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No griping about grapes

BY MARIALISA CALTA Modified: September 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm •  Published: September 17, 2012

It's a sign that summer is over when you dive for the bags of cherries at the market, only to realize that cherry season has passed and that what you are looking at is a bin of grapes.

Put aside your disappointment and enjoy what is at hand. Sweet, fresh grapes are a treat that is often overlooked. When do you hear anyone talking about grapes unless it's in reference to wine?

Grapes have been around a long time. According to "The Oxford Companion to Food," Egyptian cave paintings dating from 2440 B.C. depict the cultivation of grapes. Vineyards are referenced around the time of Noah in the book of Genesis.

Ancient Greeks and Romans used grapes not only in wine and to eat fresh, but also as an ingredient. They boiled grapes into syrups, some sweet and some astringent, and used them in cooking.

But "the grapevine is a particularly American plant," according to "The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink." Europe has only one native grape species; North America has 20.

"North America is the center of diversity for the grape," the book says. Remember that the Vikings, exploring North America way before 1492, named the place where they made landfall "Vinland" because of the grapevines there. It is now known as Newfoundland.

At least 70 varieties of table grapes are cultivated in California alone, but we consumers know grapes mostly as "red," "green" and "black." Buying guides advise looking for green, pliable (not woody) stems and a powdery "bloom" that denotes ripeness.

If you live in the South, you can buy Scuppernong grapes, those big, jammy grapes with tough skins (that are never eaten) and chewy flesh. Occasionally, your supermarket might feature champagne grapes, which are NOT used to make the famous sparkling wine but are dried to make currants and are also delicious when fresh.

Aside from including grapes in a fruit salad, many of us rarely think of grapes as an ingredient. But, just like tomatoes, grapes can add sweet and slightly acidic notes to foods.

I first learned about cooking with grapes when a chef showed me how to make a marinade for quail: Puree a large bunch of grapes in a blender and strain them, discarding the skins.

Bruise 4 or 5 juniper berries with the side of a chef's knife and add to the fresh juice, along with a couple of bay leaves and a pinch or two of salt. I've used that marinade for chicken and game as well.

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