Chef Tom’s Food and Cooking Column appears on page 13 of the Ace Weekly print edition. Text and Photos by Chef Tom.
It makes me happy when fresh table grapes start popping up at Lexington’s farmers’ market. They have no pretense or high-falootin’ calling. They are what they are…delicious table grapes. Right now, fantastic varieties of grapes spill out of baskets and crates from a few market vendors. Recently, Boyd’s Orchards offered pint baskets of adorable champagne grapes. Delicate and sweet, bound in little clusters.
While the early season pink Reliance grapes have come and gone, this past week, Elmwood Stock Farm had gorgeous seedless blue-purple Mars grapes and seedless green Marquis grapes.
“Try one”, she said. Warm and sun-kissed, but soft skinned, they didn’t snap and squirt like thick-skinned refrigerated supermarket grapes. They quietly popped and gently melted in my mouth, tasting subtly of the vines that nurtured them.
Like summer corn, fresh lima beans, heirloom tomatoes, summer squash, okra, or Casey county cantaloupes, I eagerly await this annual arrival of fresh Kentucky grapes. When they finally appear at the market, I scoop them up like mad.
After snacking on them for a while, tossing them into salads, or freezing them to chill glasses of crisp white wine, I roast them.
For this menu, I methodically made a very basic pot of polenta (4 cups vegetable stock, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 cup polenta). After stirring the polenta for about 25 minutes to cook out the moisture, it naturally started to spit and plop like a gurgling cornmeal volcano. I pulled it from the heat before adding 1/2 cup mascarpone cheese, 1 cup grated parmigiano reggiano, and 1/2 cup minced fresh parsley. While the polenta was still pliable, I poured it onto a plastic-lined sheet pan, smoothed it out, covered it tightly, and tossed it into the refrigerator to set up.
After tossing beautiful clusters of Black Corinth champagne grapes with olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh thyme, I roasted them in a 400 degree oven until they started to burst, collapse, and caramelize, about 35 minutes.
While the grapes bubbled away in the oven, I sliced the chilled polenta into triangles and sauteed them in olive oil until they were golden brown. I topped the warm triangles with thinly sliced aged gorgonzola piccante and let their slight heat gently wilt the cheese.
I tumbled the roasted grapes onto a large platter, finished them with fresh thyme, and nudged the cheesy polenta toasts to the side before finishing with minced fresh parsley and aged balsamico di modena.
While the sauteed polenta triangles provided crisp neutral bases for the the wilted gorgonzola, the aged balsamic cut through its pungent creaminess with specks of tart sweet acidity.
The roasted grapes were key. While some of the grapes caramelized and broke down, others remained whole and plump, creating contrasting textures and layers of natural sweetness from their cooked concentrated sugars.
Paired with the gorgonzola and polenta, the popping grapes added a mellow wet balance.
Simple table grapes and cheese.
With a little sass.