This is harvest season for California's vineyards, where nearly all the excitement and celebration is reserved for the most glamorous produce -- the cabernets, chardonnays and other wine grapes. Meanwhile, their quiet country cousins, the table grapes, barely muster any notice at all.
California's green, red and black globes of goodness account for 99 percent of the nation's supply, but somehow, even in the locavore-obsessed Bay Area, table grapes are relegated to lunchboxes, not the halls of haute cuisine.
That may be changing.
At San Francisco hot spot Incanto, executive chef Chris Cosentino combines grapes with calamari, octopus and capers. At Michelin-starred Baumé in Palo Alto, Bruno Chemel uses giant white princess grapes in a caviar dish, and fresh, unfermented juice from syrah grapes to make sorbet.
"I didn't really use grapes a couple of years ago," Chemel says. "Now I'm using them more. As a chef, you need to evolve, and grapes have given me new ideas."
The fruit may be more than a passing fancy for Chemel, who is known for his cerebral, cutting-edge cuisine that uses the techniques popularly known as molecular gastronomy. Chemel says he has been inspired by the different colors, sizes and textures of the grape varietals he has spotted at farmers markets this fall, and he has been spending time thinking about how to best use each type before putting it on the menu.
In a twist on the traditional Waldorf salad, Ryan Shelton, chef at Bonny Doon Vineyard's Le Cigare Volant in Santa Cruz, cooks red seedless grapes in a grape juice gastrique to heighten their flavor before adding them to a salad composed of apples, celery root, candied walnuts and a celery sorbet.
The common thread among these restaurant dishes: Grapes frequently are paired with something salty, such as capers, caviar or celery, which has a surprisingly high sodium content compared to other vegetables.
"When I think of grapes, my mind doesn't go to desserts. I think savory items," Shelton says. "Grapes have an almost tomatolike savoriness."
With that in mind, home cooks don't necessarily need to use expensive ingredients or labor-intensive preparations to cook with grapes. Paired with the right foods, grapes can be used to wonderful effect. One of the best examples of that is the grape focaccia in Daniel Leader's book "Local Breads" (W.W. Norton, 2007). This Italian specialty often is made during the grape harvest, and Leader recommends trying it with wine grapes, if possible, although any red table grape works just fine.
The sweet grapes mingle atop the focaccia with a generous scattering of rosemary and sea salt, a combination that's downright addictive. It's wonderful as a snack or with a meal. If you take it to a larger gathering, don't count on having leftover bread to take home.
Substituting grapes for other fruits or vegetables in certain recipes can wake up a tired standby. Instead of using the usual onions and peppers with Italian sausages, add red grapes to the pan when the sausages are just about done, along with a splash of balsamic vinegar or -- better yet -- some verjus, if you can find it. Cook until some of the grapes begin to soften. The same technique works with pan- or oven-roasted chicken, too.
White grapes are featured in Sole Veronique, the classic French dish. Modern recipes call for the addition of flour and cream to the sauce and unpeeled, halved grapes, but Auguste Escoffier's original version used a white wine broth for poaching and a garnish of whole, peeled and seeded muscat grapes.
Peeled grapes? Really?
"If people only understood what a luxury it is to have peeled grapes," Shelton says. It's not just the labor-intensive aspect that makes it a luxury, he says. Peeled grapes are delicate and need to be used immediately.
"They're just juicy, delicious, tender fruit," he says.
Peel me a grape.