Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Take grapes outside the box for a sweet twist on savory dishes

This week in the mercado I came upon a vendor with a small crate of tiny, beautiful red grapes. They were shiny and fresh, in big clusters, with some of the curling vines still attached.

Here in Mazatlán, it’s not common to find produce that has any semblance of “naturalness” — the majority is commercially grown on giant farms and devoid of any trace of actually being grown. I was, to put it mildly, quite thrilled, and actually went back to buy more after I’d tasted how delicious they were.

Perfect! I thought — this week’s column. I had an idea of the kind of recipes I would find but was surprised at how much I didn’t know about grapes as an ingredient — especially about how they transform when cooked or broiled.

I’d had grapes in salads, yes, especially with chicken. In fruit salads and smoothies, duh. But how about in omelets — as a sweet zing in the classic spinach-and-cheese? (Remember to cut them in half so they don’t roll out.) Or as part of crostini, to add a bite of sweetness to an otherwise savory crudité?

Turns out baking or broiling grapes (really, any variety, although seedless is always recommended) turns the already sweet little globes into rich caramelized bursts of flavor, which can then be used in oh-so-many ways. Grapes can also be added to salsa or kabobs and pair well with chicken and beef.

Roasted grape crostini
Spread feta or requesón cheese over the bread on these crostini and you’ll have a truly decadent appetizer that few can resist.

Another aha! moment: DIY raisins or, in more formal terms, oven-dried grapes. Since moving to Mexico, this has been one of my pet peeves: the only raisins I can find are small, tough and basically flavorless.

Whenever I go to the States, I bring several bags back in my luggage: sweet, pretty golden seedless ones; big juicy Thompsons; mixed varieties. While I haven’t yet made my own, I read review after review from folks saying they’d done it. I’m excited to try.

When my kids were little, we used to freeze grapes for an easy iced snack; I’d forgotten about that. Be sure to use seedless grapes!

Pull them off the stems, then rinse, disinfect and pat dry. Spread on a cookie sheet and freeze for a couple of hours. Store in a zip-top bag or container.

Many varieties of grapes are grown throughout Mexico; they’ll appear in different areas at different times of the year. (They’re also imported from the United States, Chile and other parts of South America.)

Locally grown grapes will be the sweetest and freshest. Just keep an eye out, ask where they’re grown and be ready to have some fun in the kitchen!

Roasted Grape Crostini

  • 3 cups seedless red or green grapes, halved lengthwise
  • 2 Tbsp. sherry or rice vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • 1 tsp. grated orange zest
  • 24 slices baguette (cut diagonally ½-inch thick)
  • ½ cup shaved Manchego or Romano cheese
  • Thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

Preheat oven to 400 F. Gently mix first five ingredients; spread on a baking sheet. Roast until grapes are lightly browned and softened, 30–35 minutes. Remove from oven, stir in orange zest. Cool. Arrange bread slices on ungreased baking sheet. In broiler or toaster oven, lightly toast both sides. Top with warm grape mixture; sprinkle with cheese and basil.

Optional: Spread toasted bread slices with feta or requesón cheese before adding other toppings.

Grape Slushie Freeze

Using banana makes it creamier.

  • Handful frozen seedless grapes, any kind
  • 1½ cups pineapple juice
  • Optional: ½ banana
  • Ice

Blend everything at high speed.

Roasted Grapes

Eat on their own, or serve in a salad as a dinner side dish or on toast with cheese.

  • Seedless grapes, any kind
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Toss grapes with just enough oil to coat, salt and pepper; spread on cookie sheet. Bake at 425 F for 30 minutes.

roast chicken with grapes, rosemary, kalamata olives
Using a cast-iron skillet works even better to sear in the flavors in this roasted chicken with grapes, rosemary and kalamata olives.

Oven-Dried Grapes (aka raisins)

A dehydrator makes fast work of the process, but this method yields plumper, more flavorful raisins. Be patient!

  • 3 large bunches seedless grapes, stemmed
  • Vegetable or canola oil

Preheat oven to 225 F. Very lightly grease two rimmed baking sheets with oil (use parchment or a silpat if you have one); scatter grapes all over. (Juice will escape from grapes and may cause them to stick to the pan.)

Bake, checking periodically for doneness, until grapes are nicely shriveled and semi-dried but still slightly plump, 3–5 hours. (Exact time depends on the grapes, your oven and preferred degree of dryness.) Let cool.

Use a thin metal spatula on any grapes that are stuck. Store, refrigerated, in sealed container for up to 3 weeks.

Grape Compote

Serve on top of pancakes, oatmeal, vanilla ice cream and more

  • 3 cups seedless black grapes
  • ⅓ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • Optional: 2 pods of star anise

Bring grapes, sugar, lemon juice, salt and anise, if using, to a boil in a skillet, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat; simmer 8–10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until grapes burst and mixture is syrupy.

Discard anise; whisk in butter. Serve warm or chilled.

Roast Chicken with Grapes and Kalamata Olives

  • 3 lbs. chicken parts with skin and bone
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup seedless grapes
  • 1 cup pitted Kalamata olives
  • 2 small shallots, thinly sliced
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 1 Tbsp. minced fresh rosemary

Preheat oven to 450 F. Wash and pat chicken dry, season with salt and pepper.

Heat oil in an ovenproof 12-inch heavy skillet (cast-iron if possible) over medium-high heat.

Working in 2 batches, brown chicken on both sides, skin side down first, about 5 minutes per batch. Return pieces to pan, skin side up; surround with grapes, olives and shallots. Roast about 20 minutes until just cooked through and juices run clear. Transfer to platter.

Add wine and chicken broth to pan juices in skillet. Boil for 2–3 minutes, scraping up any brown bits.

If desired, strain sauce, then pour over chicken. Garnish with rosemary.

Savory Oatmeal with Grapes and Sausage

  • 1 cup oatmeal, instant or regular
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 4 sweet Italian sausages
  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 cup red grapes
  • ½ cup fruity red wine
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
  • Salt and pepper

Cook oatmeal as directed. Stir in Parmesan and butter; cover and set aside.

Cook sausages in oil 6–8 minutes, turning occasionally, until browned all over and partially cooked but still pink in center. Add grapes to skillet and cook, tossing and crushing some with a wooden spoon, until they are browned and slightly saucy and the sausages are cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove sausages to a plate.

Add wine and vinegar to skillet, and cook until juices are thickened and syrupy, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in thyme and butter; season with salt and pepper.

Divide oatmeal among bowls. Divide sausages, grapes and sauce over top.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has lived in Mexico since 2006.

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