The unprecedented amount of rain brought on by Tropical Storm Irene has made for a difficult growing season for many crops harvested in the Tri-State area. But in the Finger Lake region, this was a booming year for grapes, which had a harvest up 7 percent from last year.
Photographer Diana Pappas stopped by a farm in the Hudson Valley area that reported widespread crop loss of its grapes. Rain washed off all the fungicide farmers had applied to the plants.
Pappas, who writes the blog Eat More Butter along with chef Jamie Paxton, explains that it was a different scenario in western and northern New York.
“They had fabulous harvests because they missed those rains,” she said. “They had perfect grape growing conditions. I mean, it was definitely a little overcast but it was warm. And they had fruit just falling from the vines.”
The season for grapes is just over now, though there may still be a few bunches of Concord or Niagara grapes at market. They’re worth snapping up if spotted. The grapes have a thick slip-skin and seeds, but Paxton insists they are worth the trouble, “because they’re delicious, and because they’re really unique. It’s a completely different fruit than your typical supermarket grape.”
In fact, Niagara grapes were poised to become the country’s most popular grape toward the end of the 19th century. The small, translucent green fruit was named for Niagara County, N.Y, where they were first grown.
“About 15 years after both the Concord and Cassady grapes hit the market, these two guys, Claudius Lamb Hoag and Benjamin Wheaton Clark ... decide to see what happens if they take a Concord grape plant and cross-pollinate it with the pollen from a Cassady grape,” said Pappas. “The result five years later is fruit on a really vigorous vine that has a lot of qualities of the Concord, but it’s white.”
Pappas dislikes Niagara grapes because of their floral, “shampoo” taste. But soon after they hit the market, the grapes became wildly popular.
Then the Niagara Grape Company, headed by Clark and Hoag, made a misstep. The company gave plants to growers in an attempt to seek profits from the final sale of the fruit. The result was that the market was flooded with Niagara grapes, supply exceeded demand, and the company went out of business.
These days, the Niagara grape is once again a specialty product primarily found at farmers' markets. Paxton says that the Niagaras are more delicate in flavor than Concords, and she recommends pairing the fruit with poultry. Like Concords, the grapes are primarily used to make jellies and juice.
“I can relate to not liking the slip skin and the seeds,” she said. “But, you know, I think it’s worth seeking out and spitting out the seeds here and there.”
Below, try Paxton’s recipe for Braised Chicken Thighs with Niagara Grapes, Shallots and Thyme.
Braised Chicken Thighs with Niagara Grapes, Shallots and Thyme
by Jamie Paxton, photographed (right) by Diana Pappas
- 4 bone-in pasture-raised chicken thighs
- Lard, duck fat or canola oil for browning
- 2 large shallots, thinly sliced
- 1 cup Niagara grapes
- Zest of 1 lemon, grated
- 1 small bunch of thyme
- 1 cup (homemade!) chicken stock
1. Allow chicken thighs to come to room temperature and season with salt.
2. Meanwhile, cut the grapes in half with a sharp paring knife and remove the seeds, preserving as much flesh and juice as possible. Set aside.
3. Heat a heavy-bottomed dutch oven over medium-high to high heat and brown the chicken thighs, skin-side down, in lard, duck fat or canola oil. When done, remove the chicken from the pan and pour off any extra fat.
4. Lower heat to medium and sauté shallots in remaining fat or a few tablespoons of butter until soft and translucent.
5. Add the grapes and sauté for a few minutes. Then add the lemon zest, thyme and chicken stock to the pan and bring to a slow simmer.
6. Return the chicken thighs to the pan, skin-side up, along with any juices that may have leaked out. Depending upon the size of the chicken thighs and the size of your pan, you may need a little more or a little less chicken stock. The stock should come one-half to two-thirds of the way up the chicken thighs but should not cover too much of the skin.
7. Reduce the heat, cover the pan and simmer gently on the stove top or in a 325° oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the chicken is tender.
8. Remove the chicken from the pan and turn up the heat to reduce the sauce until it is thick enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon. We recommend serving the chicken warm with plenty of Niagara sauce, braised kale and crispy potatoes.