concord grapes

concord grape and rosemary focaccia

autumn, breads, breakfast, desserts, vegetarian, winterFieldandForestComment

It is rare to walk a block in Salt Lake City without passing a grape vine or two draped over a fence or stealthily climbing a tree. Grapes grow well here, and are one of the first plants to offer an abundance of foliage in the spring. I think, for that reason, they’ve become a popular choice for home gardens since it seems like we’re all starving for something lush and green after months of brown earth and snow. They also produce plenty of fruit, more than most people can consume on their own, which is why some will reach out to the grapeless and invite us to help (and eat). There is now a palpable sense of urgency to rehome fruit since we don’t know when the first snow will arrive; the window for picking some varieties will close following a deep freeze as their skins will crack and burst as their cells expand in the cold.

But there are indeed some silver linings to the end of the season. The leaves have now all shriveled on the vines (products of dwindling temperatures and two lightening-fast freezes over the last month), and it seems almost unfair how easily one can see exposed fat bunches of grapes. You would only need to stand next to the vine with your eyes closed and reach towards it to feel the hundreds of fruits waiting to be picked. We moved up and down the fence, gently snapping stems, greedily dropping the grapes into bags that quickly became heavy and juice-stained. We stopped after twenty minutes, embarrassed that maybe we had taken more than our share and already realizing that we had no plans for the poundage now in our possession. But I daresay that, had you visited the vine after we left, you would have been distracted by the remaining fruit and would never have known we were there.

If you’ve ever looked at recipes involving grapes, you might wonder why some specifically call for Concord grapes. I think experiencing their flavor is the only way to truly understand the reasoning. They are so very… grapey. Eat one (if you haven't already) and I think you’ll agree. I have heard people say that they just do not like Concord grapes, and while I enjoy them, I understand how they might feel that way. They are a gamey fruit, with a sharp, unmistakable flavor and robust, matte skin. We have small vine in our own garden, next to a separate vine of a pale green grape (Thomson Seedless, perhaps?) that offers tiny fruits with delicate skins; while the Concord grapes are almost offensively flavorful, eating the lighter grapes is akin to biting into bubbles of perfume. They are the suckling pig to the Concord’s wild boar, and more of a crowd pleaser, I think. But they do not hold up well to cooking, and are best consumed off of the vine (or out of the bag).

If you cannot find Concord grapes or don’t want to use them, a seedless red variety will do well here. Use grapes that are relatively firm when gently squeezed; aging grapes  that are beginning to wrinkle will give you more of a raisin effect when baked. If you choose to use a seeded variety and remove the seeds yourself, give yourself an extra half-hour to do so and only serve this bread to people you really like.

 Concord Grape and Rosemary Focaccia
Adapted from Ripe, by Nigel Slater - makes 1 loaf
(Richard would like you to know that this is one serving, though Nigel claims it can serve up to eight)

3 1/4 cups white bread flour or all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water (105-115˚F or just barely warm to the touch)
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
14 oz concord grapes, halved and seeded, divided
1 tablespoon pearl sugar
large pinch flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
little confectioner's sugar

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl.  In a small bowl, mix the yeast and sugar into the warm water, and set aside for 5 minutes (this is called proofing, and allows you to make sure that your yeast is alive).  You should start to see little bubbles on the surface of the mixture after a few minutes; this means the mixture is active. (If you don't see bubbles, your yeast may have expired, or your water may have been too hot.  Check your yeast's expiration date, and try again with new yeast and fresh water).  Once your yeast has proofed, add the mixture to the flour and salt along with 1 tablespoon olive oil, stir with a wooden spoon, and turn out onto a generously floured board and knead lightly for 5 minutes.

Once the dough feels elastic and "alive," put it into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a damp tea towel (this creates a humid environment to help support yeast activity and keep the dough from drying out) and set in a warm place to rise.  It will take approximately one hour to double in size.  (If you haven't already prepped your grapes, now is an excellent time to do so!)  Once the dough has doubled, punch it down gently to release some of the air.  Add half of the grapes to the dough (while still in the bowl) and gently knead them in until they are evenly distributed.  Tip the dough out onto the parchment lined pan, and shape into a flat circle.  Pock the surface with your fingers, like you are playing piano on the dough, and scatter over the remaining grapes.  Cover the dough with the tea towel and return to a warm place to rise.

Preheat the oven to 425˚F (220˚C).  Once the dough has expanded to almost twice its size, drizzle over the olive oil, and scatter with the pearl sugar, salt, and rosemary.  Bake in the middle of the oven for 30-40 minutes, until well-risen and golden brown.  The focaccia should feel springy when pressed.  Leave to cool slightly before dusting with confectioners' sugar.  Cut into thick wedges and serve warm.

Notes on making this ahead of time:  Focaccia is best eaten within a few hours of baking, and will lose its magic when stored overnight.  If you cannot complete all of the steps in a single day, make the dough, place in the oiled bowl, and store, covered, in the fridge to rise overnight.  Let the dough come to room temperature for 1/2 an hour in the morning before kneading in the grapes and shaping it for the second rise.  You may again store the dough in the fridge for the second rise if necessary, letting it sit out of the fridge for 1/2 an hour before baking.