Five-year-old Cami Simpson samples a sweet, earthy muscadine as she harvests the native Southern fruit from a vine at Palmer Home in Columbus. Cami’s house parents are Tim and Shelley Potter of Brotherhood Cottage. Photo by: Tanner Imes
September 15, 2010 9:42:00 AM
As hot Southern summers wane into late August and September, young watchers who have patiently monitored vines at Palmer Home in Columbus finally hear the pronouncement: "Muscadines are ready!" And like other fans of the big grape, they fill up their shirttails with the sweet and tart fruit, to enjoy fresh off the vine.
"This was neat," began Mary Tuggle, Palmer Home's director of horticulture. "We have some new kids who have never seen any farm production, and when they learned you eat a muscadine by biting into it and sucking all the pulp out of it and spitting out the seeds, they said, 'You get to spit? Cool!'"
Of course, plenty of others who appreciate the muscadine use them for jellies, jams, juices and other recipes, even salads.
You may consider this native American grape an old-fashioned fruit, and there's credible reason. It's been around quite a while. In the mid-1500s, English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh landed on the coast of North Carolina and later described them as being "on the sand and on the green soil, on the hills as on the plains, as well as on every little shrub ... climbing to the tops of tall cedars ... in all the world the like abundance is not to be found."
Which is best?
Unlike smaller grapes, muscadines grow to about 1 1/2 inches in size and have a tough, outer skin. They don't grow in bunches, but in clusters of four or more fruits. Varieties range from dark purple to bronze in color and go by fanciful names like Black Beauty, Dixieland, Granny Val and Sweet Jenny.
Mississippi State University Extension Service horticulturist Jeff Wilson said, "Selected varieties do very well here. Jumbo, Fry, Carlos and Scuppernong seem to be the most popular ones."
"In our orchard we grow four varieties -- Carlos, the big purple Black Beauty, Fry and Choctaw, which is bronze," said Tuggle, who uses the fruits to make jellies served for special occasions at Palmer Home
(A tip from Tuggle: "The pot you use makes a difference, whether it's cast iron, steel or aluminum. I prefer the good quality heavy steel. If it's aluminum or cast iron, it can change the flavor and color of your jelly.")
A holiday favorite of Tuggle's is to serve cream cheese with muscadine jelly. "Get the jelly to room temperature and drizzle it on and to the side of the cheese and serve with wheat crackers; it has a nice, pretty burgundy look to it."
Cook 'em up
Using muscadines in recipes does require some time in separating the pulp from seeds and skins. To seed, just cut the fruit in half and flick the seeds out with the tip of the knife. If using muscadines in a recipe that calls for the fruits to be peeled, here's a trick from diynetwork.com: cut an X on one end and squeeze the other end until the pulp pops out.
Beyond jams and jellies, one of the most well-known recipes is for muscadine hull pie. Find that recipe, as well as one for seared scallops with muscadine vinaigrette at cdispatch.com, under the Lifestyles link.
Grow 'em, too
The Extension Service offers free publications on growing muscadines and plenty of other fruits. Pick these up in Columbus at 512 Third Ave. N., in Starkville at 106 Felix Long Drive; and in West Point at 218 W. Broad St., Suite D.
Planting season is from November through February, in fertile, well-drained sandy loam soils. Space plants about 20 feet apart, allowing for plenty of spreading on a horizontal trellis (a single wire at about 5-1/2 feet above the ground works fine.) Following Extension Service guidelines, you'll be harvesting muscadines next year from late August to October.
Pick your own
No garden? Try a pick-your-own farm, like Reese Orchard at 1716 Sessums Circle in Starkville. For a small fee per pound, you can harvest your own muscadines (and Asian Pears) now on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon and then from 3-6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.reeseorchard.com, or call 662-324-1509.
Or, get your muscadine rush from the MAFES (Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station) Sales Store on the MSU campus. They sell more than just cheeses, as you can see at msucheese.com. A nonalcoholic 100-percent pure muscadine juice that "tastes as if you're eating a grape plucked fresh from the vine" sells for $6 a bottle. You can also order it shipped to friends who need a sip of the South.
"And we sell muscadine ripple ice cream," said store manager Debbie Huffman. "It was voted the most favorite flavor by students in a 2008 survey." The ice cream is $5 a gallon at the shop located at 925 Stone Blvd., near the Junction.
Collected right off the vine, or adding zing to ice cream, the sweetly tart Southern muscadine keeps delivering on taste.
GRAPE HULL PIE
Total time: Two hours, 20 minutes
Active time: 30 minutes
1 1/2 quarts green muscadine grapes
1 cup granulated sugar, or to taste
1/4 cup corn starch
Premade double pie crust
SEARED SCALLOPS WITH MUSCADINE VINAIGRETTE
Total time: 25 minutes
2 cups red muscadine grapes
1/3 cup olive oil, plus more for sautéing
1/4 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar
1 heaping teaspoon minced shallot
Salt and pepper to taste
12 large sea scallops, preferably dry pack
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Two eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups self-rising flour
1 cup muscadine fruit filling (see separate recipe)
For the fruit filling:
1 dry quart muscadines
1 cup water
1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
To make fruit filling:
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.