Now that local produce is done for the season or in storage in many parts of the country, there are still tasty late fall and winter selections that can excite a chef and add color, flavor and creativity to the menu. Consider grapes, for instance.
Juicy red, green and black table grapes from California and other domestic sources are available through January. In the thick of winter, grapes from Chile and other points south are abundant. While it’s natural to snip a cluster to garnish a plate or add to a salad, grapes can go beyond those applications.
“Grapes are a great cross-over ingredient,” says Michael Watz, chef/instructor at Washburne Culinary Institute in Chicago. “Their bright color and citrusy flavor complement appetizers, entrees, salads, desserts and sides and you can use them in every daypart.” Watz suggests quartering grapes for salsa, but using them whole for poultry, seafood and meat dishes so they don’t lose their texture. He likes to briefly pan-roast grapes in a skillet or pop them in a hot oven until the outside gets a little crispy and the flavor bursts through.
In his recipe for Shrimp, Pan-Roasted Grapes and Manchego pictured here, the grapes are cooked whole with shallots, garlic and lemongrass. “Grapes pick up and absorb the notes of aromatics especially well,” Watz contends. For this appetizer salad, he chooses the seedless Red Flame variety for their compatible shape, size and balance of sweetness and acidity.
In winter, when fresh produce variety is scarcer, Watz works around the boredom problem by applying different cooking techniques to the same fruits and vegetables. “Pears and apples, for example, can be used raw in salads and desserts, or you can roast, sauté or bake them, all with different results,” he explains.
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