Concord grapes are an American innovation, first cultivated by some guy named Ephraim Wales Bull in 1849 in Concord, Massachusetts. Apparently he won some prizes and the grape become famous for its robust sweetness and its distinctive bluish-purple color. For years it was the favored table grape of the Northeast until modern seedless varieties overtook it in popularity; the concord has a thickish skin and a large seed, after all. Still, the Concord grape is the number one variety for juice and jelly; it’s essential “grapiness” and stunning color have become synonymous with the jelly in that oh-so-American invention, the PB&J sandwich. And that purple grape juice from Welch’s that millions of kids drink every day is naturally Concord. But although we are all familiar with that Concord flavor, we are mostly unfamiliar with the actual grape. The “table grape” market is pretty much dominated by the ubiquitous seedless reds and greens, which can be quite good, but are mostly mediocre in flavor. You’ll occasionally find fantastic new varieties like Witch Fingers or Cotton Candy grapes, but generally speaking there’s not a whole lot out there. Even when you see Concords for sale, they are only briefly available.
Now Concords are a late fall crop and so if you run across any supposed Concords being sold in summer, they are probably not true Concords, but something very similar, like the Niabell Grapes I picked up a few days ago from Gelson’s Market. Niabells are almost identical to Concords in flavor and texture — relatively thick skin, satisfyingly gelatinous flesh, huge sugar, and a big seed in the middle. But I confess that the seed is troublesome for me. I’m an admittedly spoiled modern grape consumer and for me spitting out the seeds is a pain in the ass. However, I like the flavor of Concords (and their “Concordy” cousins) and so I bought four pounds.
When life gives you lemons you make lemonade, right? Well, when life gives me lemons, I make a lemon sorbet and add a Grey Goose floater! Just the way I am, I suppose. So when life gives me really fantastic and delicious Concordesque grapes during the hottest week of the year, well ya know I gotta make me some sorbet! I made a killer “Concord” Grape Sorbet not three days ago. No vodka this time; it was two in the afternoon, which is a bit early even for me.
This is how I made it…
I took the four pounds of Niabell grapes and pulled them off the stem. I rinsed them well under cold water and drained the grapes in a colander for a few minutes. I put them in a big pot with one-and-a-half cups of water and one-and-a-half cups of granulated sugar. I added a tiny pinch of salt for just the barest background note of savory. I covered the pot with a tight-fitting lid and brought the grapes up to a boil over medium-high heat. I removed the lid, turned the heat down to low, and simmered the grapes for about 30 minutes, gently stirring every few minutes. I then strained the grapes through a fine-meshed Chinois (conical strainer) although any fine-meshed strainer of any shape would work. Also, a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth does the trick. Next I gently stirred the grapes around the strainer to drain as much liquid out the grapes as possible, being careful not to smash the grapes as I did it. And then I let the grapes sit undisturbed in the strainer for fifteen minutes, letting gravity work its magic.
I managed to get just about five cups of grape sorbet base. I transferred the juice to a smaller container and chilled it completely in the fridge, about three hours. I then froze it in my ice cream maker for about 30 minutes, or until it was very well-churned and airy, almost to the consistency of slightly icy soft-serve.
Now I have a pretty fancy Italian ice cream maker which costs hundreds of bucks, but I get the same results with a basic Cuisinart model that costs about $50. If you don’t have any kind of ice cream maker, you could use this base to make a granita by pouring it into a shallow casserole, putting it on a shelf in the freezer and letting it slowly freeze. Every half-hour or so fluff the mixture with a fork until you have a nice, flaky consistency. This base is very sugary, which means it won’t necessarily freeze into harder crystals, so if you plan on making a granita, you may wish to halve the amount of granulated sugar when you boil your base.
The sorbet was delicious and very refreshing on a hot day. If you stumble across grapes as flavorful as these Niabells, pick ‘em up and make dessert!
A couple of notes:
I’m not really a grape expert, so don’t hold me to any real historical accuracy in my short exposition on Concords.
This post makes me want to listen to Flight of the Conchords, that hilarious Kiwi comedy music duo. Think about it.