Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Great American Table Grapes--And a Visit to the Finger Lakes Grape Country


One of my favorite seasonal signs that autumn is almost here is the appearance of Concord grapes in my local markets. The very beautiful ones pictured above I discovered in a nearby farmer's market. They appeared to be Concords, but were not! The vendor said that they were actually, "Thomcords--a cross between Thompson seedless and Concords." The advantage, she explained, was that they were seedless so you could, "eat them without either continually crunching or spitting out seeds."

Since I've always loved fresh Concords but never liked dealing with the seeds this was good news. Even better news--they taste like slightly mild, but still fruity and very sweet Concords. Another plus: The skins are fairly tender and similar to those of the very popular Thompson seedless green table grapes, not Concords which can have slightly tough skins.
Actually hybridization of grapes is common, and there a many delicious little known kinds as I learned when I visited the New York Finger Lakes region in the fall a few years ago.

The  grapes in the photos at left and below were growing in a 5-acre table grape vineyard north of Naples, New York (shown right) The owner, Len Barron, not only let me take pictures and wander through his tidy, well-tended rows of vines, but pointed out his 15 different American green, red, and purple varieties and gave me all the tasting samples I could eat.

The names he rattled off were mostly unfamiliar—VanBuren, Steuben, Fredonia, Sheridan, Lakemont, and Price—although he also raises Concords, seedless Concords, whitish green Niagara and burnished rose Canadice, which I'd tasted the day before. Every kind I tried was sweet, succulent, and full of the grapey, “foxy” flavor and aroma that our labrusca species of grapes is famous for.

The native vines thrive in the Finger Lakes climate, as my pics make clear. The biggest natural threat is from deer, so Len has Toby, a friendly half-Lab, half-German shepherd watch dog trained to keep the hungry foragers away. “He loves his job and is very good at it.” Len says.

I'd made jelly, juice, and sorbet with Concord grapes before I visited the Finger Lakes, but during the annual Naples Grape Festival was able to sample muffins, cookies and this kuchen, too. The recipe for Concord grape kuchen shown at right is here.                                        

BTW, the Concord is named for Concord, MA, where the variety was developed by an Ephriam Bull. His name may not be familiar, but the creator of the first bottled Concord juice is--it's Thomas Welch! Part of the success of his product is probably the Temperance Movement--his first customers were churches seeking a non-alcoholic Communion wine.  Who knew!

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Apple Orchard Time

This time last year I was out in a pick-your-own apple orchard with my grandchildren and son. It was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the sunlight and gorgeous blue sky, get a little fresh air, and remind seven-year-old Charlie and five-year-old Lizzie that fruit actually comes from trees, not supermarkets!
The children (and grownups, too) had a wonderful time. The trees in the orchard were all a convenient, made-for-picking dwarf size and were loaded with fruit. Which meant that there were plenty of apples hanging low enough for the children to reach. The kids noticed that not only were the colors and shapes of the varities very different, but that the textures and flavors were distinctive, too. 
After picking and trying some shiny red Jonathans, yellow-green Golden Delicious, pretty Pink Lady apples, Galas and an unidentified green kind, they even commented that the outsides didn't really suggest how sweet or tasty the apples were. Considering that so many adult consumers gravitate to the (in MHO) rather bland Red Delicious just because it's a looker, I thought this was a great lesson learned.  (For my suggestions on the best baking apples click here.)

The good news is that in only an hour we’d harvested a generous quantity. The bad news is that we'd picked so many they had to be crammed into our refrigerators. (Yes, apples should always be kept cold or they will soften and lose flavor.) My supply was so large that the door to my spare refrigerator barely closed, and the apples started to tumble out whenever I opened it! I was making cobblers, crisps, muffins, and apple coffeecakes (like the one pictured) till almost Christmas. If you're getting hungry for apples, check out my yumny, quickie baked apple recipe shown below here or go to the recipe archives for some other apple recipes.
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Friday, September 11, 2009

Soup's On! Make Mine Minestrone

Once the weather turns cool, hearty soups are on my menus again. The aroma and warmth in the kitchen are wonderful and there is nothing more inviting than a steaming bowl of soup on a cold day.

Homemade soup is a favorite of my son and daughter-in-law, so I always have a pot ready when they bring my beautiful grandchildren, Charlie and Lizzie, for a visit. This minestrone was also designed to accommodate both the vegetarians and meat eaters in the family. I complete the entire recipe, using vegetable broth, then set aside generous servings for them before I add the meat to the pot. The minestrone is delicious, with or without meat; the vegetarian version is nice topped with a little grated Parmesan cheese.
I created the following using only what I had in the pantry and in the refrigerator crisper. Feel free to add a couple sliced carrots if you have them on hand and omit the zucchini if desired.

For a hearty, crusty no-knead bread to go with your homemake soup, click here. Or for an easy, pesto-pasta soup go here or spicy fish chowder recipe, go here.

Tip: Different brands of products have different amounts of salt, so taste and add salt at the very end of cooking.

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 large celery stalks, divided
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
6 1/2 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth
1/4 cup green or brown lentils
1 large bay leaf
1 each teaspoon dried oregano and marjoram leaves  
1/4 tsp black pepper (or to taste) or 1/8 teaspoon dried hot red pepper flakes, optional
2 small (6-inch) zucchinis, split lengthwise, then cut into 1/4 inch half slices
1/4 cup orzo (rice-shaped pasta) or small elbow macaroni
2 15 oz cans diced "Italian seasoned" tomatoes
1 cup rinsed and drained canned white beans
1/2 to 1 cup diced lean ham, pepperoni, or other cooked, smoked sausage, optional
Salt to taste

In a 4 quart or larger pot, combine the oil, onion, and 1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, for 5 or 6 minutes, until the onion begins to brown. Stir in half the parsley and garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add the broth, lentils, bay leaf, oregano, marjoram and black or red pepper. Bring to a boil, then adjust the heat so the mixture simmers, and cook, covered, stirring once or twice, for 25 to 35 minutes or until the lentils are tender.

Bring the pot to a full boil. Cut the remaining celery stalks crosswise into 1/4-inch slices. Add them along with the zucchini and pasta to the pot. Boil, covered, stirring occasionally to be sure the paste isn’t sticking to the pot bottom, until it is almost tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, white beans, ham or sausage (if using), and remaining parsley and gently simmer until the flavors are well blend, about 15 minutes. Add salt to taste and more broth (or water) if a thinner minestrone is desired. It will thicken a bit during storage, so add a bit more broth (or water) as needed when reheating.

The minestrone will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 3 days. It may also be frozen for up to 1 month.

For another Italian-style soup you may like, this pesto-pasta-bean soup, go here.

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