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SANTA BARBARA HARVEST / OFF THE VINE

Flight of the purple Concords

With these deeply hued, rich-flavored grapes, cooking brings out a new level of lusciousness.

September 05, 2007|Betty Hallock and Donna Deane | Times Staff Writers

They're the Marlon Brando of grapes: intense, explosive and (hey, if we're talking about the later years) round. Concord grapes -- their dark blue-purple skins give them a brooding quality, their stubborn seeds might amount to difficult behavior. But what makes them a premier talent of American grapes is their rich, distinct, full-bodied flavor. No other grape compares.

Yet for far too long they've had "I-coulda-been-a-contender" status at markets. The grape that loaned its trademark jammy flavor to so much soda, juice and jelly has had an uneven career as a table grape. Maybe because their "slip skin" makes them sort of fragile; the skin is thick but isn't attached to the flesh as with European varieties, so the grapes don't hold up as well during shipping and storage. And then there are those seeds. . . .

But fresh Concord grapes are so delicious. And they're available at Southern California farmers markets. Pop one in your mouth, bite into it and the fruit explodes away from the skin. Once you work the seeds out, the sweet grape slides down like an oyster.

And to cook with them is to discover a whole new level of their lusciousness. Alice Waters has an easy grape preparation that works especially well with Concord grapes -- roasting them whole on the vine. Cut them into small, attractive bunches, drizzle them with olive oil and treat them to a 450-degree oven for 10 minutes. The warm, purple-juicy grapes burst through their skins during cooking. Waters doesn't call for any other seasoning, but if you sprinkle them with a little Maldon sea salt, the crunchy-tender flakes are the perfect complement to the soft, sweet fruit. They're great with sweet or savory dishes, on top of ice cream or alongside grilled meat.

In fact, Concord grapes are generally fantastic with meat. Made into a wine reduction to sauce seared pork tenderloin medallions, they are reminiscent of fresh cherries. They get meltingly soft cooked in wine, their sweetness mitigated by garlic and shallots. The sauce takes on a deep-purple glazey shine.

At Campanile restaurant, chef-owner Mark Peel makes a deep-flavored, gorgeous granita with Concord grapes, Beaujolais wine, whole cloves and black pepper. It's gorgeous, with big grape flavor and the kick of pepper and clove.

Peel says you can substitute a Sonoma Pinot Noir for the Beaujolais. Neither should be more than 13% alcohol. Too high an alcohol content can keep the granita from freezing, he cautions.

And Concord grapes are surprisingly suited to a traditional schiacciata Italian flat bread. It's a focaccia-type bread that's stretched and shaped by hand before small "dimple-like" indentations are made all over the top of the bread with the fingers. Lightly sugared Concord grapes are sprinkled over the top of the bread before baking.

It's easy to seed the grapes by pressing the tip of a knife into the stem end of the grape and flicking out the seeds. But it's not necessary; you can leave the seeds in.

Warm from the oven, the grapes are scented with fennel, rosemary and orange peel. The jammy, luxurious grapes settle into the soft, fragrant bread. Seeds are a small price to pay.

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betty.hallock@latimes.com

donna.deane@latimes.com

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Concord grape flatbread

Total time: About 1 hour, plus rising time

Servings: 16

Note: From test kitchen director Donna Deane.

2 packages active dry yeast

1 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

3 cups flour, divided, plus additional for kneading

3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided

5 tablespoons sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons minced rosemary, divided

1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

3 cups Concord grapes (about 1 pound grapes)

1. In a medium bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and stir to dissolve. Stir in 1 cup of the flour until smooth. Cover and let stand 1 hour.

2. Transfer the yeast mixture into a large mixing bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, one-half teaspoon of the fennel seeds, one-half teaspoon of the rosemary, the orange zest and the salt. With a fork, beat in 1 cup of the flour until blended. Beat in the remaining 1 cup flour. On a lightly floured board, knead the dough for 5 minutes until smooth and satiny.

3. Place the dough into a large bowl lightly coated with 1 teaspoon olive oil and turn to coat all sides of the dough. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour. Punch down the dough and knead lightly for a minute, then pull and shape into a 16-by-9-inch rectangle on a baking sheet.

4. In a small pan, heat 1 teaspoon of the chopped rosemary in the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil over low heat just until warm. Brush the top of the dough with it. Let the dough rise until puffy and doubled, about 30 minutes.

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