There are several misconceptions about one of our most commonplace foods -- grapes.
The first is that they are in season year round. That's true, in a way, thanks to air freight, if South American grapes count. However, domestic grapes taste better in September and October and many of the indigenous varieties such as the Concord and Delaware can be found only in autumn.
Another misconception is that grapes are only to be eaten raw. It's true, most people are accustomed to eating grapes in their natural state, but the tiny fruit is also excellent cooked. The recipes that follow use grapes for a gazpacho, with salmon for a main dish and in a pudding.
When buying grapes, look for bunches with full round berries that are slightly yielding (but not squishy) and firmly attached to the stem. Avoid grapes that are rock hard, spotted, shriveled, split or brown at the top, or otherwise deformed. When serving grapes fresh, use scissors or kitchen shears to snip off small clusters; they should be washed before eating.
There are more 10,000 grape varieties in the world, most of them members of the Vitis vinifera (wine grape) family. The major types from this group found in the U.S. are:
Muscat -- A small, round, perfumed, intensely sweet grape that comes both purple and white. Delicious for eating as well as wine making.
Red seedless -- A medium sized, red to purple, mildly acidic grape.
Ribier -- A large, round, black, thick-skinned grape, not super juicy, but mild and sweet flavored.
Thompson seedless -- A pale green, thin-skinned, slightly elongated grape with a mild flavor. This is America's favorite table grape and is used for making inexpensive wine.
Tokay -- A large, elongated, thick-skinned red grape with a honey-like flavor.
The major types of native American grapes available are:
Catawba -- A medium sized, oval, red-purple grape. The skin slips off easily and the flavor is musky and sweet. (Grown in New York and Ohio.)
Concord -- A small, round, deep blue (almost black) grape with light dusting on skin. The skin slips off easily; the taste is perfumed and sweet. Highly perishable, it is often made into jams and jellies.
Delaware -- A small, pale red, sweet, juicy grape grown widely on the East Coast.
Niagara -- A large, egg-shaped, pale amber grape that is sweet and juicy.
Few people realize that wine grapes make for fine eating. They are so intensely flavorful, commonplace table grapes seem bland in comparison. Wine grapes tend to have small berries, large seeds and tough skins, however, which is why they seldom turn up at produce stands.
The traditional method for extracting the juice (and still the best, according to some Portuguese wine makers) is by treading. The human foot gently presses the juice without releasing the bitter tannins from the skins and seeds. Unfortunately, treading leaves a nasty ring in the tub.
More practical methods for juicing grapes include pressing with a potato masher in a deep pot; squeezing in a piston-type ricer; and crushing in a food processor fitted with a plastic blade. Run the processor in short bursts: overprocessing will extract the bitter tannins in the seeds.
To seed grapes, cut in half lengthwise and cut out the pips with a paring knife. If you wish to leave the whole grape intact, insert a bobby pin (sterilized in alcohol) into the stem hole, and use the loop at the end to fish out the seeds. Peeled grapes remain a luxury reserved for the very affluent or our dearest loved ones.
GRAPE GAZPACHO (4 servings)
Ajo blanco (white gazpacho) is a refreshing soup from Malaga on the Andalusian coast.
1 pound Thompson seedless grapes
3 slices Italian bread (enough to make 2 cups cubes)
2 cups cold water
2/3 cup blanched almonds
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup Spanish olive oil
Approximately 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
Remove the grapes from the stems. Remove the crusts and dice the bread. Place the bread in a shallow bowl and add enough water to cover. Soak until soft.
Place the grapes in a blender with the almonds, garlic and 1/4 cup cold water. Blend until smooth. Add the bread, remaining water, oil, vinegar, almond extract, salt and pepper. Blend until smooth and chill for 1 hour.
Just before serving, correct the seasoning by adding salt, pepper or vinegar to taste: the sweetness of the grapes should be balanced by the acidity of the vinegar. Ladle the soup into bowls and sprinkle with chives before serving.
Per serving: 384 calories, 7 gm protein, 38 gm carbohydrates, 25 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 119 mg sodium.
SALMON WITH GRAPES (4 servings)
This recipe is an updated variation on classical French Sole Ve'ronique. The preparation would also be delicious with cod, cusk or snapper.
1 1/2 pounds skinless salmon fillets
1 pound Ribier or red seedless grapes
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon butter for the baking dish, plus 2 tablespoons for the sauce
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 large shallot, minced
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied ginger
1 cup fish stock, chicken stock, or bottled clam broth
1/4 cup heavy cream
Sprigs of fresh cilantro (coriander) leaf for garnish
Run your fingers over the fish, feeling for bones, and remove any you find with a pliers. Cut the fillets into four even pieces. Wash the grapes and cut in half. (Remove the seeds if necessary.)
Season the salmon with salt and pepper. Place it in the buttered baking dish with the wine and loosely cover with foil. Bake the fish in a preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until cooked. (The flesh will flake easily when pressed with your finger.)
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Melt remaining butter in a saucepan. Add the shallot and cook over medium heat for 10 seconds. Whisk in the curry powder, flour and ginger and continue cooking for 10 seconds. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the fish stock and cream. Gradually bring the sauce to a boil, whisking vigorously. Reduce the heat and simmer.
When the fish is cooked, transfer it to a warm platter. Add 4 tablespoons of the fish poaching liquid to the sauce and boil until about 1 cup sauce remains. Stir in the grapes and simmer for 30 seconds. Correct the seasoning of the sauce, adding salt, pepper and curry powder as necessary.
To serve, spoon the sauce over the fish and garnish with sprigs of cilantro. Rice pilaf and a spicy Alsatian wine, like gewu rtzraminer or Reisling, would make good accompaniments.
Per serving: 553 calories, 49 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 28 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 128 mg cholesterol, 409 mg sodium.
MOSTALEVRIASTART NOTE: END NOTE (Greek Grape Pudding) (4 servings)
Mostalevria is a Greek dessert made with must (freshly pressed grape juice used for making wine). In the old days, most rural Greek families made their own wine, so the must was readily available at harvest time. The recipe below uses the juice of freshly pressed Concord grapes.
4 to 5 pounds (4 cups juice) Concord grapes
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon anise seeds
10 cardamom pods
5 allspice berries
2 strips lemon zest
2 strips orange zest
4 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
4 tablespoons cornstarch
Wash the grapes and remove the stems. Crush the grapes by one of the methods described above, and strain the juice (you should have about 4 cups). Chop the almonds and toast them in a hot (400-degree) oven or under the broiler until golden brown. Tie the spices and citrus zest in cheesecloth or wrap them loosely in foil pierced with a fork to release the flavor.
Place the sugar and grape juice in a large saucepan (non-aluminum or non-cast iron), reserving 1/4 cup juice. Add the spice bundle, cover the pan, and gently simmer the juice for 20 minutes, or until well-flavored. Remove the spice bundle. Dissolve the cornstarch in the reserved grape juice, and whisk this mixture into the grape juice. Gently bring the juice to a boil, whisking steadily. Remove the pan from the heat, let the mixture cool slightly, and spoon it into champagne coupes or ramekins, wiping the rims of the dishes clean.
Chill for at least 3 hours or overnight. Sprinkle each dish of mustalevria with toasted almonds before serving.
Per serving: 171 calories, 3 gm protein, 23 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 1 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a Miami-based national food writer.