Muscadines

We have a grapevine – the native southern grape, muscadine.

Now this may not seem like it matters at all, and for fifteen years it didn’t. It was growing on the back fence when we bought the house in 1997. We left it alone. It grew, the leaves turned a pretty yellow in the autumn. Good children of the South that we are, we knew what muscadines were and what to do with them, we just never paid attention.  No pruning. No fertilizing. No attention unless we happened to be in the back of the yard in late summer and ate a few. Last year my husband came inside with a handful of lovely purple muscadines, and said “You know, we have a LOT of these things.”

We picked a couple of quarts, I separated them, but I was sick so in the freezer they went. Nothing happened.

But this year, I was healthier. And there were more grapes. I mean, there were a LOT of grapes. And so it began.

We picked. Greg, having grandparents who grew muscadines, had to keep reminding me to wait until they were black to pick them. They never seemed really black to me, but my guideline was to pick them when the shine disappeared. Click on the picture to see how really lovely they are.

Ripe Muscadines

Ripe Muscadines

One of my favorite places in the world is Callaway Gardens, which is famous for azaleas and their many delicious muscadine products. (Greg and I were married in the chapel there, but I digress.) I knew what my favorite product was. When we eat at Callaway, I am always drawn to the biscuits and muscadine preserves. Found a recipe or twelve and away I went!

Labor Day weekend I put up 18 jars of preserves. The next weekend I put up 12 more. Each weekend I kept back a cup or so of fresh preserves to eat right away. I was begging people to come pick. My neighbor swears she did,  but we couldn’t even see a dent. Another friend came and picked loads, but got them home and realized she was allergic to their grapey smell. To me it smells like the grape juice I loved growing up, but she and her son both reacted – so back the muscadines came. I took two quarts to a coworker.

Two quarts of muscadines

Two quarts of muscadines

In all we had four and a half gallons of muscadines. Is this a lot from one vine? I have no idea. Six quarts are still in the freezer unprocessed. The two quarts from last summer were defrosted, but tossed. There was too much fresh to bother with them, since they didn’t smell grapey any longer.

Two more quarts of muscadines

Two more quarts of muscadines

My husband swears he doesn’t want me to touch another grape this season, but I still have six quarts of muscadines. SIX QUARTS OF MUSCADINES! Perhaps some muscadine sauce next?

 

Three quarts of muscadines

Three more quarts of muscadines, and peppers

I don’t pretend to be a recipe blogger, but here’s how I made the preserves after reading lots and lots of online recipes. Despite the length of this post, it was really pretty easy, and I’m not an experienced canner.

First, find some canning jars and lids. My recipe fills six half-pint jars. You can use old jars if the rim of the jar is smooth and crack-free and you can reuse the rings, but lids need to be new. If you live in the city, you may find canning supplies at the grocery store. For your sake, I hope so. After my local Pig sold out, I bought jars at a big box store, where most of the employees had never heard of a canning jar, and the rest had no idea where they were shelved. And if you have a lot of grapes, go ahead and buy one of those ten-pound bags of sugar you’ve always wondered about. I also bought a canning package at a big box store that had canning tongs to lift the jars out of the water, a magnet on a stick to lift the lids out of the boiling water, and a funnel the size of the jar tops. All three proved helpful.

Anyway, before you process the grapes, get the jars ready. I put my jars in the dishwasher to wash, and kept them there so they would be warm when I filled them. I washed my lids and rings, then put them in a pan of water to boil, then cut it back to simmer until I needed them.

I also got my biggest stockpot and filled it about 3/4 full of water, and started it heating. And here we go!

Take two quarts of grapes, and wash them. Set up in the sink, or somewhere else where splattered grape juice won’t matter. Get two empty bowls, a small knife, and your grapes. The goal is to separate the skins from the innards. The most important part is that all the seeds get in one bowl. It doesn’t really matter which bowl gets the juice, but most will end up with the seed sack. To do this I gave each grape a quick slit and a pinch.

Processing the grapes

Processing the grapes

Music helps this stage go faster – I hadn’t noticed how much the radio stations played “Blurred Lines” this summer until I started processing grapes. Now when I eat my muscadine preserves, I dance a little and think of Robin Thicke. Okay, back to the cooking.

After separating the grape guts from the skins, put the seed and innards mixture in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 15-18 minutes. Mine had plenty of liquid, but if you need more to keep it from sticking add a bit of water. Give them a little stir now and then to make sure they are not sticking. Stop cooking when the translucent seed sacks break down and release the seeds. I dumped the whole mess in a big strainer I had over the original bowl, and pushed the juice and pulp through with a spatula. A food mill would have been great, but I don’t have one.

While the insides of the grapes are cooking, chop the skins in a food processor or blender. The suggested size for the grape skin is the size you are willing to have on your biscuit, no larger. The skins are not going to break down in cooking, they are just going to get less tough.

Now that your saucepan is empty of grape insides, add the grape skins to the same pan. I needed about 1/2 cup of water to keep them from sticking. Bring to boil, then simmer for 18-20 minutes. You want them soft, or at least not as tough as when you started.

Cooking the skins

Cooking the skins

When the skins are ready, add back the seed-free pulp that passed through the strainer. Add 4 cups of sugar. I added a cinnamon stick or two here, as well. Cook over medium heat another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Skim the foam off the top and discard it.

Now, get your canning jars ready! With clean hands, get the jars out of the dishwasher and get six rings out of the simmering water. For me, all went on a clean dish towel. Fill each jar to about 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the top of the jar. I used the funnel I got with my canning package and a gravy ladle. When all are filled, wipe the rims with a damp paper towel – despite your best efforts, you dripped some and that may cause your seal to fail. Fish out a lid from your simmering water (that magnet on a stick really came in handy) and center it on your jar. Take a ring and screw it down until it is hand-tight.

Now you can! Make sure the water in your stockpot is hot – at least 170 degrees F. Add your jars to the water – there should be at least an inch of water over the top of the jar. Return water to 170 degrees, then after reaching temperature cover the pot and process for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and let sit for another 5 minutes. Remove jars to a rack that allows them to cool slowly, out of a direct breeze (that would be the fan I bought to keep from passing out in the kitchen while doing this). While cleaning up, listen for the wonderful sound of success – the jars popping! That means they are sealed, and you succeeded. If one doesn’t pop after a few hours, just put it in the fridge and eat that one first.

2013-09-23 00.13.55

Repeat. And enjoy!

Poor Mr. Stripey

Cherry tomatoes – check. We have plenty of those things. Cherokee Purple tomatoes – check. We haven’t had many, but they have been delicious. Love the color, too.  My lunch today was a juicy tomato sandwich featuring my latest Cherokee Purple.

Sliced Cherokee Purple

Sliced Cherokee Purple

But then there are my two Mr. Stripey plants. Every tomato so far has been a mess. I posted a picture of one here that was full of holes around the shoulders. Little did I know that would be my best of harvest so far. The others I’ve picked have had some kind of rot – yuk! I’m not sure exactly what kind of disease this is, does anyone else know?  I’m guessing it’s fungal. Here are the clues I can recognize.

2013-07-27 13.54.58 2013-07-27 13.56.07 Mr. Stripey #2 with rotMr. Stripey tomato with rot

The Mr. Stripey area is poorly mulched compared to the other tomato areas.

The Mr. Stripey plants were planted later than the other tomato plants and, I confess, were indifferently staked. The tomatoes have been closer to the soil, and the soil was not mulched well enough to keep splatter off.

Finally, we have had more rain than I can remember in an Alabama summer. It’s pouring right now, in fact, and I have only had to water the garden once since May.

I have the Mr. Stripeys better staked now, and I hope the next ones will be healthier. I must say, the parts that weren’t rotted were gorgeous and yummy!

2013-07-27 14.00.24 Mr. Stripey tomato sliced

In other garden news, the winter squash and the Cherokee Tears beans have sprouted, and the bell peppers look like they might give the hyper-productive cherry tomatoes a run for their money if the rain keeps up. The plants are loaded! I also harvested my little crop of shallots grown from slips. I know May planting is ridiculously late (or early) for the onion family but I enjoyed them. They are drying on the dining room table now.

I also have a community garden plot that I checked this afternoon. The soil is poor and I didn’t amend it nearly enough, so most of my plantings are sad indeed. The exceptions are my zinnias and my carrots. I have the most beautiful carrot tops in the universe!  I planted my seed about May 15. After sixty days I had nice tops but no swelling of the root. Pulled up a plant for a 75-day test today and the roots are starting to swell. Isn’t it cute?

Carrot 75 days after seeding

Carrot

After snapping this picture I washed it off and ate it. Pardon my city girl thrill, but it tasted just like a carrot!

Soon I need to start picking limas so they aren’t too huge and mealy. Updates to come!

GNO: Sing-along!

With an empty nest it’s easier to slip out now and then for an evening out with girlfriends. Usually for us it’s dinner, drink, and a chance simply to catch up. One night, however, the dinner and drink preceded a movie, since someone thought we would all enjoy the songs of Abba and the movie Mamma Mia!

We took plenty of time for dinner and arrived for the show a bit giggly and, as it happens, mostly alone in the theatre. One thing led to another. Head bobbing and toe tapping escalated. Songs were hummed, then lyrics quietly sung. But the crowd was thin and we were laughing and before too long we were on our feet singing most of the songs. (With movements, of course, why do you ask?) Because we are all Good Girls, we asked the few others in the movie if we were bothering them, but no one gave the dreaded “Sit Down and Shut Up.” It was loads of fun and the memory still makes us laugh. While we’ve threatened to do it again, I have never relished the thought of being ejected from the movies, and finding another showing empty or obliging enough to tolerate our merriment seemed unlikely.

Fast forward to this spring.  Our lovely downtown movie palace, the Alabama Theatre, has a summertime film series on Fridays and Sundays. When I got a copy of the schedule in the mail, well, see for yourself…  (Click on the image to make it larger, and you may need to zoom in too.)

 

2013 Summer Film Series poster from Alabama Theatre

2013 Summer Film Series

Yes you see the showing of Mamma Mia!, but did you look at this Friday night? July 28? Grease? AS A SING-ALONG? Yes indeed, we are planning a girls’ night out Friday night, complete with Mexican dinner beforehand.  And while our voices have not improved, we probably won’t be much worse than everyone else.  Of course, the joy of being an empty-nester is that my son will not be there to roll his eyes and shush me, or even to look disapproving when I get home.

If you’re nearby, come join us! We’ll be the group of giggling women standing up, singing our hearts out, and doing all the motions. You can’t miss us…

NOTE: this article generated so much spam that comments are password protected. The password is the part of town in which I live, also the name of the high school my son attended. It starts with H and is athletic. Comment away.

 

Gotcha!

Leaf-footed bug

Leaf-footed bug

My first post included a picture of a mystery bug, which I finally identified (with the help of a work friend) as a leaf-footed bug, a relative of the stink bug. When I read up on the devil, I learned that they are voracious eaters of veggies. With that, I went on the hunt. After three days I spotted him on my sunflowers, but when I went to get my terminator of choice I turned and almost stepped on my garden helper, Dusty.

Dusty, my miniature schnauzer

Dusty, my garden helper

After the yelp (mine) and scrambling around, the leaf-footed bug got the hint and disappeared.

Today I noticed him on the lavender, gazing longingly at my eggplants. This time I was able to get him! I’m staying as organic as possible, and didn’t want to spray anything toxic. My solution was a big water glass with a top. I crept up and got him in the water. With those long legs he was quite the swimmer, but eventually he succumbed, and no stink.  (If there are any insect lovers here I will admit it hurt me a bit to watch him struggle, but I managed.) I also drowned some regular stinkbugs that were procreating on my tomatoes.

Now, to steal the hopeful description of a cockroach from the immortal Erma Bombeck, I have to hope that my leaf-footeded bug was a single male, traveling alone. I’ll be watching.

July 21 harvest of eggplant, bell pepper, tomato and bowl of cherry tomatoes

July 21 Harvest

Mr. Stripey tomato with multiple bug holes

Mr. Stripey: victim

Here is today’s harvest. I get this many cherry tomatoes every day. The eggplant variety is Easter Egg, the tomato my first Mr. Stripey. Looks gorgeous in the group picture but in the interest of honesty  I must confess that Mr. Stripey was a stink bug victim.

No disclaimer needed for the bell pepper! It’s my first harvested. Over the last three days there has been a bell pepper explosion with small peppers everywhere. I have green, red and yellow bell plants. May they all do this well!

Went out early this morning and planted a hill of winter squash seeds and some Cherokee Tears beans. More updates if and when they do anything.

 

I’ll figure it out

Took a deep breath and told my Facebook friends about this blog. Found out one problem right away – I didn’t have an obvious way to subscribe! I’m too stubborn to call customer service (although I’ve heard my webhost is great in that area), but eventually I figured it out. Dear friends, you should be able to subscribe from the sidebar now. Whew!

I promise to write something more interesting soon, now that I’m getting the technical issues mastered. Watch for upcoming posts on my attempts at photography, butterflies, my community garden plot and an upcoming girl’s night out at the Alabama Theater. See you soon!

Stuff in Pots

I’m excited about this year’s new vegetable plot, but I’m enjoying my containers, too.  I’m giving trash can potatoes a try, which I found out about here on the blog It’s All Gouda. Isn’t that a cute name? ANYWAY, I’ve got two trash cans of potatoes flanking my backyard vegetable plot. Unfortunately I read too late the part that potatoes like cool weather, and the russet potatoes have not been willing to play along. However, the Norlander red potatoes have done wonderfully. I’ve added soil twice. Soon I’ll get the courage to dig around and see if I can find some new potatoes.

 Trash Can Norlander Potatoes

Trash Can Norlander Potatoes

I’ve got three more pots going with Beauregard sweet potatoes. They are in the front yard masquerading as ornamentals to get the maximum sunlight. I stuck a watermelon in one of the pots too. Last year I tried watermelon in the back yard but something ate them – I’m guessing raccoons.

The other pots are full of herbs.  Kentucky Derby mint, chocolate mint, oregano, rosemary, lemon thyme, and boxwood basil live at the end of the driveway, on the other side of the fence from helpful watering by Dusty the miniature schnauzer. The basil and the chocolate mint are gifts from my coworker Jaime. There’s something special about plants from friends, don’t you think?

Saturday in the Garden

Saturday I spent several hours working in the garden. I never get as much done as I hope! I started this garden in 2012  with a perennial section and this year added vegetables. Now I realize that it takes a year, minimum, to really see what you have with perennials. The phlox

Phlox 7/13/13

Phlox 7/13/13

are coming into full bloom, smelling really great and attracting bees. In front of the phlox are two Easter egg eggplants – have harvested two already. There was a fascinating bug on one leaf – not sure what it was, but my husband dubbed it the “your eggplant is doomed bug.” Guess we’ll see! Please let me know if you recognize this critter.

Your Eggplant Is Doomed bug?

Your Eggplant Is Doomed bug?

Two weeks ago I would have been bragging on my vigorous squash plants, but they have since succumbed to squash vine borers. We did have two good meals of yellow squash  before they died. Research tells me that the borers only have one life cycle per year so I am going to replant. I’ve ordered some jumbo pink banana winter squash seed and will head back to the store to see if any healthy summer squash seedlings remain.

Summer so far has been damp and cooler than normal, but some sun and heat have finally arrived and the bell peppers are starting to set. One plant got an earlier start, but the other seven are just started to hold their peppers. No such trouble on the sweet banana peppers, though! We have harvested once already and they keep on coming.

We have all the cherry tomatoes we can manage! This year we are growing three Supersweet 100 cherry tomatoes, and two are massive and prolific. The cages that looked so satisfactory in May are overwhelmed. We have also harvested six or seven Cherokee purple tomatoes and have many Mr. Stripey’s growing. I love the deep color of the Cherokee purples!

Cherokee Purples tomatoes cut in quarters

Cherokee Purple tomatoes

There are also green beans, limas, new potatoes, sweet potatoes and one little watermelon plant  – more on those later.