This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles.
Raw wine. That's one way to look at a cluster of red seedless grapes.
Grapes have much of the complexity of wine but without the notes of oak or leather and nary a trace of tar or earth or, well, anything other than grape.
Depending on the time of year and the variety, the flavor vacillates from puckery tart to nectar sweet. This range is difficult to predict from just looking at a grape, which is perhaps why most grocery stores tend to look the other way when you pinch a grape from the bunch, rub it against your jeans and pop it in your mouth for an on-the-spot taste test.
A handful of grapes -- about 10 -- will set you back a mere 50 calories. Aside from potent antioxidants, grapes are, relatively speaking, nutritionally void.
HOW TO SELECT: Pick up those bagged-up bunches and peer through the perforated plastic. Think pleasingly plump. Look carefully and then give a slight squeeze. The grapes should be neither mushy nor withered but rather firm and taut. The shape, as the flavor, varies dramatically, from oblong to rotund. And be aware that, in most instances, the darker the color, the tougher the skin.
HOW TO STORE: Refrigerate bunches of grapes for up to several days, unwashed and perforated plastic in place. Rinse grapes just before serving.
HOW TO CLEAN: Place grapes in a colander under cold running water or, even better, place them in a large bowl, cover with cold water and swish them around, changing the water several times. Transfer to paper towels to drain, then transfer to a plate, preferably lined with a dry towel to soak up any residual moisture.
HOW TO PREPARE: Any temperature cooler than a slight chill will mute the grapes' flavor. Pull them from the refrigerator about 30 minutes prior to serving.
But with what, you ask, might you serve them?
Anything salty. Pluck little clusters from the main stem and serve with antipasto. Think olives and cured or smoked meats, such as salami and prosciutto. Or reserve them for the cheese course, particularly if it boasts crumbly aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano or a creamy goat cheese.
Or anything sharp. Grapes are a sweet contrast to salad greens with a bitter or peppery edge, such as arugula or watercress, a chili pepper-laced fruit salsa or a Moroccan-spiced couscous.
Even anything creamy. Go plain-Jane and mix into a creamy chicken salad. Toss into a slaw of jicama and green apple with equal parts mayonnaise and sour cream and a touch of honey. Or try something ridiculously froufrou and halve grapes crosswise, trim a bit from the bottom of each to steady it, then top with a teeny dollop of goat cheese and sprinkle with minced pistachios or almonds.
Or try them warm. Strew half a bunch of grapes into the pan of a roast during the last 10 to 20 minutes of cooking, whether pork, veal or fowl. If desired, deglaze the pan with a sherry vinegar or a fortified wine, then mash the grapes slightly to incorporate into the sauce. For a sweet rendition, drench with a simple (sugar) syrup and roast in a hot oven for a quarter of an hour, then toss with blue cheese -- preferably a gorgonzola dolce -- and serve as a last course.
And keep in mind that in most cases, the most dulcet of red seedless grapes make a suitable stand-in for recipes demanding the sweeter, pricier and more elusive Concord grape.
Grapes Sauteed in
Honey and Rosemary
This surprising dessert from Saveur Magazine (May/June 1999) originally called for peeled, seeded green grapes. Red seedless grapes do the trick just fine.
The ice cream melts into the honeyed sauce and imparts a rich creaminess that pushes the dish into the smashing, rather than delicious, category.
If you wish, add a few roasted or candied almonds to the final presentation.
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves
11/2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup honey
2 to 3 cups seedless red grapes, rinsed and patted completely dry
2 tablespoons brandy, preferably cognac
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1/2 to 1 pint vanilla ice cream
Mince half of the rosemary leaves and set them aside.
In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the honey and bring to a boil. Add the grapes and shake the skillet to coat the grapes. Carefully add the brandy and cook, shaking the pan to incorporate it into the sauce, for 45 seconds. Sprinkle with the lemon juice and minced rosemary, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently just until the grapes are heated through and the sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Working quickly, divide the grapes and their cooking liquid among 4 dessert dishes. Sprinkle with the remaining rosemary leaves, then place a small scoop of ice cream in the center of each dish. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 241 calories, 2 gm protein, 37 gm carbohydrates, 9 gm fat, 32 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 23 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
-- Renee Schettler