Edible Seasonals: Grapes
Immortal Fruit: The Many Lives of Grapes
By Ellen Jackson
Photo by Shawn Linehan
We eat them growing up, frozen, by the bunch, and—if your mom is fancy—in chicken salad. They burst with chewy sweetness in oatmeal cookies and our cereal bowls. As we grow older, we learn to imbibe them as men and women have been doing since Neolithic times, while a drunken Dionysus, god of the grape harvest, grins down at us. Every part of a grape cluster is useable, and at every point in its life cycle, a bunch of grapes can be transformed into something delicious.
Vitis vinifera, the cultivar that produces most of the world’s table and wine grapes, is the source of a staggering number of traditional foods and beverages. Wine grapes have a higher brix (sugar content), thicker skins and more intense, concentrated flavor than table grapes. Their natural sugar content and chemical balance, along with the tannins found in their skins, seeds and stems, provide nearly everything needed for grapes, with the right care, to ferment naturally into a complex and tasty drink.
The pressed juice of unripe, green grapes becomes verjus (literally green juice) while the acetic fermentation of ripe grapes yields wine vinegar. Fully ripe bunches ferment, in contact with varying amounts of stems, to fill wine barrels. And, from pomace—grapes’ already-pressed skins and seeds—we get grappa.
Like the foods it accompanies and complements, wine has always had a place at our tables and in our glasses. Its versatility is also prized in the savory kitchen: in stew pots, sauté pans and vinegar crocks. At this point you may find yourself calling up a conventional bit of wisdom made gospel by Julia Child: If you wouldn’t drink it, you shouldn’t cook with it. Not an absolute, I’ve discovered. As it turns out, cooking is the great equalizer. Good wines lose their distinctive, subtle qualities in the cooking process, and “bad” ones become better versions of themselves when aromatics, herbs, meat and fat are introduced, as in Boeuf Bourguignon, Bolognese sauce or Coq au Vin.
Grapes and wine play no less important roles in a pastry chef’s kitchen. Deep purple Concords plucked from the vine make the grapiest gelato imaginable, best enjoyed with peanut butter shortbread cookies. Roasted grapes collapse into a buttery, syrupy sauce for spooning over almond ricotta cake or stirring into creamy rice pudding. Raisins are baking staples, and wine-poached dried fruit is an elegant and delicious solution to what to serve for dessert in the dead of winter.
Perhaps the most fitting of all grape-inspired desserts is the winemakers’ grape cake, traditionally made in the fall at the time of the grape harvest. Found in different forms in different wine-growing regions, whole grapes are baked into a moist cake, focaccia or bread (the Italian schiacciata), celebrating the entire fruit—sweet pulp, smooth skin and pleasantly bitter, crunchy seeds—at one stage of its delectable development.
Quick & Easy:
The process of turning grapes into wine creates a number of natural by-products. Verjus is juice pressed from grape clusters that the winemaker thins from the vines as the crop begins to ripen. Mildly acidic and low in sugar, it sits somewhere between vinegar and wine and can be purchased in specialty food stores and directly from some wine producers. Use it in marinades, vinaigrettes and to finish sauces, or make a syrup by reducing it with a generous amount of sugar and aromatics like bay leaves and lemon peel.
The crunch and burst of fresh, sweet grapes brighten salads containing salty, cured meats, like prosciutto and speck, or cheeses, like feta and goat cheese. And just as they provide the perfect counterpoint to a rich, creamy chicken salad, grapes partner well with most poultry and game meats, whether in the form of a salad or an addition to the roasting pan or braising pot, where they collapse and contribute to the rich liquid. You can also use their preserved leaves to wrap around spiced meat and rice to make dolmas. Adding grape twigs and vine prunings to your barbecue or smoker imparts a subtle nutty aroma and rich fruity flavor.
Let’s face it, the concept of leftover wine is a mostly foreign one, but when you do have it, try making a marinade or vinaigrette. Use it to poach fruit or eggs, steam clams and mussels, make jelly or finish a pan sauce. If you have no immediate use for it, fill an ice cube tray with the remnants of a bottle and add the frozen cubes to soups, stews and sauces. Or start a batch of vinegar. Eventually, you’ll have enough to make poulet au vinaigre (chicken in vinegar), a classic and delectable Lyonnaise dish.
Sweet Old Age
Like Amarone, the Italian red wine made from partially dried grapes, raisins bear only a slight resemblance to the fresh grapes from which they’re made. The concentrated flavor and sweetness that results from the drying process means they’re suited to more assertive foods and flavors than grapes. Fold raisins into farro or spelt berries, along with scallions, toasted nuts, herbs and red wine vinaigrette. For a Sicilian take on sautéed kale, add a handful of golden raisins and some pine nuts to the pan after sautéing leaves of lacinato kale with onion, garlic and anchovy. Reimagine the carrot-raisin salad of potluck suppers past by tossing warm, steamed carrots with sherry wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic, cumin and raisins.
Ellen Jackson is a Portland-based writer, cookbook author and food stylist.