Here’s a controversial opinion: Grapes are very good. The grape vines in places that suffer through winter are still pumping out the last of the season’s fruits, which means two things: First, your standard-variety supermarket table grapes are very cheap. Second, and more importantly, you can get locally grown varieties, which have way more flavor — sweet and tart and floral and bitter all at once, with that very particular pop that only comes from a grape whose skin is less attached to its flesh than your typical supermarket grape — at the farmers market. And they’re pretty cheap.
The most common way to eat grapes is as follows: Eat a grape. That’s it. It’s a pretty good strategy, really. But I suspect that, because they are so good for munching, people tend to stop there and assume that’s all that can be done with them. This is false; there are many more things to be done with grapes.
As far as varieties of grapes go, there are about a billion, and I can’t keep track of them. Typically, though, they are placed into one of four major categories, based on color: white (read: green), red, blue, and black. Generally speaking, grapes get juicier, sweeter, and richer the darker they get; think of how sweet and almost cloying a concord grape is compared to a white table grape. The best way to approach a farmers market grape booth is simply to eat a couple from each bin and figure out which one you like. But, because I like to cook them as much as I like to snack on them, I find that certain categories of grape (or, at least, grapes with certain characteristics) have ideal uses in the kitchen.
My favorite grape to eat raw is always a real firm grape, on the tart side, with a good pop when you bite into it. That usually leads me to the white grapes, like the marquis and lakemont varieties. These also tend to be my favorite for…pickling. Pickled grapes! What? Pickling grapes is not much different from pickling anything else; I like to do a quick pickle, because I am impatient and because sterilizing jars is a pain and because I’m not going to be storing these in the cellar for the winter, I’m going to be eating them very soon. Pickled grapes are mildly sour, but somehow more savory than you’d expect a grape to be. The texture can soften — tips for avoiding that in a second, if you want — but mostly, pickled grapes taste like sweet-and-sour grape candy.
To pickle: pour some apple cider vinegar, water, and sugar (I like light brown for this) into a saucepan at a ratio of about 4:2:1, with a pinch of salt. This is less sugar than you’d use for, say, pickling an onion or a carrot, because the sugar content of a grape is much higher. Stir that all together, crank on the heat, and as soon as it starts to simmer, pour it over a bunch of grapes that you’ve placed in a nonreactive container. (Glass is best for this; metal will imbue a metal-y flavor and plastic is scary and could melt.) Cover loosely, let it come down to room temperature, then cover tightly and put in the fridge, where it’ll keep for, oh I don’t know, about two weeks I guess.
You can considerably embellish the flavor and texture of your pickled grapes with a couple of additions. Given that it’s fall, I like to add some autumnal flavors, especially cinnamon and allspice; just sprinkle in some ground spices or toss in a whole cinnamon stick or a few allspice berries in with the vinegar and sugar and water at the beginning of the recipe. Also: the grapes, depending on variety, will sometimes split. I don’t really care about this, but if you want to keep them crisp, let the pickling liquid cool for about five minutes before pouring it over the grapes. You can also add a tiny amount (like, a quarter teaspoon) of alum, a crystal that helps pickles stay crisp due to some sort of science I don’t really understand.
“But what the hell do I do with pickled grapes?” you might be asking. Okay, reasonable question, although maybe you shouldn’t be so negative before you even try them??? Anyway, pickled grapes are really excellent on a cheese plate, especially with creamy cheeses like chevre and brie. They also are spectacular in your regular old (delicious) chicken salad (I like this recipe, though I use Greek yogurt instead of American and omit the walnuts). “It’s a new twist on an old classic,” is what I’d say if I were a contestant on Top Chef, which I’m not (yet).
Another good thing to do with grapes: roast them. Roasting brings out a totally new side of grapes; the very high sugar content makes them caramelize spectacularly well. I like to use sweeter grapes for this, especially red or black grapes, like the various varieties of muscat, or any of the grapes that are named after planets. Jupiter! Mars! Saturn! Okay!
Anyway, roasted grapes go best as an accent to super rich main ingredients. Here’s a good one: Halve about two dozen Brussels sprouts, toss in a bowl with maybe a an eighth of a cup of olive oil, grapes, walnuts, and a lot of fresh thyme. Spread on a baking sheet, making sure to place the halved sprouts flat side down, with a lot of room to spare — overcrowding makes sprouts steam rather than get roasty and crispy — and shove into a 400-degree oven for maybe forty minutes, until the sprouts are all caramelized. Serve over quinoa or rice or farro with a squeeze of lemon and a little extra olive oil.
I also make grape popsicles, which are so different from the purple supermarket brand popsicles that it makes you wonder what kind of grapes the science robots at Popsicle, Inc., have been eating. It’s a really easy recipe, so easy I’m not even sure I can call it a recipe. Take grapes. Wash them, put them in food processor or blender, blitz until foamy liquid. Then take out your finest strainer — I have this one — and maybe even line it with cheesecloth if you’re real sensitive about bits of stuff in your popsicles. Pour the grape puree into the strainer, then stick your hand in there and move the puree around to make sure all the juice gets through. Eventually you’ll have to press a bunch of gross-ish grape guts into the strainer to get the last bit of juice out. Then, put them into popsicle molds. Freeze them. Wait until they frozen, then eat them and be amazed. Not everything has to be complicated, although if you want to toast some whole green cardamom pods and grind them in a seasoned molcajete now would be the time. JK don’t do that that would be ridiculous just eat the popsicles.
Okay, so I have never recommended a recipe without first having executed it myself, usually many, many times. But I couldn’t get my shit together in enough time to actually test this recipe out. This looks so good, though, I just have to mention it. Here you will find a recipe for concord grape pie, which looks like kind of a real pain in the ass (separating the skins from the flesh seems annoying, if not that difficult), but look at that end result. Holy shit that looks great. Maybe we can all try it together?
Grapes aren’t so different from most fruit in that the idea of cooking or manipulating them beyond just eating them raw can be sort of threatening, or even just not that appealing. But cooking them can reveal whole new dimensions of flavor; the soft savory punch of a pickled grape or the deep burnt-sugar taste of a roasted grape are new tools to keep in your toolbox (not literally, since you should not store grapes of any sort in a toolbox). Cook grapes! And also eat them, eating them is good too.
Photo by Laura