Concord Grape Jelly

Pictures and paintings of autumn’s harvest bounty invariably feature juicy red apples, golden yellow pears, ruby red pomegranates, orange persimmons, squash of all shapes and colors, plums (plum colored?), and always clusters of gorgeous purple grapes spilling over the side of a bowl or out the side of a horn of plenty.
I associate grapes -- green and red -- with summer. Fresh, cold and not-too-sweet, they are perfect warm weather thirst quenchers (especially frozen). But strolling through our nearby French Market last October I discovered generous cartons of purple Concord grapes giving off the headiest grapey fragrance. Concord grapes exist for just about one thing: homemade grape jam. And why not? I’ve made strawberry, raspberry and peach jams before, so grape jam can’t be too difficult.
Concord grape jelly 1
When I was a wee-small girl, our neighbors had grape vines camouflaging the chain link fence that surrounded their tall, narrow white house on the corner. My friends and I used to sneak hard, unripe green grapes from those vines, and ohmyGOSH were they ever tart! My mouth puckers just thinking about it. After they ripened, Mrs. Neighbor magically transformed those grapes into jelly. I had no idea how one made jelly (it was bought, at the grocery store) and imagined Mrs. Neighbor’s kitchen full of beakers and cauldrons and tubes pushing purple goop into jars. She passed along some of her finished jelly to us, and boy that goop tasted good!
Concord grape jelly 4a
So I bought a carton of those aromatic Concord grapes (about 1.5 to 2 pounds, I think), set out a few Ball jars with rings and lids, found this recipe, and got started.
Concord grape jelly 2
Other fruit jams require removing little green tops (strawberries), peeling (peaches), or mashing (raspberries). Concord grapes require blooping -- that is, squeezing each and every grape out of it’s tasty tart purple skin (here’s an action pic from Hungry Mouse Bloop! Just like that. It’s easy but a bit time consuming. Some recipes call for mashing the grapes without skinning them, some for blooping. I blooped. The blooped grapes resemble eyes of newt.
Concord grape jelly 4
The skins were pulverized in a blender along with some sugar and lemon juice, resulting in a sweet, bright purple juice that I wanted to drink down on the spot.
Concord grape jelly 5
Pulverized skins and blooped grapes go into a pan for heating to a full rolling boil. Mmmm, smells amazing already.
Concord grape jelly 6
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and caldron bubble! No actual eye of newt in there (nor toe of frog nor wool of bat nor tongue of dog ...) No trouble, either. Everything is bubbing along merrily in there.
Concord grape jelly 7
Cheesecloth is the traditional grape jelly strainer but my fine mesh sieve did the job. Kept all those crunchy seeds out of the smoooooth grape mixture.
Concord grape jelly 8
Now, apparently grapes have some pectin, to help the mixture set up, but mine must not have had enough. Or I didn’t boil it vigorously enough, or something. I could tell it wasn’t setting properly, so I did end up adding powdered pectin (Hungry Mouse’s recipe doesn’t call for it, but other recipes do After cooling it was still looser than regular jam but nicely spreadable and oh so yummy.
Concord grape jelly 9
Well look at that -- just enough for one pretty li’l jar of grape jelly, about 2 cups. Not too bad for a first try! I didn’t bother with ultra sterilization and hermetic sealing -- this jar was going straight into the fridge to chill and then back out ASAP to dally around with buttered toast. Concord grape jelly 10
And it was scrumptious -- just like eating Concord grapes off the vine but without that mouth-puckering tartness. No comparison
at all with Welch’s Grape Jelly, but possibly a rival for the original Welch’s “Grapelade” (“... velvety smooth, rich and delicate in flavor.” Mmmm, sounds dreamy!) I could easily see filling pockets of pie crust with this jelly and making tasty little grape tarts. Next time.

Concord grapes are uniquely American, making Concord grape jam a uniquely American treat. In fact, grape jam or jelly of any sort seems to be almost exclusively American. The grapes themselves were bred in Concord, Massachusetts around 1849 by Ephraim Wales Bulls, a self-taught horticulturist who crossed various grape types to create a variety that would ripen between the late spring thaws and early autumn frosts typical of Concord’s climate. Bull’s efforts resulted in the Concord grape, hailed around the country for its hardiness, musky fragrance and sweet flavor.

In 1869, Thomas Bramwell Welch devised a method of pasteurizing grape juice to prevent it from fermenting into wine (he was a staunch Methodist and prohibitionist). Later, the Welch’s company developed a jam called “Grapelade” (grape + marmalade?) which evolved into their now-famous Concord Grape Jelly. Although peanut butter was not invented by an American, the peanut butter making machine was.) So when you make a good old fashioned peanut butter and Concord grape jelly sandwich, you are taking a bite of American history. (Don’t forget the milk!)

The fall of the year.

A basket of apples by the back door
beneath the sweater pegs
The autumn winds lift along the street
A pair of dancing legs ...
~~ from "One More Colour" by Jane Siberry

Equinox 2011 3
If you were up very early this morning--at 4:04 a.m. CST--you might have caught the autumnal equinox. You wouldn’t have really seen anything but you would have been awake when the sun passed over the equator on its way to make spring and summer in the southern hemisphere while we enjoy fall--or maybe you say autumn--and (some would say "are subjected to") winter. And today we will see approximately equal ("equi") hours of day and night ("nox") before days start getting noticeably shorter.
Equinox 2011 1
I have heard Americans disparaged, usually by the British, for using the word "fall" in place of autumn. Fall makes sense, though, doesn't it? Autumn descends and temperatures fall, leaves fall, apples fall, acorns fall, crops fall, darkness falls, the year falls away. Plenty of falling around this time of year.
Equinox 2011 9
In days of olde ("olde" is about 1500ish and prior), autumn was referred to sensibly as harvest. When people moved into cities and away from traditional farming lifestyles, the season called harvest became autumn (from the French "automne"), and harvest referred strictly to the act of harvesting, not the entire season. The phrase "fall of the leaf"--to denote autumn--was shortened to fall, a term British settlers eventually introduced into American English. While fall seems more common here and autumn more common there, I've always preferred autumn, a word I find pretty and poetic. But I'm not snobby ... either is fine with me.
Signs of fall sedum
Although the flowers in my garden begin to fade and die at this time of year--except mums and sedum, which are just blooming--I feel most alive with the changing colors and cooler days, especially after a hot, sticky, mosquito-ridden summer. I am always happy to tuck away my summer wardrobe in favor of jeans, long sleeves, socks and cozy fleece jackets.
Autumn mums

Fall is unquestionably my favorite season--I love the crisp air, the smell of dry leaves, the crunch of dry acorns under foot, sipping mugs of hot apple cider, the possibility of fires in the fireplace, pulling a warm flannel sheet over me at night. If I could be a tree it would be a sugar maple, so I could wear those blazing oranges, reds and golds every autumn. Plus, spookyfun Halloween is in October. And my birthday!
Autumn maple tree
Best of all, fall is the time for all things pumpkiny (I already have a baking pumpkin to make Harvest Pumpkin Salad for our equinox dinner), maple-syrupy, appley, hot cidery, soupy, Halloweeny ... but not yet. For now I want to enjoy the transition from summer to fall/autumn.
Equinox 2011 10
To welcome the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, here is a pleasant tune called "The Fall Song" (that link takes you directly to the song) by my very own brother Mark (that link takes you to his bikey blog). I hope you take a listen and enjoy while you are celebrating the change of season.

So, what do you think--fall or autumn? Happy Autumnal Equinox!

Autumn approacheth.

Signs of autumn's arrival--in my garden, around the neighborhood, in the kitchen. When chlorophyll recedes and greens blush into pinks, roses, reds. When leaves show off their full, true colors. When yellows, reds and oranges light up the landscape. When the air cools and breezes feel truly refreshing! Autumn is my favorite season, and I love its approach, its absolute colorful presence, and even its bleak departure (which, for me, simply signals time to prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas).

My Quickfire hydrangea, planted one year ago in late summer. It started blushing the loveliest rose color in August and is still flushed.
Signs of fall  hydrangea
Our Karen azaleas, which came with the house and have heartily endured several replantings around the garden, also start to change in early September. Tucked beneath are more blushing blooms: Autumn Joy sedum.
Signs of fall azalea
A closeup of the Autumn Joy. I love that they start out white, turn pink, and end the season on the prettiest bronze-rose note.
Signs of fall sedum
Route 66 coreopsis, which I put in about a month ago (they were on sale at Home Depot so I couldn't resist). Although fall is not necessarily their bloom time, they are sparking up the garden with their multitude of lively two-tone yellow and rusty-red blooms.
Signs of fall coreposis
More blushing: Plumbago, which dies off completely in winter and arises from absolutely empty dirt every year, turns true blue in the midst of summer, and gets all rosy in the fall. I'm planting more of this in my borders in 2011.
Signs of fall plumbago
The fading of coneflowers surely means summer is on its way out. I leave mine up, all black and prickly, all through winter. They really do attract winter birds!
Signs of fall dying coneflower
The first of the holly berries on my China Boy/Girl holly plants! I've tried holly several times at several of my previous addresses, and this is the first time I've seen berries. I plopped a boy and girl plant into the same hole in the front yard, so they'll be entwined forever (and well fertilized). The berries are a bit sparse this year. I'm hopeful that over time the plants will settle in and give up nice fully berried branches each Christmas.
Signs of fall holly berry
Even though the marigolds bloomed yellow and orange all summer long (and will continue to do so right through Halloween), they look especially at home in the
season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Signs of fall  marigolds
Likewise with the Chinese Lanterns. They've been orange for quite a while now, but I stongly associate their puffy bright orange blooms with autumn. I've cut a few branches for drying and entwining around the grapevine wreath on my front door. They remind me of my mom, who brought the magic of Chinese Lanterns and Silver Dollar plants into our home each year.
Signs of fall chinese lanternsThese really are quite invasive plants! You can virtually ignore them and they grow like mad.

A streak of red-orange maple leaves hint at the gorgeous blaze of color yet to come.
Signs of fall maple leaves
Acorns are flooding the sidewalks around here. At night, when it's very quiet, you can hear acorns smacking to the ground. It sounds like the squirrels are chucking them overboard.
Signs of fall acorns
A pretty dried oak leaf. Oak and maple leaves are my favorite.
Signs of fall oak leaf
My autumn Starbucks cups, posing with the Winter Solitude crow print. Over the years I've collected Starbucks cups for just about every season and holiday. The (somewhat premature) appearance of Pumpkin Spice Lattes is also a sure sign that fall is on its way. And try a shot of that pumpkin spice syrup in a mocha. Pumpkin and chocolate is a scrumptious combination!
Signs of fall  sbux mugs
As outdoor colors change, I start craving foods made from pumpkin like Pumpkin Chocolate Brownies, Pumpkin Ginger Waffles, Autumn Bisque, and these cakey pumpkin scones:
Pumpkin scones

I seriously never tire of pumpkin and have
lots of pumpkin recipes--some old favorites, some yet to be tried (and when I do you will see all the details here on this very blog). Seeing pumpkins (and Halloween candy, for cripes sake!) for sale in grocery store parking lots, even this early, has me excited for Halloween!

I hope you're enjoying signs of fall in your neighborhood. Feel free to share your favorite signs of autumn's arrival, and especially your favorite fall foods.

Happy Halloween!

This post is definitely rushed. Something more thoughtful to come in the very near future!

Autumn has absolutely bewitched me these past few weeks -- between the trees abloom in their gorgeous reds, rusts, oranges and golds, and the refreshing chill in the air, I've been wishing I could quit my job and somehow get paid just to walk the streets for hours appreciating each beautiful fall day.
red maple
A beautiful maple tree just down the street.

These colorful days also bring the promise of my favorite holiday: Halloween! Well, perhaps Halloween is tied evenly with Christmas and Valentine’s day, all of which are joyful, colorful and fun, were favorites of the Victorians, and involve chocolate. I love Halloween for the costumed trick-or-treaters who roam the neighborhood and pile up at our door with their goody bags waiting for treats, for orange candlelit pumpkins and strings of skull lights glowing in the dark, for bats and ravens, witches, tombstones and grim reapers.
five punkins
We carved six punkins this year! The sixth is perched out of sight on the mantel with a spooky crow. From left to right, the carvers were: Kinnin, Meg, Emilia, Sean, Kenny.
scary punkin crow
Nevermore! Bit blurry, but you get the idea. Kinnin did this one.

Not only is Halloween spooky by design, with its imagery of ghosts and spirits, but this time of year possesses a natural eerieness that my pre-Christian ancestors tuned into long before the holiday evolved into the festive event that we know. The Celtic celebration called Samhain (SOW-in) “is a special time of year and a powerful time for divination," according to Lisa Finander, an editor at, “when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is the thinnest, and a time when the communication between these worlds is the strongest.” At Samhain, which literally means “end of summer,” the ancient Celts acknowledged and honored the dead while they marked the end of the seasonal cycle with bonfires and ushered in their new year. Like many Celtic/pagan celebrations, Samhain was co-opted by Christians and turned into the eve of All Hallows or All Saints Day, and All Hallows Evening became Hallowe’en.

The Victorians expanded on the theme of divination and and promoted Halloween rituals -- such as looking in a mirror or eating apples -- as a means for determining one’s romantic fate. Halloween also became yet another opportunity for exchanging their famously whimsical postcards!
"He is your fate ... who's face you've seen ... in the mirror's face ... on Halloween."

"The fates tell by the cards your future destiny ... but if you share an apple
with a heart that's fancy free ... on Halloween at midnight a marriage it will be."

Although All Hallows Eve has already passed, you can still light candles in memory of friends, family members and loyal pets who’ve crossed to the other side of the veil, or to divine your future lover in the lookingglass. The moon is full right now, so go outside and enjoy the calm blue glow it is casting over the clouds and leaf-bare trees on this cool, crisp (in our corner of the midwest, anyway) All Saints night. Maybe you’ll sense something else in the air, too! I hope you had a Happy Samhain/Halloween, and are enjoying the fall colors wherever you are.

Please feel free to leave a comment -- how did you celebrate Halloween this year, or did you celebrate at all? How do you feel during this naturally mysterious time of the season? Share your favorite ways of passing time during these chilly, darkening days of autumn. Or feel free to correct any misinformation you've read above. Anything ... I'd love to hear from you!

Tap into your inner Pagan on the first day of autumn.

Happy Autumn! According to the National Weather Service, this year’s autumnal equinox will occur at 4:18 PM CST.
vintage autumn leaves
Ignore the oddball Victorian Christmas wish on this lovely fall postcard!

While we tend to think of the equinox as a day-long event, it is actually a moment in time when the sun is directly over the equator (sort of), creating an equal amount of day and night (more or less). Wikipedia offers an excellent, if somewhat complex, explanation of the equinoxes. If you're into astronomy, charts, very cool celestial diagrams, and words like "equinoctial" and "heliocentric," this Wikipedia page is for you.

This equinox is “the first day of fall” for most of us -- bringing the promise of leaf peeping, football games, pumpkin pies, and Halloween. But to my pre-Christian Celtic ancestors, and to those who follow their ancient traditions by way of Paganism, Wicca and other nature-based spiritual paths, the autumnal equinox -- also known as "Mabon" and "Harvest Home" -- focuses on the second harvest (the first occurring in early August) and signals the coming of winter. It is a time to gather indoors around home and hearth, and a time to turn inward spiritually to reflect on the passing year. The equinox brings us closer to Samhaim, or Halloween, which is the traditional end of the pre-Christian seasonal cycle -- the Pagan new year!

Autumn is a natural opportunity to enjoy crisp cold air and the foods that are harvested at this time of year (in our neck of the woods, anyway):  apples, corn, and squashes -- and that means pumpkin.  I LOVE just about anything with pumpkin in it!  My best friend recently discovered the recipe site Everything Pumpkin -- all pumpkin recipes, all the time.  Dreamily autumnal, in my book. Besides cooking (which I'll be doing even more of as the weather turns chily), there are many ways to celebrate the equinox like the pagans do.
Kinnin's pumpkin pie
Pumpkin pie! My teenage son made this beauty.

Akasha Ap Emrys offers a nice description of some symbols, colors, foods and stones that embody the autumnal equinox, and suggests Mabon activities such as "Making wine, gathering dried herbs, plants, seeds and seed pods, walking in the woods, scattering offerings in harvested fields, offering libations to trees, adorning burial sites with leaves, acorns, and pine cones to honor those who have passed over" to help you celebrate this season. Earth Witchery suggests making grapevine wreaths, scented pinecones, and apple dolls to usher in fall. Even if you just light some pretty autumn colored candles, take a walk and collect some fallen dried leaves, or tie some dried harvest corn onto your door knocker, you'll help your inner pagan feel the spirit of the equinox. Or, if it's easier, rustle up a slice of apple or pumpkin pie (and maybe a scoop of ice cream to go with!).
Piper in leaves
Piper knows what to do when fall arrives.

Karen Charboneau-Harrison of reminds us that Mabon falls during the astrological sign of Libra (mine! one of many reasons I love autunn), whose emphasis on balance parallels the equinox’s “time of equilibrium, when light and dark, day and night are equal.” So step (or look, or just think about going) outside at 4:18 p.m. (or the equivalent time in your neighborhood) to enjoy this time of equal day and night, say goodbye to summer, and rejoice in the arrival of beautiful, colorful, crisp, cool, delicious autumn.

Falling for mushroom ragu.

Autumn is pressing itself upon us. The entire summer has been fantastically (in my humble opinion) mild, and right when school has started starting (schools have been starting around here just about every week for the past month) suddenly it feels downright chilly outside! A few trees have dropped dry golden leaves for several weeks now, and just this morning we saw a scattering of gorgeous red maple leaves on the sidewalk. My favorite season is arriving!
fall leaves medium
The temperature has to drop but a mere sprinkling of degrees and I’m ready to pull out my stew recipes and stock the pantry with cans of pumpkin. Last weekend was cool enough to warrant the first round of cold weather comfort food, and we were inspired by a Julie-and-Julia-inspired article at the
Sasquatch Books Blog which included a recipe for Mushroom Ragu. The recipe, contributed by Alice Waters, is one of 125 included in Cooking with Les Dames d'Escoffier. We can't get enough of earthy, woodsy mushrooms on pizza and in risotto, so we had to try this ragu.
mushrooms and veggies
We visited nearby
Treasure Island (lookee -- they have an endorsement from Julia herself!) for the assortment of shiitake, oyster and cremini mushrooms we used in our ragu, as well as a half pound of silky soft, deep plum-colored fresh figs -- which we sliced and paired with sliced fresh mozzarella to snack on while we chopped and sauteed. The earthy (and very sensual) figs were a fitting prelude to those earthy mushrooms.
fresh figs and fresh mozzarella
Naturally, we took at least one shortcut (I am
almost notorious for taking liberties with recipes). Most notably, we did not sautee the three types of mushrooms individually (Alice, forgive us! we were eager to get on to the eating part), and we used a small amount of dried italian herbs instead of fresh thyme -- we rarely use fresh herbs quickly enough so usually they end up a swampy little mess in a corner of the vegetable drawer, or hopelessly moldy. We also had prepared chicken broth for the recipe, but ended up using the heavenly broth brought forth while the mushrooms cooked. Oh, the appetizing aromas in our kitchen that evening ... and there wasn’t even any garlic on the menu!
homely delicious ragu
After you get past all the chopping of onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms, there’s just some sauteeing and about 15 minutes of gentle simmering (in
real cream) before you can ladle this scrumptious and homely mixure onto a bowl of hot noodles (we used Mrs. Grass egg noodles -- this is a dish for noodles not hoity pasta). Yes, homely -- as absolutely delicious as the ragu is, it’s not the prettiest, nor is it very photogenic. I Googled images of “mushroom ragu” and it seems no one can take a really appetizing photo of it. But don’t let that stop you -- chop, sautee, simmer and enjoy this comforting food as these final days of summer change to russet and gold.

Oh, and dessert? Homemade nectarine sorbet from David Lebovitz's
Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments. Nectarines are my favorite summer fruit, and this sorbet is a delicious and easy way to make that taste of summer last. Yum!
nectarine sorbet