In Season: Thomcord grape the best of both worlds
The Community Market in Santa Rosa the other day displayed a stack of plastic containers of Thomcord grapes, which sounded like a hybrid of Thompson Seedless and Concord grapes. A little research revealed that was the case.
U.S. Department of Agriculture grape breeders at Parlier, a town of about 15,000 in Fresno County, crossed the two grapes in 1983 and - it took a while - released it to farmers in 2003.
Now it's in our stores. Besides the Community Market, it's been spotted at Trader Joe's and in Oliver's on Montecito Boulevard, although I haven't seen it in the Whole Foods on Yulupa. Some Safeways have also carried the variety. It combines the seedlessness of Thompson with the Welch's grape jelly flavor of Concord.
Concord is a selection of the native wild grape of the eastern part of North America. It's why the Vikings called the land they discovered in what's now the U.S. and Canada “Vineland.” It not only has that foxy flavor of Welch's grape jelly, but it has seeds. It's a slip-skin grape, meaning that if you pop a berry into your mouth and crush it, the slippery blob of grape flesh containing the seeds comes squishing out, leaving the skins behind but coating your mouth with the deliciously aromatic and floral-sweet essence of the wild grape.
In 1848, a guy named Ephraim Wales Bull of Concord, Massachusetts, planted 22,000 seeds of wild grapes and went through them looking for what he called “the perfect grape,” finally choosing the variety we know today as Concord. His original vine is still growing there.
Thompson Seedless is a hybrid of Vitis vinifera - the species that drapes our hillsides and bottomlands with wine grapes. “Seedless” is really a misnomer. Rudimentary seeds form in California's seedless grapes, but they've been bred to prevent pollination, and so the seeds stay so small and unfertilized that you don't notice them. The trouble with Thompson Seedless is that it's the flavorless green grape your mom put in your lunchbox.
Concord, on the other hand, is brimming with flavor from both the dark blue skins, usually covered with a dusty “bloom,” and its berries' chewy interior flesh.
The USDA's hybrid of Thompson and Concord has yielded the Thomcord. It looks almost exactly like a cluster of Concord, and it's got a hint of labrusca's heady grapiness in its flavor, which makes it superior to most seedless grapes, including its parent Thompson, except perhaps for those grapes derived from the perfumy muscat variety. It's sweet but not cloying.
And you'll notice that Thomcord has occasional tiny crunchy bits in the berries - those are the rudimentary seeds that have developed just a little more than in Thompson Seedless. Concord has also contributed to the hybrid with a little of the buzzy bite in the back of the throat that characterizes the wild grapes of the East.
It would be good if more grocers identified the varieties they sell. Among red table grapes, the most popular varieties are Flame Seedless, with medium-sized, round, sweet berries, and Sweet Scarlet, at Oliver's now, which carries a light, fruity Muscat flavor.
Look also for Summer Royal, with medium-sized, blue-black, round to slightly oval seedless berries; Red Globe - you may have noticed those extra-large, very round, light red grapes, but they do have seeds; Scarlet Royal, with large, red, oval, seedless berries; Crimson Seedless with medium-sized, red, cylindrical, seedless berries; Ruby Seedless, also known as King Ruby, is similar to Crimson Seedless in size and color, but with oval berries, and finally, Vintage Red, arriving in September with large, red, seedless, oval or elongated berries.
Fresh, seedless grapes - Thomcord (blue) and Perlette (green) would be good choices, so you can alternate rows of them placed cut side down on the creamy base for a wow appearance - and an interesting alternative to peach, berry, or apple tarts. Make this a day ahead and refrigerate for 24 hours. It's a pastry tart that will bring cheers from dinner guests.
Seedless Grape Tart
For the pastry cream:
6 large egg yolks
½ cup white granulated sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the assembled tart:
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons white granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup rolled oatmeal
2 cups pastry cream
3½ cups green and red grapes, halved
- Powdered sugar
For the pastry cream: In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until it thickens. Beat in the flour and cornstarch.
In a saucepan, bring milk just to a boil; add the milk a little at a time to the egg mixture, whisking constantly so the hot milk doesn't curdle the eggs.
Return mixture to the saucepan. Bring to a boil, whisking constantly to prevent scorching, until mixture is thick and pulling away from sides of pan, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla.
Using a rubber spatula, press mixture through a sieve into a bowl. Cover surface directly with plastic wrap, and cool to room temperature in refrigerator.
For the assembled tart: Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a food processor or blender, whiz together the flour, sugar, and salt. Add the butter and mix until it resembles coarse meal. Add 2 tablespoons ice water and blend until the mixture just comes together when squeezed. Add more water if necessary. Add the oats and blend to combine.
Press the dough onto the bottom and one inch up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake on a middle rack for about 25 minutes. Don't let the dough scorch or burn. Let the crust cool before taking it out of the pan.
When the crust is cool, remove the pan and place the crust on a serving plate. Whisk the cooled pastry cream until light and smooth. Spread a half inch or so even on the floor of the crust. Arrange the grapes in a pleasing pattern, cut side down on the pastry cream and press them in. Refrigerate until cold. Just before serving, dust the top with a little confectioner's sugar.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at email@example.com
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