OK, sure, I'm corny with my titles. As with most things that come into my life or my mouth, I have high expectations — otherwise, why bother wasting time! The truth is not all grapes are created equal. When I think of the perfect grape flavor, I lust after that Welch's burst of boldness that has me craving more. Sadly most store-bought grapes fall far short of this standard. They wink enticingly in their tight little skins, fooling me into loading up my basket, only to get them home and find they reneged on all those promises — a totally empty, watery tease!
So when grape season hits the farmers market, as it is right now, I get all sorts of excited to see stands loaded up with varieties such as Muscat, Kyoho, Concord and the tastiest flavor punch-packer, the foxy Thomcord.
Foxy, by the by, is a term used to describe this type of Lambrusca or "slip-skin" grape, which has a very pronounced, slightly musky, sweet aroma that when isolated down was found to come from the ester methyl anthranilate, which gives off that fruity grape smell and is used to flavor grape Kool-Aid, gum, candy, etc. As for "slip-skin" grapes, this refers to how, when the fruit is squeezed between two fingers, the flesh pops right out intact, naked and ready for devouring.
The season for these precious balls of piquant sweetness is late July and into September if we're lucky. While I love to gobble them up as fast as possible, I also want to relish their fragrant goodness long after the season has passed. I'm not a jam maker — there's too much sterilizing and fiddling with tongs for my liking — so instead I alchemize them into consommé.
The process is simple: The grapes are loaded into a stainless steel bowl with a small quantity of sugar and water (via osmosis, the sugar in this solution helps to suck the sugar and therefore flavor from the grapes into the water, so it is vital to the process ). Once that's strained and cooled, you are left with a liquid manna from the gods that can be sealed into pouches and frozen till ready to use.
And use I will! From homemade soda to shrubs and cocktail mixers, the consommé has masses of potential vehicles to be slipped into. My favorite of all is in a refreshing and low ABV drink called a Rebujito, a drink conceived in Andalusia that pairs sherry with soft drinks, usually something Sprite-like.
In my version I forgo the soda and combine Manzanilla sherry with the grape consommé, lemon juice and Banyuls vinegar for extra tang; for an earthy botanical fragrance, I toss in a shiso leaf or two. If you're feeling adventurous you can add some fresh botanicals into the pot with the grapes when cooking down. A fresh sprig of thyme or two is quite delightful, but mostly I'll leave these heavenly balls of goodness by themselves, because why mess with perfection?
2 oz. Thomcord grape consommé (recipe below)
2 oz. Manzanilla sherry (I'm in love with Alexander Jules)
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
¼ oz. banyuls vinegar
¼ oz. simple syrup (1:1 ratio sugar to hot water)
2 shiso leaves (mint can be used in a pinch)
Add all ingredients to your shaker with four or five ice cubes and shake hard for 5 seconds.
Strain into an ice-filled glass of your choice and garnish with a stem of grapes.
Thomcord grape consommé
(modified from a recipe by chef Michael Voltaggio )
3 cups Thomcord or Concord grapes
½ cup white cane sugar
2 cups water
Fill a medium-sized saucepan halfway with water and set on stove to boil.
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Toss grapes, sugar and water into a stainless steel bowl and wrap tightly with plastic wrap. (I wrap it like a mummy so no steam can escape that sucker!)
Place the wrapped bowl onto the pan of boiling water, making sure the bowl does not touch the surface of the water. Turn heat down to low and keep water at a high simmer.
Allow the grapes to steam for at least 1½ hours, checking on your water levels in the pan to make sure it has not evaporated.
Once ready, remove bowl carefully and allow contents to cool before unwrapping and straining. Store in an airtight container or freeze till ready to use.