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Why don't we cook more with grapes?

"Grapes don't continue to ripen once picked, so they stay as sour or as sweet as when they're harvested. Taste an unripe grape, and it will be mouth-puckeringly sour. Leave that same grape on the vine in the sun, and it will become incomparably sweet. The joy, though, is how much can be done with grapes in the kitchen at both ends of the spectrum, whether they're left whole or turned into juice or syrup to be bottled."

Yotam Ottolenghi

This morning, as is usual on a Saturday, we went to the shops, ostensibly to buy David's copy of The Australian Financial Review, but of course we can't ever resist buying something else in the supermarket. Supermarkets love us.

Anyway as usual, browsing through the fruit and vegetables looking for something cheap and seasonal, I decided that it was all expensive. When oh when shall I be going back to the Queen Vic Market? Indeed I vowed then and there that this would be next week some time.

However, when I got home I started to think about grapes, which, in season - and the season is long - are comparatively cheap. We always have some in the fridge to pick at and nibble throughout the day. Maybe that's why I'm putting on weight. They are, after all, packed with sugar. Anyway I rarely if ever cook with them, although I am dimly aware that you can, so I started to look to see what you can do with them. So very many things indeed that I almost vowed to make next week a week of 7 different ways with grapes. But I guess David wouldn't like that, so I will chicken out of that, and just maybe pick one or two. As I have said before I'm a bit of a coward really when it comes to experimental food.

What follows is possibly a bit boring as it is really just a sample of some of the more tempting things I found that you can do with actual grapes. It's silly that we do not use them more really because they are so versatile. They are right in front of our noses but all we can think of doing with them is eat them just as they are, Well most of the gurus recommended that you at least chill them in the fridge, or else served them in a big bowl with ice and water. There are lots of ways to make them a bit special just on their own - dip them in egg white and caster sugar for example. When I was a child they were a real luxury. The sort of thing you gave to somebody who was really quite ill, to give them a boost.

But before I begin on the recipes I found, let me remind you that grapes are not just grapes. There are also:

Wine and brandy - I'm sure you all use wine in cooking all the time, Mostly to braise meats in or to deglaze things. But there are lots of other things you can do with wine - jelly, cakes being just two. And of course we can drink it.

Vine leaves - in the good old days when we had the occasional large gathering I would make a batch of stuffed vine leaves from Claudia Roden's original book on Middle-Eastern food. Sometimes I used my own leaves - we have a very straggly vine at one end of the house - it certainly never has fruit and it's even all that decorative, but it was there when we moved in and it's still there now. Very little changed. Sometimes though I buy them in a jar. They are a bit of a process but so good. And there are lots of other things that people do with vine leaves too.

Grapeseed oil - I actually have some of this. I must throw it out because it is years - literally - old and has certainly gone off. I must have bought it for a particular recipe and never used it again.

Verjuice - I do use this occasionally and I really should use it more. Maggie Beer, who could be held responsible for bringing it back to our notice has heaps of recipes for it.

Grape syrup - apparently the Turks have a grape syrup which is thick and sweet - a bit like date syrup says Ottolenghi. Doubtless you can get it somewhere in a Middle-Eastern emporium.

Sultanas, raisins, currants and other dried grapes such as muscatels. Interchangeable with grapes in some of the following recipes I would think, but also stars in their own right.

Maybe you can do other things with the seeds, although so far I have not seen them mentioned.

So grapes - what to do with them? So, so many things.

Perhaps the very first thing I ever cooked with grapes was this grape tart. As you can see it was from one of Robert Carrier's cooking cards. It was not a good experience because you had to peel the grapes. My god what a chore that was. That saying "Peel me a grape" says it all really. It's the sort of thing for a slave to do. Though I see Delia thinks it's easy if you pour boiling water over them first. Alas Robert Carrier did not tell me to do this. These days I don't think anyone does. Maybe the skins were thicker back then, because I notice that Jane Grigson felt that it was essential to peel grapes as the skins were so tough. I am guessing that it is indeed an improvement in the fruit itself, or maybe it's just the different ways we cook them these days.

I did find a modern tart - a galette - Grape galette from Elisabeth Laseter a website called Cooking Light and also two cakes, one from Nigel Slater - Honey and thyme cake with roast grapes and one from Maggie Beer - Upside down grape cake with verjuice. Nigel Slater also offers a Black grape focaccia although I'm not sure quite whether you would count that as a sweet course or a savoury one. I'm guessing it would go very well with cheese, although it looks like he has dusted it with sugar.

So let's talk about cheese as this seems to be the number one companion to grapes whether cooked or fresh, often with some kind of nut as well - walnuts and pine nuts seem to be the favourites. Ok - with cheese - and often with roasted or grilled grapes, and often very easily done and pretty spectacular to look at - Burrata with chargrilled grapes from Ottolenghi; Roasted grapes with cheese from Jamie; and Roasted grapes with baked ricotta from Tom Hunt, who uses wrinkly oldish grapes for this.

On to the main course and chicken is the favourite here. Well chicken goes with everything more or less. The classic is, of course, Chicken Véronique and although there are, of course, versions to be be found I actually settled on Delia who did the same thing with fish - sole to be precise -

Fillets of sole Véronique. Nigel Slater thinks the green grapes used for this classic dish are too sharp and opts for black grapes in his Chicken with grapes, cider and cream, and Chicken with celery, verjuice and cream, which you would have to say look very similar, but the ingredients are different so maybe they are not. Same basic idea though. Maggie Beer of course uses verjuice as well as the grapes in her Chicken thighs with verjuice grape sauce.

Delia is not the only one to go with fish. I also found Red snapper with sweet and spicy pickled grapes from Jeremy Ford who was praised for the pickled grapes that accompanied the fish. And yes, of course you can pickle the grapes - SBS has one recipe. But back to the fish. I also found Plank grilled salmon with grape relish from Elisabeth Laseter of Cooking Light. although you would have to say that really in both these fish recipes the grapes are an accompaniment rather than an integral part of the cooking process.

Grapes also feature heavily in other accompaniments such as salads - here are just two examples - Grape and tarragon salad from Anna Jones, and Fennel salad with pistachios and oven-dried grapes from Ottolenghi. But you could also have Braised brussels sprouts with balsamic and grapes, or Grape raita both from Elisabeth Laseter.

But it doesn't stop there.

"Roasting pork on a Sunday afternoon, I sometimes toss a handful of black grapes into the pan juices while the meat is resting. The skins send shots of deepest purple into the fat and meat juices, adding a rich, sweet, vinous note. I cook others until they bleed dark juice then spoon them over a cake of polenta and almonds. Muscats can also add welcome sweetness to a red cabbage and fennel salad." Nigel Slater

However, I chose somebody else's pork dish - Pork with grapes and tarragon from Maria Helm Sinskey of Food and Wine and an Elizabeth David classic - Queue de bœuf des vignerons - an oxtail stew.

Pizza is another favourite and you will find countless versions out there - and flatbread too. Yotam Ottolenghi has the flatbread -

Black grape, blue cheese and thyme flatbread as shown on the left. Where does a flatbread end and a pizza begin you might ask. Jamie has the pizza though - Speedy sausage pizza and one of his endearing videos with his son Buddy looking very interested at what is going on and contributing the sun-dried tomato pesto base.

For dessert? Well there are the cakes and the tart that I started with but you could also try a double whammy of grapes with Ottolenghi's Roasted grapes with caramelised wine and yoghurt ice-cream, or the very special looking White chocolate-coated grapes with orange curd from Michel Richard on the Food and Wine site or Grape and pomegranate granita with vodka and mint - sorry no picture for this one.. All done in the microwave. Wash it down with Maggie Beer's Grape and verjuice daiquiri - although you should probably have started with that, and you will have had a meal featuring an overlooked ingredient - or you could make a week of it. Not sure which one I shall go with. Chicken of some kind probably. But then I'm a coward.

"We arrived just as his zucchini flowers were opening up with the morning sun. At the base of the pot the flowers were to be cooked in, Musa placed layers of grape leaves, sliced tomatoes, fresh mint and parsley, some kaymak (a Turkish product similar to clotted cream) and a small bunch or two of unripe grapes. After baking, the sharpness released from the grapes had suffused everything with an irresistible contrast of tart and richness. I didn't cry, but, standing on the soil where grapevines have grown for so many centuries, I felt a real connection between food and place, history and memory. Grapes were a small part of this big dish, but their impact felt large". Yotam Ottolenghi



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