Considering the growth of the tri-county area in the past several years, I figure a number of people are encountering muscadine grapes for the first time. But these Southeast natives have been around a while. Colonists discovered them growing wild in the Carolinas in the 1500s.
The green or bronze varieties are commonly called scuppernongs by Southerners. They were the earliest named variety and were first cultivated during the 17th and 18th centuries around a North Carolina river of the same name.
I also imagine that more than a few folks have been surprised when they bit into one for the first time. These are not at all like the table grapes consumers are used to.
I’m not sure if muscadines are an acquired taste — to me, it’s like at first bite or not. They put up a fight to likability in any case.
For starters, these grapes are not dainty things size-wise. Then there’s that thick skin to get past.
Inside, they are distinctively pulpy, borderline gelatinous. And watch out for those large seeds; their bitterness will bite you back. Most people spit them out, but some do chew right through.
Finally, there’s the unusual muscadine taste, robust and kind of musky.
Still, muscadine fans are a loyal bunch, like boiled peanut eaters. I once had a boss who ate scuppernongs like bon-bons, one after another. I’m pretty sure she was a seed chewer; she was a North Carolina native.
So if muscadines make you work so hard to love them, what’s the payoff?
Muscadines are packed with this powerful phytonutrient, which has shown cancer-fighting abilities and is linked to cardiovascular health.
If you’ve ever done the tour and tasting at Irvin-House Vineyards on Wadmalaw Island, arguably the best muscadine winery in the country, you’ve probably heard winemaker Jim Irvin talk about resveratrol. On the winery’s website is this nugget: A study by the National Institute of Health found that muscadine wines have seven times more resveratrol than other wines.
Well, no one I know is advising that you drink yourself to better health, so let’s explore a couple of ways to eat them as well, for the sake of a well-rounded diet. (I know, these are dessert recipes.)
Thanks to the Folly Beach reader who asked what can be done with muscadine grapes besides making jam or jelly.
I wasn’t surprised to hear from Louise Bennett of Rosebank Farms on Johns Island. Louise says that August is not her favorite month, save for the arrival of scuppernongs and muscadines. This is an excerpt from her August newsletter for the farm’s CSA members.
Louise writes: “I fondly remember picking grapes as a child and devouring as many as possible. The remaining bounty was taken home and popped. Pulp and seeds into one container and hulls into another. Then grapehull pies were made. First Mama made them, but as she became bedridden, I became the pie maker. There was never a recipe; they were a tradition. Recipes are few, but they do exist.”
This one is from “Progressive Farmer’s Southern Cookbook” (1961).
2 pounds muscadines
3/4 cup sugar, divided use
11/2 teaspoons lemon juice
11/2 tablespoons cornstarch
Freshly ground nutmeg to taste
2 uncooked pastry shells
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
Press the muscadines, one at a time gently, with the fingers to remove the pulp. Cook the hulls in their own juice with 1/4 cup sugar for 30 minutes or until tender. Let the pulp cook in 1/2 cup sugar for 15 minutes, then mash through a sieve to remove the seeds. Add hulls to the pulp.
Mix the lemon juice and cornstarch to a smooth paste and add to the pulp and hulls. Grate in the nutmeg and pour into one of the uncooked pastry shells.
Using the other pastry shell dough, cut and cross strips of pastry over the top of the pie to create a lattice top. Bake 15 minutes at 400 degrees, and then at 325 degrees until the crust is brown. Brush with melted butter. Serve plain or with whipped cream or ice cream.
This recipe is from longtime Rosebank CSA member Lisa Barclay. She got it off the Internet a few years ago and made some additions and changes.
Muscadine Dump Cake
1 cup prepared grapes
Grated lemon zest to taste
Apple pie spice to taste
1/2 stick butter
1 cup self-rising flour
3/4 to 1 cup sugar, depending on your preference
1 cup milk
Powdered sugar for dusting
To prepare grapes: remove pulp, save skins, and cook pulp until seeds loosen. Press through a sieve to remove seeds. Discard seeds. Add pulp to skins and cook until tender. Add grated lemon zest and some apple pie spice.
Melt butter in glass baking dish or pie pan (Lisa uses a 9-inch square Pyrex glass baking pan).
Mix flour, sugar and milk in another bowl. Pour flour mixture over butter. Add prepared grapes over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Do not open oven door until done — cake should be brown on top.
Lisa dusts each serving of cake with a bit of powdered sugar just before serving to make it look festive.
We also heard from Virginia Regopoulos, former owner of Reminisce restaurant in Summerville. She recommends muscadine ice cream.
“I went to Callaway Gardens (in Georgia) and they had it on the menu. It was years ago, but you never forget that taste.”
Virginia made it herself by taking a basic vanilla ice cream recipe and adding pureed muscadine pulp, minus the skins and seeds.
“It’s fantastic,” she says. Asked to describe the flavor, she said that would be “like asking somebody what a banana tastes like.” Ha! In other words, it is what it is — unique.
Virginia and her husband sold the restaurant 10 years ago but says she still likes to play with food. She wanted to share something interesting she is doing with eggplant.
Since both she and her husband are diabetics, she always is looking for new ideas. This is what she came up with: eggplant pancakes.
What she does is take one of the large purple eggplants, peels it and cuts it across with a serrated knife into very thin round slices, about ¼ inch thick.
The first time she made them, she dipped them in gluten-free Bisquick before cooking. “They were delicious, my husband loved them.”
But now, she just sprays her nonstick pan with butter-flavored Pam and, over medium heat, cooks the raw slices until they are brown and very soft. (She also sprays the top side of each eggplant slice once it goes into the pan.)
This is the kicker: Then they put a dab of Smart Balance and some sugar-free syrup on top.
“It’s almost like a dessert. You won’t believe how good it is,” she says.
Eggplant cooked this way also can be a savory crepe, filled with asparagus and hollandaise sauce or any number of other things, she says.
This is something I have to try.
Meanwhile, I went in search of a muscadine ice cream recipe.
This one comes from Jenny Turknett, an Atlanta area food writer who graciously allowed us to borrow it.
“I include the skins in my ice cream for a little texture and added color. They do soften slightly in the cooking process, but remain toothsome. If you prefer, strain the skins out just before placing the mixture in your ice cream freezer.”
Muscadine and Toasted Cinnamon Ice Cream
8 ounces muscadines, well-washed and picked over
2 cups half-and-half
2 teaspoons cinnamon
6 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup heavy cream, divided
Squeeze muscadine seed pockets and juice out of the skins into a bowl. Toss skins into the bowl as well. Add 2 cups of half-and-half and set aside.
In a dry skillet, toast the cinnamon on medium-low heat for several minutes until fragrant, stirring continuously.
Heat the muscadine-cream mixture over medium heat just until it starts to bubble. Stir continuously and use the back of a spoon to mash the grapes during cooking to extract maximum flavor. Immediately remove from heat and set aside.
Beat the egg yolks with the sugar. Strain the warm muscadine cream into the egg yolk mixture a ladle at a time, stirring immediately after each addition.
Pull about 1/4 cup of the muscadine skins from the strainer, making sure that no seeds remain, and give them a rough chop.
Combine the chopped skins, the toasted cinnamon and 1/4 cup heavy cream. Add to the custard mixture.
Return this mixture to the pan and heat over medium-heat until slightly thickened (about 8-10 minutes). Stir frequently.
Once thickened, remove the custard from the heat and add the remaining 3/4 cup heavy cream.
Once combined, cover the surface of the custard with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Cut a few holes to allow steam to escape since your mixture will still be warm. Refrigerate for 4-6 hours before freezing in your ice cream maker.
Joanne Alexander of West Ashley passes along two recipes. I’ve included the wine one mainly for fun.
It originated in the Appalachian Mountains, compliments of the Foxfire magazine and book published in the 1960s-70s.
Mash 1/2 bushel of muscadine grapes with your hands, put them in a large churn, and add 21/2 pounds of sugar. Let it work for about a week, until it quits. Strain the mixture to get out the grape skins and impurities. Put back in the churn, add 10 more pounds sugar. Let it work about 8 to 10 days, until it quits and can be bottled. Yield: 4 gallons.
Joanne notes this savory condiment is found in the original “Charleston Receipts” cookbook and is said to be delicious with venison.
8 pounds grapes
3 cups vinegar
4 sticks cinnamon
1 ounce whole cloves
2 blades mace
4 pounds sugar
Remove and set aside skins of grapes. Cook pulp in vinegar with spices tied in cheese cloth until grapes are soft. Mash through fine sieve, keeping out seeds. Add skins. Bring to a boil and add sugar and bag of spices. Cook until thick. Put in glasses and seal.
Who’s got the recipe?
Still looking: Colleagues request recipes for a flourless chocolate torte and for chocolate eclairs.
If there’s a recipe you’ve lost or a dish you are just wondering about, email food@post andcourier or call Food Editor Teresa Taylor at 937-4886.