The Best Concord Grape Jelly Recipe Takes Some Work

September 10, 2023
Dining & Wine
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Food memories can sometimes run backward, to a moment when we first experienced entirely new sensations. This is not that story.

In the summer of 2010, I worked at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, a Brooklyn restaurant focused on classic Southern comfort foods. One of my responsibilities was transforming that morning’s produce order into the basis for the day’s dishes. Over time, the fruits and vegetables that came my way helped me chart the changing season and experience the world outside our basement kitchen. And it was there that I first encountered Concord grapes, the deep purple fruit arriving in flats the very moment the season seemed to be peaking, the kitchen ovens making the mid-August humidity almost overwhelming.

Although I had never seen Concord grapes, I knew them, or at least how they resembled that “grape” flavor of so many sweets and beverages I’d tasted growing up in Lagos. We had grape jellies, stocked in markets that sold European confections, but I had never known a supermarket grape to taste that way. The Concord grapes were juicy, often sweeter than pears, but not as sweet as berries. They had a musty quality, sometimes an earthiness, as if something of the vine itself were present in the fruit. When I tried my first one, picked from a ripened bunch in that basement kitchen, I had to adapt my memories. This was a real food that tasted like a flavor I believed was of purely artificial origin.

Those Concord grapes were destined to be turned, as quickly as they arrived, into a jam we used for a pie whose popularity extended well beyond summer.

For Sarah Sanneh, the pie’s developer and a co-owner of Pies ‘n’ Thighs, that pie — a Concord grape filling set in a black-pepper shortbread crust — was an adult-size slice of childhood.

“I had such sweet memories of eating them off a vine that grew wildly in my grandmother’s backyard,” she said of the grapes. “We didn’t really cook with them. My sister and I loved them fresh, and I wanted a pie with a flavor just as good, potent and grapy.”

Even now, prep work is one of my most vivid memories of my 15 years in restaurant kitchens. It was in these moments when I felt the ingredients speak to me the most.

All these years later, I know that, when Concord grapes have reached their peak ripeness, it’s time to make this jelly. This recipe is different from the method I learned at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, where the grape skins are separated by popping out the soft interior, then added back in to make a jam. Here, the whole grapes are put in a pot with water, heated until soft, then crushed. Lastly, the grape juice is strained of seeds and skins. Pectin, a little lemon juice and sugar are the only other ingredients.

Every spoonful evokes the simplest treats of childhood, and a moment in adulthood that seemed to bring those memories right back, full circle. Just like the shape of the grapes themselves.

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