Cooks’ Exchange: Grapevines a reminder of friends and family

September 27, 2018

Many years ago, my special friend, the late Anne Bruno, snipped four branches from a grapevine in her backyard to give to me. The vine had come from Sam Corona who long ago had clipped them from the old Greenbush neighborhood to give to Bruno’s husband, Joe.

Both men had great respect for my father so the intertwined branches and grapes in the future would also serve as a reminder of where my grandparents and father settled in 1911 when they arrived from Sicily and the neighborhood losing its identity during an urban renewal project in the 1960s. With more than a few prayers, the branches were placed in water until a sign of life appeared and only then a decision was made of where to plant them to thrive best during summer and fall seasons in the years that followed.

An abundance of grapes has also meant homemade jam to enjoy — which has everything to do with harvesting the fruit before the raccoons discover the grapes, or the robin who has built a nest every year on top of the arbor as its overseer.

A month ago, after picking 3 ½ cups of grapes from vines that survived a strange summer, I began to search for a grape syrup recipe to no avail. I did, however, find one for blueberry syrup in my “Farm House Cookbook,” written and published in 1991 by Susan Herrmann Loomis. I decided to do some experimenting. The recipe called for 5 cups of fresh wild or cultivated blueberries and I happened to have a hefty cupful in my refrigerator. After giving thought to whether it might work, I proceeded and ended up with a delicious sauce to serve over waffles, pancakes or vanilla ice cream. Here is the initial syrup recipe with my notes at the end.

Blueberry syrup

5 cups fresh wild or cultivated blueberries

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Combine berries, sugar and water in a medium-size heavy saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring. Adjust heat so mixture is boiling gently and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until berries pop and look somewhat shriveled, about 10 minutes. Stir in lemon juice, remove from the heat and allow to cool a bit.

Note: Using 3 ½ cups of freshly picked backyard grapes with a hefty cup of fresh blueberries, proceed as above. After cooked mixture had slightly cooled, and finding a few tiny seeds, I poured it into a heavy metal strainer placed over a bowl, stirred heavily with a wooden spoon until all the thick pulpy juice was in a bowl to pour into a jar later to refrigerate. Delicious.

A few weeks ago, I found a recipe for a relish to spread on toasts topped with goat cheese or cooked chicken or turkey sandwiches that can also be covered and refrigerated up to 2 weeks. These are not “backyard” grapes, but instead seedless red grapes from the grocery store.

Blueberry-grape relish

2 cups fresh blueberries, rinsed and dried (two ½ pint containers)

1 cups seedless red grapes, rinsed and dried

1/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar

Coarse salt and ground pepper

In a large skillet, combine blueberries, grapes, sugar, ginger, rosemary and vinegar. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer gently until grapes begin to break down, 15-20 minutes. Season with ¼ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Let cool completely before using or storing covered in the refrigerator, for 2 weeks.

Son, Mike, recently asked for a coconut pound cake and I thought this one, substituting coconut extract for vanilla, would work just fine. It would also be good drizzled with a little blueberry syrup from the refrigerator.

Sour-cream pound cake

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pan

3 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled) plus more for pan

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

2 ½ cups sugar

6 large eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla (or 1 tablespoon coconut extract)

1 cup reduced-fat sour cream

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt; set aside. In a large mixer bowl, beat butter and sugar until light. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition, then add extract of choice and beat until well combined. With mixer on lowest speed, alternately add flour mixture and sour cream, beginning and ending with flour mixture; beat just until combined. Spoon batter into prepared pan, and smooth top with a rubber spatula. Tap pan on counter to let batter settle. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and cake is golden brown, 75 to 85 minutes. Run a metal spatula around the inner and outer edges of pan; invert onto cooling rack to cool completely. Serves 12

The most common variety of basil is often called Italian or Genovese. Having a passion for basil in any form, here is a recipe from an old “Everyday Food” publication that should become an instant favorite, especially for those whose basil plants need tending at this time of the year. Basil butter can be spread over broiled or grilled white fish, such as red snapper, cod, or flounder, on grilled steak or chicken, corn on the cob, boiled potatoes, and boiled green beans or peas.

Basil butter

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature

½ cup finely chopped fresh basil

Coarse salt and ground pepper

In a small bowl, combine room temperature butter and basil; season generously with coarse salt and ground pepper. Stir until combined. Transfer to an 11- by 10-inch piece of parchment or waxed paper. Roll into a cylinder about 6 inches long and 2 inches in diameter; twist ends to seal. Refrigerate until very firm, about 2 hours. To serve, unwrap and slice crosswise (To store, refrigerate, wrapped in waxed paper, up to 1 week. To freeze, transfer cylinder, wrapped in waxed paper, to a resealable plastic bag, and freeze up to 3 months. Makes 1 cup.

Basil is easy to grow, has bright green leaves with a licorice-like fragrance and peaks during the summer months. If you pick it and cannot use it right away, make sure the leaves are free of black spots, and the stems are tender and not woody. Store basil by wrapping the stems loosely in paper towels and placing in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Here is a classic basil recipe known as pesto.


½ cup pine nuts

4 cups lightly packed fresh basil leaves (2 ounces)

½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 garlic clove

Coarse salt and ground pepper

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spread nuts on a rimmed baking sheet; toast in oven until golden and fragrant, tossing once, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from baking sheet to prevent further browning. Let cool completely. In a food processor, combine nuts, basil, cheese and garlic; season with salt and pepper. Process until finely chopped. With machine running, pour oil in a steady stream through the feed tube; process until smooth.

Makes 1 cup

To store, transfer pesto to a container, pressing plastic wrap directly on its surface to prevent oxidizing and turning dark. Refrigerate up to 5 days. Pesto can be added to many dishes. I keep pesto in a glass jar much longer by pouring olive oil over the top to serve as a sealer.

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