Anyone who thinks farm life is simple and idyllic has never tried to preserve without the benefit of gas heat and electric refrigerators. As a kid, I watched my mom make pickles using an heirloom pickling crock and an intimidating amount of wax. The whole process seemed like something best left to the professionals. That was before friend and local food blogger Bill Funkhouser turned me on to refrigerator pickles. They are not a luxury anyone with a tiny propane fridge would indulge in. Who knew you could brine cukes in the fridge, at exactly the level of garlicky spiciness you desired?
Sadly, cucumber season picked up its skirts and ran right past me before I could really get started. I came back to the farm to find the green bean vines picked clean and a dozen jars of my mom's famous "dilly beans" cooling on the kitchen counter. With a whole three shelves in my relatively huge fridge waiting back at town, what could possibly be left to pickle?
Ask your local winemaker — we're having a great year for grapes. The drought hit a lot of other fruits hard, but many well-rooted grape vines benefited from the consistent heat. The trellis of our Concord grape vine was fairly groaning under the weight of this year's crop, more than we could possibly eat fresh. Normally grape preserving falls to those blessed with dehydration devices, but everyone knows that raisins only belong in kindergartners' lunches and disguised as chocolate chips (unforgivable). So I decided to go with an alternative that's equally deceptive but refreshingly adult.
Red grapes pickled on the vine are best draped languorously along the rim of a cheese plate, ready to lure unsuspecting hors d'oeuvres seekers expecting a burst of sweetness into their savory depths. Don't apologize. People don't know what they really want. Expect a quick pucker as the brine bursts onto their tongue, and then a widening of the eyes as their palate observes the interplay of flavors: the sun-drenched, round fruitiness complemented by the sting of vinegar and an earthy whisper of rosemary and garlic. In the depths of winter, no inferior grape trucked in from warmer climes could possibly compare to what you pickle today.
The nice thing about pickling recipes is they invite experimentation. Try making batches with regular distilled white vinegar, red wine vinegar and white wine vinegar. I found that red wine vinegar colludes with red grapes for a deep, poignant flavor, while white vinegar varieties form nice contrasts. You can also pluck the grapes from the vine and mix red and green grapes together for a festive-looking gift.
Ingredients and method:
4-5 bunches of grapes, still on the vine
4 cups vinegar of your choice
2 cups water
2 teaspoons sugar
2 cloves garlic (to taste)
2 sprigs of rosemary
2 teaspoons chili powder (to taste)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons salt
2 single pint canning jars and lids
Stuff the grapes into quart jars. Bring the vinegar and water to a boil, then add other ingredients and lower to a simmer for 2-3 minutes before removing from the heat, stirring occasionally.
The grapes will be crisper if you allow the brine to cool before pouring it into the jars, but either way is good. You can do one jar with hot brine and another with cool for a variety. Either way, allow the jars to cool down a bit before sticking them in the fridge. Seal them with a standard lid and let them sit for at least 8 hours. Your grapes will keep for up to two weeks, or longer if you use a traditional bath and wax sealant. Make sure and tell your spouse what they are: With their dark, ominous color and bits of vine peeking out from the murky depths, jars of pickled grapes look a little like you're mixing up some magic potion. And hey, what is preserving fall's bounty through the wonders of modern refrigeration if not magic?