The Local Food Report: work up the zeal

My mother makes creamed onions once a year. Every year, on Thanksgiving, she boils a big pot of little pearls, burns her fingers slipping them from their skins, and coats them with a glorious sauce of cream, flour, pepper, and salt. It takes forever, and by the time she finishes, she needs a good 365 days of rest before she's able to work up the zeal to do it again.

It's how I feel about Concord grape pie.

I've only made it twice—there was one last fall and another is cooling on the counter as we speak—but I have a feeling the tradition is going to stick around. There's quite a bit of work that goes into the thing—just to start, you have to wash the grapes and pick the good ones from their vines. Then you have to pop the inner pulp from the skins, boil the pulps all together, and once they're soft, crank them through a food processor to get rid of the seeds. Finally, you have to mix the skins back in with the hot pulp, and leave the two to sit together for five hours, until everything takes on a lollipop purple sort of hue.

All that is beyond actually adding the other ingredients for the filling, not to mention making the pie crust and all the work that goes into rolling it out. It takes a solid hour and a half of hands on time, with a five hour wait in between. You can understand why it's hard to muster up the excitement more than once every 365 days.

But the thing is, on that one day, it's so worth it. The stained fingers and floured counter and grape seeds dotting the sink are nothing compared to the taste of this pie. If you can imagine the best of a Concord grape—all of the sweetness and flavor and intensity it holds—if you can imagine all that exceptionalism, imagine cooking it down. Imagine concentrating that flavor into an even sweeter, even more intense, even more exceptional filling, and then wrapping it with buttery, flaky pie crust. It is sheer delight.

The grapes are here—they're at their peak this week and next—and they're for sale at markets all over. Andy Pollock has them for sure, from his vines at Silverbrook Farms and also from a friend, Bob Matty, of Matty Orchards in Dartmouth. He sells in Provincetown and Falmouth and Dartmouth and even Boston, so whatever corner you come from, there's a good chance you can find enough bunches for a pie.


Adapted from a recipe by Irene Bouchard of Naples, New York published in the Naples Record, Volume 134, Number 27, on Wednesday, June 30, 2004.

Grape pie isn't one of the fruit pies most of us grow up with. It might sound like a strange idea, but I promise you, it's worth a try. What isn't worth it is substituting red or green seedless grapes from the grocery store—they offer nothing near the flavor of a Concord, and they don't have the right texture, either.

dough for one 9-inch pie crust, top and bottom
5 and 1/2 cups Concord grapes
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon tapioca

Remove the skins from the grapes by pinching them over a bowl. Collect the pulp in that bowl, and save the skins in another. Put the pulp into a saucepan (you do not need to add any water) and bring it to a rolling boil. Turn down the heat and let it simmer for five minutes. Crank the hot pulp through a food mill or rub it through a strainer to remove the seeds. Mix the hot, strained pulp with the skins, and let the two stand together for five hours. (This gives the filling a deep purple color.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Roll out half of the pie crust and drape it across the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate. Add the sugar and tapioca to the grapes, stir well, and pour into the plate. Roll out the remaining pie crust so that it is big enough to center the pie plate on top of it. Use a small knife to cut a "floating" top crust, tracing a circle roughly 1/2-inch bigger than the base of the pie plate. Place this crust on top of the filling and cut a design in the top to allow steam to escape. (The floating crust gives the pie a very pretty look, making a purple ring around the outside, and also helps prevent disaster as the grape filling tends to boil over. I like to cut a small hole in the center and rays coming out for an even prettier effect.)

Bake the pie for 20 minutes. Turn the oven down to 350 and bake for 20 minutes longer, or until the crust is golden brown and the filling is set. Let the pie cool for one hour before serving.


Alison said...

I love, love, love concord grapes. Here in Southern California we have a vendor at our farmers' market that sells a variety called Thomcord, which is obviously a cross. They have all the deep flavor of a concord, but without the seeds...so at least one pesky step in making that pie (or super-delicious jelly) is eliminated. The pie looks wonderful. I haven't made mine yet. Yummmm!

Anonymous said...

Elspeth made this pie for the first time at home last year, and I found it hard to believe it was really going to turn into an actual PIE. I was pretty sure it would be tasty, but I wasn't convinced it would firm up into anything you could cut into pieces with a knife and then plop onto a beautiful dessert plate (or straight into your mouth). I'd never even heard of grape pie -- but it turns out Elspeth's 90-year-old grandmother had, and even had a recipe in her old Joy of Cooking. We were amazed and delighted when Elspeth came to the table with a big "Ta-daaaa!" that evening and served us all a piece of grape pie. It was fabulous! Give it a try; I don't think you will be disappointed. ~Elspeth's (formerly skeptical) mom

Elspeth said...

Alison, you are very lucky to have found Thomcords. I could have used some of those this week! Still, the pie was worth it, as my mother has so kindly attested! In fact, although it is only 10:30 am, I just snuck a little bite a few minutes ago. So good!

All the best,

Anonymous said...

Hey Elspeth,
I've just read through this recipe (since I have a basket full of Concord grapes waiting to be used). You never mention to take OUT the skins after they lend their color for 5 hours. You don't eat the skins, do you?!?
And wouldn't this all be easier if one simply boiled the entire fruit, the way we do for jelly, and then put it through a food mill? Then we wouldn't have to pinch each grape at all. What do you think?

Elspeth said...

Hi Wingnut! (Which one?)

I am guessing Genie. You DO eat the skins, and they are an important part. It sounds strange, I know, but they add a lot. The problem with the food mill idea is that the skins won't get through, and you really need them both for body and taste.

Good luck!


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