Even in the manicured suburbs of the Gulf Coast, it’s not uncommon to find wild grapevines that are identical to the ones that grew when the native Karankawas were the only inhabitants of the area.
Mustang grapes managed to do what the Karankawa couldn’t — coexist with every group that has planned to settle, pave or otherwise domesticate Texas and still remain wild.
Mustang grapes are seedy, tart and tough-skinned, but that doesn’t stop gardeners from cultivating them, or ambitious foragers from collecting them from wild vines in empty lots, brushy areas and just about anywhere that doesn’t get weed-whacked on a regular basis.
Most of the mustang grapes that are picked are used in jelly or wine, where copious amounts of sugar can be added to tame the mouth-puckering acidity of ripe purple mustang grapes.
Right now, many of the vines still have unripened green grapes, which some harvesters prefer for cooking.
Botanist Scooter Cheatham, author of the 12-volume “Encyclopedia of the Useful Wild Plants of Texas” and an expert on foraging for edible wild plants, suggests using green mustang grapes, either alone or mixed with other fruit such as blackberries or dewberries, in a cobbler or pie.
The green, immature grapes have not yet developed the seeds or thick skins that make ripe purple mustang grapes more challenging to eat.
Mustang grapevines are tenacious and will climb fences, walls and trees, spreading out for 30 or 40 feet.
While the clusters of grapes are smaller than those of domestic grapes, the vines are prolific, making it easy to gather enough for a canning or bottling project.
Mustang grapes are easy to identify. Their large, multi-point leaves are white on the underside, distinguishing them from other wild vines.
Although the grapes are easy to spot, like many wild things they can’t be harvested without some effort.
The vines are sturdy enough that scissors are usually necessary for cutting off the bunches of grapes, and sometimes even for removing each individual grape from the stem.
Because they are so acidic, wearing gloves is essential to prevent itching and irritated hands.
Experienced foragers such as Cheatham advise moderation in eating them raw.
In his song “Mustang Wine,” Texas singer-songwriter Steve Earle pays tribute to one of the more traditional uses for mustang grapes.
“Well, mustang grapes, they ain’t too sweet, but that mustang wine just can’t be beat.”
Spanish missionaries made wine from the grapes in the late 1600s, according to historical records, and German settlers later used the grapes for their own wines.
For those who prefer to do their foraging in the grocery store, grapes from California are widely available and are a little easier than the mustang grapes to eat.
They’re also great for cooking, in everything from a grape-based version of the potluck perennial pretzel salad to a cool and colorful tart.
Grapes can also add crunch and color to a summery chicken salad.
For the best of both worlds, one of these cool grape dishes made with store-bought grapes would be the perfect ending to a hot day’s expedition foraging for mustang grapes.
Summer Fruit Tart
1⁄4 cup cold butter
1 cup flour
1⁄4 cup sugar
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
Pinch of salt
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
1⁄3 cup sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups grapes
1⁄2 cup apple jelly
Cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Mix together the sugar, egg, egg yolks and salt. Combine the mixture with the flour-butter mixture. Put the dough in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
Butter a 9-inch tart pan, pie plate or springform pan and butter your hands.
Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan, forming a 3⁄4-inch rim on the edge. Prick the bottom all over with a fork and chill in the freezer for 1 hour before baking.
Once chilled, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake the crust for 20 minutes or until brown on the edges. Let the crust cool.
Beat together the softened cream cheese, sugar, lemon juice and lemon rind until smooth and creamy. Spread this mixture over the crust.
Arrange the grapes in rows across the pastry. Melt the jelly and brush it over the grapes to glaze.
Chill before serving.
(SOURCE: Recipe from “The Vegetarian Epicure,” by Anna Thomas)
Grape Pretzel Salad
4 pounds grapes — green, red, black
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
8 ounces sour cream
1⁄4 cup white sugar
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
1 stick butter, melted
2 cups broken pretzels
Wash the grapes and dry them on paper towels.
Soften the cream cheese. In a large bowl, blend it with the sour cream and white sugar. Stir in the grapes to coat them all. Refrigerate the grape mixture.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the brown sugar, melted butter and pretzels.
Place the pretzel mixture in a baking pan. Bake for 15 minutes. Stir once while baking.
As soon as you take the pretzel mixture out of the oven, loosen the pretzels to break them apart. Cool.
At serving time, top the grapes with the pretzel mixture.
(SOURCE: Recipe adapted from “The Stefonek Family Cookbook,” by Cairgene Kauth)
Chicken Salad with Grapes
1 whole fryer chicken
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
3 whole green onions, chopped
2-3 cups red or green grapes, halved
1⁄2 cup mayonnaise
1⁄2 cup plain yogurt OR sour cream
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
A small handful of fresh dill, minced
1⁄2 cup slivered almonds
Rinse the chicken thoroughly and place in a large pot of water. Turn on the heat and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat and simmer until the chicken is done — about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Remove the chicken from the pot and place on a plate. With your fingers or a fork, pull the meat off the bones, chop into bite-sized chunks and set aside.
Chop the vegetables and fruit and place them in a bowl with the chicken.
In another bowl, mix the mayonnaise, yogurt, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add the dill.
Pour the dressing over the chicken, vegetables and fruit mixture and stir gently until everything is thoroughly mixed.
Allow the salad to chill for several hours or overnight.
Sprinkle the slivered almonds on the chicken salad and serve on a bed of lettuce or in a sandwich.
(SOURCE: Recipe from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks,” by Ree Drummond)