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July 08, 2024

Raisin D'Etre

By Bernie Pilarski

It has been four and a half years since I was somewhat unceremoniously jettisoned from the workforce and opted to retire, and in that time have undergone a metamorphosis from industrial cog to domestic hermit. Instead of rushing off each day to the factory to build things, I now rise each morning and throw myself into the tasks of cleaning, cooking and homemaking.

And I love it.

Like any career change, there is a substantial amount of retraining and the taking on of new tasks. I have, for instance, greatly improved my cooking skills, which frankly, were pretty rudimentary. I might have been able to keep from staving to death before, but how long can you live eating meatloaf and mashed potatoes? Since my retirement, I've had the time to explore more and more foods, and the more I do, the more I am encouraged to try.

I'm still cheap, of course, and so I haven't moved into the realm of "gourmet" type foods. My food choices have been in the direction of foods that are hearty, healthy and inexpensive. I identify much more with the immigrant communities that cooked with what they could afford and made stick-to-your-ribs dishes. In that vein, I look for ways to use what we can grow. There are lots of ways to use tomatoes, for instance, which can usually be grown in abundance in any garden, and I have honed my salsa making skills to make use of all the tomatoes our garden produces. Sweet peppers, which are ridiculously easy to grow, can be made into an incredibly versatile pepper slaw that is great on sandwiches or simply as a side. Our lemon tree provides all the lemon curd we can use.

I've always felt that we underutilized the grape harvest we get from our one grape vine. It is very prolific and produces buckets of tasty, seedless green grapes. Aside from eating grapes ad nauseam, I wanted another way to better use our crop. I tried jelly, and it was okay, but these were not ideal jelly grapes, and all the other recipes I looked at typically use maybe a cup of grapes. I needed something that would consume more grapes so I could stop feeling bad about leaving so many grapes to shrivel on the vine.

Then it dawned on me -- raisins.

Be forewarned here: this is not a D.I.Y instruction piece. I have no insider information to pass on to you, and I make absolutely no claim to any competence in the field whatsoever. This is more of a Shared Experience type article, just a friendly passing along of something I found interesting, and it does keep me from talking about my hemorrhoids or my arthritic knee or any of the other maladies one tends to talk about more and more as one gets older.

I liked the raisin recipes I saw -- take grapes, add heat, wait. The simplest approach I saw was to take the grape bunches, throw them on the ground in a grassy, sunny patch, and wait two to three weeks for the raisins to appear. There are admittedly some issues with bugs and birds with this method, and I didn't have an appropriate sunny, grassy patch. I might have hung them on clothes line in a place that gets good sunlight most of the day, but there are still the issues of critters. I might also have brought the grapes inside, spread them on a cookie sheet or two, popped them in a warm oven (180?), and waited for somewhere between one to as many as three days. That was possible, but I didn't want to tie up the only oven we've got for that amount of time.

The only other alternative was a food dehydrator, which of course I didn't have. There are ones you can improvise, there are ones you can build, and there are ones you can buy (prices start around $40 and can run into the $100's). The problem here was that all the plans obtaining hydrators required spending more money than I was willing to on a project that I wasn't sure I was committed to. Remember, I am cheap -- I know it, I admit it, it is who I am. The best advice for someone in my position was to start looking for a dehydrator on the yard sale circuit, where they are apparently (and suspiciously) readily available. This seemed to be the logical way to proceed, but the question was whether I could find a dehydrator in a timely manner with a fully pregnant vine with a burgeoning crop of grapes.

After several weeks of fruitlessly searching local yard sales, I managed to finally score a dehydrator at a rummage sale at my church community. I spent a whopping three dollars. It was a basic, bottom of the line Ronco model, but it was clean and in good condition. As an added bonus, the woman who had donated the dehydrator to the rummage sale was there, and I got to chat with her. She assured me that it worked, and she shared with me some stories of what she had made with it. Grapes, dehydrator, time ... I now had everything I needed to go into raisin production.

For my first batch, I took the simplest approach. I took the grapes off the vine, washed them, de-stemmed them, dried off the excess moisture, and stuck them in my newly acquired dehydrator. Three days later and voilà, raisins! And, I might add, darn good raisins. You get an astonishingly small amount of raisins from a copious amount of grapes (about a four to one ratio of grapes to raisins), so raisin making will never be a cost saving process if you have to buy grapes, but if you have a grape vine, then the raisins are a bargain.

I'm going to play with my dehydrator for a while. The woman who had it said she made jerky in it. We'll see. If I only use it once a year for raisins, three dollars is all I'm willing to put into the process. Who knows, I may fall madly in love with dried bananas and not be able to do without them, and then I will want to purchase the $250 commercial dehydrator with fans and thermostats. Food is funny that way -- you never know what you might get hooked on. If you've got any suggestions about how I should proceed, or advice in general about dried foods, please leave your comment at the end of this article. I'd love to hear from you.

For the moment, raisins from an otherwise wasted crop is a good deal, and Joan, the youngest granddaughter, loves the raisins. That alone is a good reason to look forward to next year's grape harvest.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-09-22
Image(s) © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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