Grapes make the plate

Chefs know they can count on grapes to add refreshment to a cheese plate, color to a fruit plate or a wholesome crunch to a salad. But if you think of grapes only as a garnish, you’re missing a lot of the fruit’s culinary potential. In the hands of professional culinarians with an innovative bent, fresh grapes can go in directions you may never have imagined.

Grapes: The good-news fruit

Grapes aren’t just tasty and colorful additions to the plate—they offer health benefits, too. Many consider grapes to be the original “superfruit.”

The belief that grapes have healing properties dates back to ancient China, where wine was mixed with snakes, frogs and other creatures to cure sickness. Grapes have thrived in the Mediterranean and been a part of that region’s healthful diet since pre-biblical times. The Phoenicians brought the vine from Asia to Greece, the Greeks spread it around the Mediterranean and the Romans encouraged its cultivation. Today, a bowl of grapes is a favorite way to end a meal from Andalusia to Israel.

There is no question that fresh grapes offer plenty of reasons to be a regular part of our diet.

  • Grapes are low in calories; a 3/4 cup serving contains just 90 calories.
  • Grapes contain no sodium or cholesterol and virtually no fat.
  • Grapes provide potassium and vitamin K. Potassium is critical to heart health and healthy blood pressure. Vitamin K is important for bone health.
  • Grapes also contain fiber and other key vitamins and minerals.

Additionally, grapes are rich in phytonutrients—plant compounds that appear to play a key role in maintaining health and may offer protection against certain diseases. Many phytonutrients act as beneficial antioxidants, helping the body defend itself against free radicals that can harm cells.

To date, scientists have identified more than 1,600 natural compounds in grapes. Perhaps the best known is a family of phytochemicals known as polyphenols. A large body of research suggests that polyphenols may support a healthy heart. Grapes are also the main food source of resveratrol, a very specific type of polyphenol that has garnered a great deal of attention. Found in the skin of grapes of all colors, resveratrol is recognized for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that scientists believe can help contribute to health in myriad ways.

Not only do red, green and blue-black grapes contain a vast array of antioxidants, these compounds are “bioavailable,” meaning that our bodies can readily use them once we consume them. That’s not true of all antioxidants. In fact, some foods contain antioxidants that the body can’t use at all.

Research is ongoing in the area of grapes and health. Good science takes time, but a solid body of scientific evidence already exists to support the benefits of eating grapes, the original “superfruit.”

Sweet vs heat: Grapes in the global kitchen

In chili-loving cultures like India, Thailand and Mexico, fruit provides the sweet refreshment that takes the edge off the heat. Often it’s tropical fruit like mango, papaya or pineapple. But grapes have the same ability to mitigate heat and require little prep time. Plus, they are ripe and readily available almost year round, and universally popular.

Accompany spicy Indian kebabs with a cooling grape and yogurt raita.Inspired by India:

  • Partner fried shrimp with a sweet-hot grape chutney.

Inspired by Mexico:

  • Pair spicy Mexican pork al pastor with a red grape and corn salsa.
  • Add grapes to a crunchy salad with jicama and melon.

Inspired by Thailand:

  • Add grapes to a Thai chicken curry or to pad Thai.
  • Offer beef satay with a fiery peanut sauce and a refreshing grape salad.

In many Asian cuisines, cooks pay close attention to balancing sweet, sour, hot and salty flavors. This principle is worth remembering as you explore ingredients and dishes from cultures that appreciate spicy food. Almost always, the spice is balanced with something sweet (think fresh fruit), salty (soy sauce, shrimp paste or fish sauce), and sour (lime juice or vinegar). Fresh grapes can provide the sweet component and that appetizing element of surprise.

Wherever the tomato goes, think grapes

It’s no surprise that grapes can often stand in for tomatoes—they’re both juicy, high-acid, high-sugar fruits. Grapes can go almost anywhere a tomato goes and spark new interest in familiar dishes.

  • Add grapes to the house green salad in place of cherry tomatoes; add crumbled blue cheese and toasted nuts as options.
  • Top a focaccia with grapes and rosemary. Sprinkle with coarse salt for a savory version, or with sparkling sugar to make a breakfast version.
  • Top bruschetta with ricotta, grapes and olive oil for a savory hors d’oeuvre.
  • Toss pasta with goat cheese, toasted walnuts, chives and grapes.
  • Add grapes to a cole slaw made with red and green cabbage. Layer the slaw in a pulled-pork or ham sandwich.

Grapes: What a food pro should know

With its mild, Mediterranean-type climate, California is paradise for grapes. Everyone knows that the Golden State grows world-class wine grapes, but table grapes excel there, too.

Harvesting: If you prefer to “buy American,” look for California table grapes during their long season, from May through January. The harvest starts in the southern Coachella Valley and moves northward, through the fertile, 200-mile-long San Joaquin Valley. Today, 99 percent of the fresh grapes grown in the United States come from California.

Some 500 farmers—most of them family farmers who have spent generations growing California grapes—oversee the state’s table grape crop. They grow more than 70 varieties—some with very familiar names and others less so. But for ease, you can group them by color: green, red or blue-black.

Handling: Growers take pains to get grapes to market in good condition. First, skilled workers harvest the fully-ripe clusters by hand and inspect them for damage and uniform size. The grapes are quickly chilled to eliminate field heat and retain moisture, then are shipped to market in refrigerated trucks.

Storing: Keeping grapes cold is critical to maintaining quality. Ideal storage conditions are 32°F to 36°F and 80 to 90 percent relative humidity.

On delivery, stack grape lugs carefully. Be sure there is adequate air circulation between the layers and that the grapes aren’t touched by the lug above.

Always store grapes unwashed; rinse just before serving. The powdery coating on their skins, known as bloom, is a natural protectant that maintains freshness. Stored properly, grapes will stay in prime condition for almost two weeks.

Unlike other fruits that are shipped underripe, grapes don’t require any guesswork. They are picked at full maturity and are always “good to go.”

Savvy chefs today are getting more involved in offering kid-friendly, parent-approved foods. Adding grapes to your kids’ menu is a win-win-win—for flavor, health and fun. Kids like their sweet taste and snack-sized convenience. And parents know that grapes are a healthy alternative to processed or fried foods.

Who knew? Surprising techniques with grapes

Grapes are the ultimate hand-to-mouth fruit, a wholesome snack that needs no peeling, slicing, or coring. They don’t bruise or drip. They don’t require a knife and fork. In short, they are lovable as is. But for cooks looking to make an impression, grapes have other traits to exploit.

Why not juice them? A fresh grape puree, strained and reduced, adds fruitiness to a vinaigrette. The same strained puree, uncooked, can be the foundation for a sweet or savory coulis.

Grapes have abundant natural sugar; roasting heightens the flavor and caramelizes the sugars, giving the exterior an appetizing glaze. Roast the grapes on the stem or off.

Yes, you can fry grapes. Freezing them first helps hold their shape; this gives the batter a chance to cook before the grape gets too hot, resulting in a room-temperature grape in a crispy batter.

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