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There are certain sights, tastes, touches, sounds and smells in life that leave imprinted sense memories in our minds. These memories are puzzle pieces of sensory remembrance, linking us back to unforgettable people, places, and in my case, food. The smell of cinnamon apples reminds me of Sunday mornings in fall, when as a kid in Buff, I was often awoken to the fragrant grumblings of my Mamma knocking around the kitchen making homemade applesauce, and if we were lucky, Grandma’s recipe for Sour Cream Apple Pie. My first apple picking expedition of the season always brings with it a rushing flush of nostalgia as I am reminded of the lost (but not forgotten) sultry summer meals shared among friends with backyard barbecues, salt-aired sandy beaches and rooftops under the stars. But any longing for the sun is quickly abated upon hearing my first crackle of a fall fire or the crunch of crisp leaves falling under foot. As the leaves swirl around in the cool autumn wind, the scent of summer’s sunset takes me back to my very first steps on the sidewalks of New York City some 14 years ago, my first year of college at NYU.
Recently, my memory of those first few steps round Union Square have come flooding back with the memory of another first. Last month The Dinner Belle catered an event for Vogue’s Fashions’ Night Out. As I was assembling a Mediterranean Charcuterie station among the bras and lacy delicates inside Journelle’s Chelsea boutique, I tasted one of the delectable accouterments being offered alongside my Seville marinated olives and womanchego cheese: Concord grape jam. It wasn’t until I smeared the jam on a slice of baguette that the remembrance of the first time I really experienced Concord grapes rained over my taste buds. Though it wasn’t initially a jam that did it, this grapey goodness took me back to the first time I tasted sorbet.
In the fall of 1996, at exactly this time of year, I was one month into my freshman semester at NYU when Papa Belle came calling. He was passing through town for a business meeting, and we made a date to dine together. He and I have a long history of sharing meals all across the country, as I frequently accompanied him on many a business trip as a child. No doubt, I was young to be treated to dining experiences set it city centers among pristine white tablecloths and dimly lit candle light, but dad was intent on exposing my virgin Buffalo eyes, and mouth, to the finer things in life. There was seared tuna in Boston, Portobello mushrooms in California, sushi in New York, and truly sun-dried tomatoes imported from Italy, and tasted for the very first time in Philly. Cautious to sample, but eager to explore what seemed an exotic curiosity, Papa Belle encouraged me to try everything (even raw fish!), and I, of course, fell in love.
So back in the fall of ’96, I was anticipating an immaculate meal with the man who had taught me what an immaculate meal was. I was decked out in my velvet best: platform Mary Janes and lots of black eyeliner; I was ready for a night out on the town! Pops picked me up from my swanky NYU dorm on Union Square West, and informed me we would be going to Union Square Café. I was miffed, a mere café??? I’d been eating off a meal plan for a month and wanted 4 stars and fancy foods, not some crappy café fare. I pouted, and probably whined, but my father stuck to his guns and led me there anyway. From the moment we walked into the restaurant my mood changed; it was bustling, the warm light inside was creating a pumpkin hued glow, and there were two seats left at the bar. The bar! We were eating at the bar, another first, then, and still a favorite, now.
Back then my mind was not the steel trap that you’d expect from a FOOD Maven. Other than the perfectly seasoned fried calamari with spicy anchovy dressing (I was eating anchovies!) the meal remains a bit of a blur. At that point in my life I didn’t know Danny Meyer from Danny Boyle, nor was I even slightly conscious of Café’s stunning reputation. It was likely the top rated restaurant in Zagat that year, but again, the only “Zagat” I knew spelled his name Saget, first name Bob. When the time had finally come to select dessert, I proudly exclaimed my intention to order Baked Alaska. Hoping my father would order some form of flourless chocolate cake to pair, he countered with a trio of seasonal sorbets; once again skeptical, pops asked me to “trust him,” and trust him I did. When the sorbets were laid down in front of us, I put a spoonful of Concord grape sorbet in my mouth, and much to my surprise, it tasted just like Concord grapes, in fact, it tasted somehow better! This was no grape flavored medicinal gimmick, this was the real deal, miraculously whipped, frozen and scooped into a sorbet (and served with the very best biscotti I’d ever tasted, I might add). I was sold (on sorbet and Café) and I don’t even like ice cream.
The world over, it’s grape picking season. In countries across the globe, vintners are crushing grapes, making wines and praying for a good vintage. But the Concord grape is rarely used in vino. The plump little fruit is more at home in juices, jellies, and jams. Sorbets, ice cream, cake filling, and even chewing gum, are just a few of the places you’ll find the grapes making a grand appearance. You’ll also find them at your local farmers’ market, as most of the harvest is grown in North America, and in New York, their season started just a little over two weeks ago and will last till mid November. That makes autumn the time of year to snatch up these distinctive purple hued heavy-hitters known for their candylicious foxy flavor. The robust fruit is easily digested and is lined with a variety of vitamins and minerals that actually give you an instant boost of energy. Like any real food, a lot of research goes into gaining knowledge on what makes these tasty orbs’s tick. From protection from breast cancer, lowering blood pressure in hypertensive men, to garnering 75 % of your daily potassium in a single cup, there is no messing around when facing the great grape.
I may no longer dress head to toe in velvet or apply more black eyeliner than is clearly necessary, but Concord grapes have left an indelible imprint on my sense memory. And just like each season brings with it new crops and the kitchen creations we make from them, this fall brought me back to Union Square Café for another chance encounter of the culinary kind with Papa Belle. Planning the perfect dinner date with dad is always exhilarating, but this time I wanted to do something sentimental and asked him to “trust me” when it came time to picking the dessert…and trust me he did. Father and daughter cabbed it back to my West Village nest where I laid out in front of us fresh, homemade, Concord grape sorbet. His face lit up, and I knew instantly he was flooded with the same sense memory we both share of one of our most special nights together. We dug into the frosty plum colored sorbet and smiled, knowing it was just as good as the first time, way back then, and again.
Concord Grape Sorbet (makes about 1 quart)
• 2 ¼ lbs Concord Grapes (rinsed and stemmed)
• 2 cups Water
• 3 TB Sugar
• 2 TB Lavender Honey
• A pinch of Kosher Salt
* An Ice Cream Machine
In a large nonstick pot, add the grapes along with the water. Cover, stirring from time to time, and cook until the grapes are soft (about 10 minutes). Remove from heat and pass the grapes through a food mill, using the attachment with the smallest holes. If you don’t have a food mill, press them through a fine-mesh strainer, which will take a bit of force (but who doesn’t like a good workout).
Add the sugar, lavender honey and salt, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Chill thoroughly (maybe even overnight), then freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s directions. For me, this means using a completely frozen ice cream bowl (which takes about 6 hours to freeze) and mixing for 30 minutes; as such, I typically make my sorbets over two days. I cook down the grape solution and refrigerate it overnight, while freezing my ice cream maker bowl, and then I mix the solution in the bowl the next morning before popping it into the freezer to finish. When it’s time to serve, I let my sorbet stand at room temperature till scoopable (about 10 minutes), and Eat it Up!