Nature has a way of giving us rewards year-round. In the fall, one of the best is grapes.
Global farming means we can have grapes 12 months a year but in our hemisphere they're in season in autumn. My favorites are the ruby red seedless Red Flames. I love to give them a rinse and then refrigerate so that each grape becomes a crisp, cold and refreshing burst of sweetness. I tell myself I can't eat too many because red grapes have that same ingredient found in red wine that the French Paradox says is so good for us.
Grapes have thousands of varieties, some of which are grown and sold only regionally. The ones we buy most often are green (they're actually white grapes), red, or navy blue -- almost black in color. Sometimes our autumn markets will also have the reddish-brown Champagne grapes, which are tiny and sweet. In Italy the most commonly found grapes are either a rosy red or a yellow-green and they always have seeds, which for me rather interferes with the pleasure of the eating. But if I'm cooking with grapes the seeds won't matter since odds are I'll be putting them through a sieve to catch the seeds and remove the skins.
I'm not advocating thievery, but when buying grapes, if you're uncertain as to their sweetness, you might want to taste one. Not lots. Just one. Enough to confirm that the grapes taste as good as they look. I do this particularly with green grapes, which I find can be gorgeous but sometimes unexpectedly sour. Or tasteless.
Two grapes that always have great flavor are Concord grapes (dark blue-black and with a flavor that will recall your most favorite peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and the Muscat, from which sweet Moscato and other dessert wines are made.
I also touch the grapes for firmness because if the grapes are soft, they may be past their prime. Another sign is if the grapes easily fall off their stems. Instead look for ones that are still firmly attached, need a gentle tug to remove, and seem heavy for their size. And of course, make sure there are no bruises or splits in the skins.
If you see a white-ish bloom on the grapes, not to worry. This is a natural protection for the fragile skins. The bloom will easily wash off when you rinse the grapes before eating or cooking them.
We don't automatically think of cooking grapes and instead more often eat them raw. For example, some of the most common ways to serve grapes are:
- Added to a fruit salad.
- On a cheese platter.
- Speared on a fruit skewer along with perhaps a cube of pineapple alternated with a melon ball.
- Frozen to become an icy snack (remember to wash them first).
- Put through a juicer to drink on its own or added to a smoothie.
- Dipped in egg white and dusted with sugar so to appear "frosted" and used as an edible decoration on a large platter (this is nice to do with a Thanksgiving turkey).
- As a portable snack.
But sweet grapes -- especially red and Concord grapes -- can indeed be cooked with success. You'll usually need a sieve or food mill to remove skins and seeds, but for the right recipe, grapes are a rewarding ingredient:
- Grape preserves. Grape jam or jelly can be canned but for city cooks who are either canning-phobic or don't have the time or storage space, you can instead use your freezer. Simmer about 6 cups of any kind of washed grapes in a sugar syrup (3 cups sugar dissolved over a low heat in 5 cups water) until soft and then put the grapes (not the syrup) through a sieve or food mill to remove the skins and any seeds. Taste the purée and add more sugar if the cooked grapes aren't sweet enough. Pack into small containers and freeze and you'll have grape jam all winter.
- Halved and added to a salad, especially one with crumbled blue cheese and toasted nuts.
- Simmered in port wine and a little sugar until the grapes shrivel and the port becomes syrupy. Or just toss grapes that you've rinsed and dried in a little olive oil and a pinch of salt and roast at 400° F for about 10 minutes until fragrant and begin to soften. Serve warm as a sauce/side to a pork roast or duck breast just as you would cranberry sauce with turkey.
- Chicken Veronique. This old fashioned French classic dish combines chicken breasts with green grapes, white wine and white sauce. To me it's one of the "classics" that's okay to fade from the repertoire. Better is to add halved green grapes to a tarragon chicken salad.
- Grape sorbet. This could be a dessert or a little treat in between courses of a major meal. You'll need an ice cream maker but after that, sorbet is easy because all you need is a simple syrup of sugar and water and lots of grapes. If you use Concord grapes, their dark blue-black skins will help give your sorbet a beautiful purple color. Search her website for the recipe.
- A local New York favorite is the Sullivan Street Bakery grape focaccia. They make it infrequently but once you've tasted it you'll be craving a slice with a little sheep's milk ricotta and a glass of something red and Italian.
And as you enjoy it, perhaps a little Dave Frishberg:
"Pop me a cork, french me a fry
Crack me a nut, bring a bowl fulla bon-bons
Chill me some wine, keep standing by
Just entertain me, champagne me
Show me you love me, kid glove me
Best way to cheer me, cashmere me
I'm getting hungry, peel me a grape."
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