Sunday, September 8, 2013

Wild Grape Juice

The wild grapes in my area are ripe! When I was a kid, our family picked wild grapes and my mom made juice and jelly. Now I do the same thing for my kids. If you've got access to wild grapes too, and you aren't sure what to do next, read on!

From picking wild grapes to jelly on toast is a time-consuming process that I usually complete over the course of a couple of days, so first I'll show you how to make grape juice.
I'm lucky to have a few different places to pick grapes in late summer.
If you have never foraged for wild grapes before, I urge you to do some research first, or enlist an experienced plant person for help. This counts as my disclaimer: Please know what you are doing before eating anything you harvest from the wild! Many wild edibles closely resemble poisonous plants, so you must be careful.

Okay! Pick your grapes. You can break the clusters off pretty easily by hand, but a plant clipper is really useful. You'll need ice cream pails, bowls, or buckets to collect the fruit.
Because the grapes grow on vines, you will often find them climbing higher than you can comfortably reach from the ground.
Some of the grapes at my parents' house this year had climbed a pine tree and were unreachable! We reached others with a ladder and even parked my dad's pickup truck under one bunch and stood in the bed to gather grapes.

How many should you collect? To make one batch of grape jelly, you need two cups of juice. Your yield will vary, but my three ice cream pails of grapes (on stems as shown below) made almost two quarts of juice. Count on gathering at least an ice cream pail full for one batch (about 7 pints) of jelly.

A warning for spider haters: When you bring your grapes home, you will also bring spiders. I've tried everything to avoid this, but they always go into the buckets unseen and only seem to appear in my kitchen.

I don't have a picture, because I deal with them immediately. They are spiders.

Wash the grapes. I put them in a colander and rinse over the sink. Eradicate spiders as needed.
Next comes the tedious job of plucking the grapes off the stems. If you employ minions or have children, I suggest insisting that they help at this time.
If any of the wee fingers attached to your helpers begin to swell and itch, take a break to administer antihistamines.

Continue to pluck grapes by yourself while your sensitive-skinned minions and/or children recover.

A word about staining: Grapes. More words about staining: Grapes stain! Wear a shirt you don't mind sprinkled with purple spots, or an apron. You may want to lay down plastic bags to protect a precious counter top. Any wash cloths or towels you use will be stained. I have kitchen things that are dedicated to this kind of work, so I don't worry too much about stain removal. 

Where you must remove stains, hydrogen peroxide is excellent. All the purple marks on my almost-white counters disappeared after a spritz of peroxide and few minutes to sit. Even juice that had sat for an hour or so came away without a trace.

Next put the plucked grapes into a pot and just barely cover them with water. I don't have exact numbers here. For my first batch of juice, I started with three ice cream pails heaping full, which when removed from the stems yielded approximately four pounds of grapes.
So pretty!
Put the pot on medium heat and bring to a simmer. 

As the water heats up, you will notice that the water becomes dark purple (that's grape juice!) and the grapes swell. The smell is incredible!

The pink foam you see floating on top of the pot is just air bubbles. It doesn't hurt your finished product at all, but you may skim it away if it bothers you. 
Let it cook about 15 minutes, until the grapes are glossy and bursting, and the juice is a tad thicker and super dark.

You'll see little seeds floating around. That's okay! We deal with them next.

I have this cool vintage fruit mill, and it works perfectly for removing the skins and seeds of the grapes. (WearEver number 8, if you're curious.) This is what it looks like all taken apart:
 Set up a fruit mill (or a fine mesh sieve; see photos below) over a large bowl or pitcher. I love the spaceship legs!
Scoop the cooked grapes into the mill. It's okay if they're still hot.

I didn't measure here. I just do a few ladles full at a time. 

Then swirl the wooden plunger around to crush the grapes. I like to mash them pretty well so as to use as much of the fruit as I can. That means that I'm really making more of a juice-and-pulp mixture than true juice. Therefore, this mixture makes more of a jam than a true jelly. You may study the difference at your leisure.
The juice and pulp will run down into the bowl.
I don't know if this is part of the design of the fruit mill, but when you're done stirring, the seeds and skins magically cling to the wooden plunger! It makes it so easy to quickly scrape that stuff into the compost bowl and keep making juice.

Now if you don't have a fancy device like this, use a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl or pitcher:

The back of a large spoon works well for crushing here.
Either way, you'll end up with gorgeous, intensely-flavored, dark purple wild grape juice. 

Full of antioxidants, this juice is nutritious, too. You could drink it now, but it's so tart that you'll probably want a sweetener. I use plain sugar and sometimes I add water to thin it a little.

At this point, you can freeze the juice, can it so it's shelf stable, or stay tuned for Wild Grape Juice and Jelly: Tutorial Part Two to use the juice for making jelly!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Painted Cork Board Tutuorial

I'm always looking for more ways to organize. Having the right tools makes life fall immediately into order, right?

Anyway, I've been wanting a large dry-erase-calendar-with-a-cork-board combo for awhile now, but the ones I liked cost between $20 and $50. So it could wait.

Then I found this beauty at a thrift shop: 
Yes, it's in tough shape, but for $1.00?

I decided to make it work!

There were a few cosmetic problems.

The permanent marker on the dry erase board washed right off with a spritz of rubbing alcohol and a dry cloth. I've used that trick many times on different surfaces with good results.

The sticker residue also came off nicely with a dab of the rubbing alcohol and the help of a fingernail.

The marker on the cork board definitely wouldn't wash off, but I had an idea I could paint over it.

First I pried off the label, as I didn't want to paint around it or over it.

Then I painted the cork, using this:
 The color is number 660, Pure Gold.

By the third coat of paint, the marker was totally covered.

I'm really happy with how this turned out. While the board would still have been useful in the state I found it in, these few easy and cheap fixes make it so much prettier!

Ready to magically transform household chaos into structure and order! 
If only that calendar could stay nice and blank for awhile....

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Homemade Ice Pops and a Product Review

It's finally warming up enough around here to make frozen treats sound refreshing again. In the past, I've used these Tupperware popsicle molds from my own childhood. I'm just now realizing how retro these are! They're even being sold as "vintage" on Etsy.
Does anyone else remember these? Our mom made popsicles for us all the time, usually a very fancy-sounding flavor she called "Tutti Fruti". Little did I know that "Tutti Fruti" basically meant "mix of random juices". They were delicious, and still are when I make them for my own children.

The Tupperware molds have held up beautifully, even after at least a couple of decades of regular use.
I still plan to use these a lot, and I'll be posting recipes for different frozen confections using these molds throughout the summer.

Today, though, I want to share what I've learned from trying out a new type of ice pop mold. A few weeks ago I bought these:


I was originally searching for something like this less for the ice pop factor and more because my kids really love yogurt that comes in a tube, especially frozen. I'm not much of a fan for a few reasons: 
  • Many brands have ingredients that I don't think are necessary to satisfy my kids. There are certainly some brands that are more "natural" than others, but many are highly sweetened and artificially colored.

  • They are too expensive. Yogurt tubes cost a lot more than yogurt in most other types of containers, and after having made my own yogurt for pennies per serving (though I don't do it regularly), it just doesn't make sense for us to buy them as often as we eat yogurt.

  • They have too much packaging for daily use. While convenient for traveling or certain other occasions, I personally feel a little guilty about the amount of garbage that comes from these tiny portions. I wanted a reusable alternative.
So, here's what I learned about this particular set of silicone ice pop molds:

The set I ordered came in a simple yellow envelope, and the tubes were packed in a plain plastic bag.
No paperwork, no instructions! But I guess I can figure this out. 
They looked great, but as soon as I opened the bag, I noticed a strong plastic-y or chemical odor. That was making me nervous. They are intended to hold food, after all.

Secondly, I was a little surprised at how large the tubes are.
The top opening measures 1.5 inches in diameter, and the fillable space is 6.75 inches long. Each tube holds 1/2 cup of liquid or yogurt, but you will want to use slightly less if you plan to freeze the tubes.

Hoping to get rid of the strong smell of these, I first soaked them and their lids in hot soapy water.
That didn't help much. Some, but not enough to make these keepers for me. Next, I soaked them for about 15 minutes in a vinegar and water bath. That didn't do much either. At this point, I was thinking I'd have to return this product and look for something else.

My last idea was to put everything into boiling water. I did this in batches, and kept everything at a full boil for three minutes.

Success! After everything dried, that scary chemical smell was gone, and I felt totally comfortable filling these with food and serving it to children.

I made a smoothie with frozen strawberries, mango, pineapple, peaches, and enough grape juice to make the blender move. 

I filled the molds last night, popped the covers on, and could NOT believe it when they didn't leak! 

I even filled a tube with straight purple grape juice and laid it flat on my counter to see what would happen. That didn't leak either! So I'm confident putting these in the freezer pretty much any which way without risking a mess.
The kids ate the smoothie pops for breakfast. We had to run the outside of the tube under some warm water for a minute to loosen the frozen smoothie, but after that it was easy to push up and eat.
I think my favorite feature of these molds is that if someone can't finish their pop, you can put the lid on and put it back in the freezer for later. No waste!

So, to summarize my unsolicited and unprofessional review, I feel pretty good about my purchase. I think they will definitely work for my family, and I would recommend them. Here are my thoughts:

  • The price was right. I got this set of 10 on sale for 12.99. They should be useful for much longer than it will take for them to pay for themselves, in my opinion.
  • They don't leak, so you don't have to figure out how to stand them upright in your fridge or freezer.
  •  The possibilities are endless for how to fill the molds. You can control the ingredients of your homemade healthy snacks or treats.
  •  The molds and their covers are very easy to wash. I've read that people put them in their dishwashers successfully, but I think they might fly around in mine, so I plan to hand wash.
  • For an adult or older kid, the pops are large enough to seem like a fair serving. I fit approximately 1/2 cup of smoothie into each mold.
  • You can put the caps onto unfinished portions for later.
  • Kids think they're really fun.
  • No garbage!

  • These smelled frighteningly toxic when I first got them. If I could not have removed the smell, I would not have used them.
  • The tops are so large in circumference that I wouldn't be comfortable with a younger kid (say younger than 4 or 5) putting the whole pop in her mouth and then squeezing up. It might be a choking hazard.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

May in Wisconsin

A few months ago I shared photos of a beautiful February day here in northern Wisconsin. Perhaps you've been wondering about spring in our neck of the woods?

These photos were taken on May 3rd, the morning after a major snow storm closed schools in the area.
Very wet, very heavy snow still managed to drift severely here on the deck and in our driveway.
 Great for ninja punching, though!
 Two days later, on Cinco de Mayo, temperatures are warming, but there is still enough snow to build a whole family.
 Life size!
 The builder consults with the engineer....
 But now the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and these snow people won't last.
Maybe not even until tomorrow?