapes. The Eastern United States is the native home to a number of grape varieties including Concord grapes in the Northeast and Muscadine grapes in the South. Most of us have long been indifferent to these native varieties that have been here longer than we have, as we are unfamiliar with them and unsure how to use them. “Do we eat them raw, but the seeds are so annoying!” “Do we cook them, but how?” Thirteen years later, in 2015, it would be stretch to say that these grapes have taken off and are now popular in food culture. But, as local food and farmers’ markets continue to gain in popularity, these native grapes do seem to be gaining ground.

Muscadine grapes are native to the southern United States, as they take very well to our humid and hot summers. They have tough skins and are more acidic and less sweet than the table grape varieties that we are accustomed to eating from California. They also have seeds, which turns many people off to fresh eating. However, there is something classically southern and romantic about these grapes. The vines themselves are perfectly beautiful. They drape over trellises, occupy terrace walls, and line garden walkways throughout the south. Scuppernong grapes (a variety of Muscadine) are even the North Carolina state fruit! So, how do we best enjoy this fruit that we have chosen to represent our own state? Like a lot of things in Southern cooking, the best results are often achieved by taking it slow and enjoying the process.

Sauces, jams, jellies, and even wine are where the southern Muscadine truly shines. Sweet Muscadine sauces are the base in many southern desserts, like Muscadine Grape Hull Pie. They can be cooked into jams or jellies and stored throughout the winter. Many native southerners have been making Muscadine wine for generations. However, as documented in the 2002 New York Times article, their applications can extend beyond sweets, even into savory entrees. Whether you are interested in charting new territory with our state fruit, or just enjoying some classic southern sweets, the Muscadine is a fruit worth getting to know.

Muscadine Jam:
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This recipe for muscadine jam is very easy to make, and is a nice introduction to the grape. Muscadines have enough natural pectin that additional pectin is not required to thicken the jam, however it will not fully congeal, and is best described as a thin jam. We used this jam in our Apple, Walnut, and Muscadine Jam recipe kit this week, which we highly recommend, it is awesome! This is a fun recipe to try with kids, they will enjoy the process, and you can whip up some homemade PB & J’s as a reward!

Total time: 45 minutes
Makes about 1 cup of jam

• 1 lb. Muscadine Grapes
• 1/3 cup sugar

1. Boil muscadine grapes for about 4-5 minutes to soften them up, until some of the grapes just start to split.

2. Drain grapes and toss them in an ice bath to cool them down enough for handling.

3. With a paring knife, score one side of each grape and squeeze out the flesh. The scoring may be unnecessary if the grape has already begun to split. Reserve grape hulls (skins) in a separate bowl.

4. Transfer grape flesh to a saucepan, and put over medium heat. The flesh will start to soften. Mash them down with a fork to expose the seeds. Once flesh has been mashed and the seeds exposed, remove from heat and set aside to cool.

5. While you wait for the grape flesh to cool, bring a few cups of water to boil in a separate saucepan, and boil grape hulls to soften. Remove from heat and drain after about 10 minutes.

6. Once the grape flesh is cool enough, pick out the large seeds. Once the seeds have been removed, transfer grape flesh and grape hulls to a food process. Run the food processor until grapes have been pureed.

7. Heat pureed grapes in a saucepan over medium heat, add 1/3 cup sugar (more to taste), stirring frequently. Heat for 5-6 minutes until thickened into a thin jam, the color will darken as it cooks.

8. Transfer the jam to a glass jar or container and refrigerate. Keep for up to two weeks.

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