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Grapes: a Summer Survival Package

August 08, 1996|MICHAEL ROBERTS | Roberts is chef of the Twin Palms restaurants in Pasadena and Newport Beach

A bunch of grapes, freshly washed, harbors beads of clear water, as if washing them had given the cool little fruits relief from the summer's heat. They are plump, quenching and the antidote to summer's stickiness.

The great painters of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance recognized this and used grapes to focus and reflect a glow of light in otherwise lugubrious still-lifes. The Renaissance painters captured for the eye the quality that our palates know. If eggs symbolize fertility, docility and comfort during winter and spring, it's the grape that delivers the same subconscious message during the hot months between planting and harvest.

The summer grape is the antidote to the heat of a summer day, cooling us while we laze in the shade of a tree. During the hot months, when apples are not at their peak of tart crispness, I put a bunch of grapes on my cheese platter.

Their refreshing juice soothes strong, blue-veined cheeses--a French Bleu de Bresse, an Italian Gorgonzola, or an American Maytag or Saga Blue. They're the incomparable fruit to serve with runny Bries and Camemberts. Serve the cheese at room temperature to enjoy its full range of flavor, but serve your grapes chilled.

In the winemaking regions of France, the vintners often make verjus (literally, "green juice"), the unfiltered juice of unripe grapes. Called verjuice in English, it's almost vinegary in its tartness and is used for marinades and salad dressings; it can used more liberally than vinegar in dressings and marinades because of its mild character.

It adds freshness when you don't want to complicate your summer cooking with strong acidulated flavors. Even though it's more and more commonly available here in the States, you can replicate it fairly easily in your own kitchen.

Ripe, sweet summer grapes are also the perfect foil for sauces and garnishes. Remember sole Veronique? It was a chef student's joke, peeling the grapes to add to a sauce for fish. But time heals all, and recently I prepared the dish for the first time in years. Luckily I had some kids around the house who were happy to help with dinner and found peeling grapes a great oddity of an activity.

FAUX VERJUICE

1 large bunch green or red grapes with seeds, stems removed

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

Place grapes in food processor and pulse to break up. Transfer to container, cover and refrigerate 4 hours. Press grapes through sieve to extract juice. Add rice vinegar to juice. Use as marinade for meat or, with addition of extra-virgin olive oil, as dressing for avocados, papayas or baby field lettuces.

Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups.

Each 1-tablespoon serving contains about:

18 calories; 1 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.22 gram fiber.

GRILLED QUAILS MARINATED IN VERJUICE

4 boneless quails

1 cup verjuice

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Combine quails, verjuice, oil, salt and pepper to taste in bowl. Cover and refrigerate 6 hours (or up to 12 hours).

Grill over white-hot coals 4 minutes on each side. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

274 calories; 632 mg sodium; 57 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 0.88 gram fiber.

MELON AND PROSCIUTTO WITH GRAPE AND GREEN PEPPERCORN DRESSING

1 tablespoon green peppercorns in water, drained

1 cup verjuice

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 slices cantaloupe

8 paper-thin slices prosciutto

Combine peppercorns, verjuice and oil in blender and process until mixture is smooth.

Arrange 2 slices cantaloupe and 2 slices prosciutto on plates. Spoon dressing to taste over cantaloupe.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

209 calories; 213 mg sodium; 7 mg cholesterol; 11 grams fat; 27 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.17 grams fiber.

FILLETS OF SOLE VERONIQUE

4 sole fillets

1 cup verjuice

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

32 green seedless grapes, peeled

1 tablespoon butter

Fold fillets of sole in half lengthwise and arrange in skillet large enough to hold them comfortably. Add verjuice, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook over high heat 4 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer fish to platter. Keep warm in 200-degree oven.

Return skillet to heat and boil remaining liquid about 2 minutes. Add grapes and swirl in butter. Pour any liquid that has collected on platter into sauce, then pour sauce over fillets and serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

199 calories; 164 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 19 grams protein; 1.02 grams fiber.

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