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Low Mileage Kitchen: Grape memories, sweet and stained purple

Concord Grape Conserve goes well with cheese scones or ice cream. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

Concord Grape Conserve goes well with cheese, scones or ice cream. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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From the Farmstand

The year-round Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, 66 E. Randolph, offers Midwest-grown foods and other locally produced edibles, including those used in this recipe. Cooking classes are offered through the World Kitchen program (chicago Reach the Farmstand at (312) 742-8419, or go to


At 6 p.m. Sept. 21, the Farmstand hosts a culinary conversation with some of its charitable-focused vendors including First Slice and Sweet Miss Giving’s. Free to attend; (312) 742-8497.

Updated: May 9, 2012 9:49AM

If you grew up in an Italian neighborhood or had grandparents from the old country, you may share one of my childhood memories: hiding under the grape arbor to play with dolls or read.

When the leaves grew large, it was a good spot to keep cool and out of the way of adults. From here I could watch the little dots of premature grapes grow week by week.

Sometime around mid-August, the bunches would start to turn pink, and then, just about the time Mother made me try on clothes for the new school year, some of those clusters would begin to darken.

Dreams of a sandwich made with warm jelly as it came out of the big pot danced in my head until those grapes finally were ripe enough for picking.

My mother was the queen jelly-maker in our community. Once you’ve been in a hot, steamy kitchen where hands, pots, even walls become stained a bright burgundy, you begin to understand why this is a once-a-year enterprise.

But oh, those wonderful aromas. They wooed me into joining the kitchen drudgery of washing and stemming grapes and helping with the canning. Soon a neatly labeled row of jars filled with liquid purple waited in the pantry.

This week, autumn begins and I search the markets for the elusive Concord grape. Not many local farmers grow grapes anymore, and the backyard grape arbors lining Chicago alleys are mostly gone, but not the memories of a messy, jelly-laden slice of toast.

This year I chose a slightly more sophisticated recipe, but one with old-country Italian roots. This conserve was developed by Eugenie Bone, whose father, Edward Giobbi, was once an icon of Italian cooking and revered by budding cooks like myself for his no-nonsense approach to Italian standards.

The conserve makes a fine topping for scones or a bowl of ice cream, or to fill a tart. But baking it with cheese in a buttery pastry crust gives this party centerpiece an updated flair.

The recipe makes several jars, which can be properly canned for future use, or refrigerated and used during the upcoming holiday entertaining season to cook with or give as gifts.

I guarantee, even if you don’t share my childhood memories, one bite will make you smile and wish for a grape arbor under which you could escape reality for a while.

Judith Dunbar Hines is the director of culinary arts and events for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, which operates Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand.

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