When I was little I was straight up obsessed with trees. I read about them, researched how to tell their average age, the differences in leaf types, stages of dormancy and fantasized about being John Muir walking through the woods. And then one day, on a family summer vacation, I came smack up against a giant sequoia and thought, “now THAT is a tree.”
This sudden internalization of what something so familiar really could be has happened several times with food as well. The first time I smelled real vanilla from Madagascar—spicy, familiar, musky and exotic. The first time I ate asparagus snapped from the ground and sautéed quickly in butter tasting bright green and salty, as opposed to the pale green, microwaved and still stringy asparagus of my childhood. But no food has jolted me into understanding the as earth-shatteringly as Betty Popp’s grapes.
The big, seedless ovals were ubiquitous in my school lunch. Benign little orbs next to a spread of cheeses at Christmas. The little pop in the always fantastic Waldorf Salad but inevitably playing second fiddle to little marshmallows.
Then several falls ago, I realized that almost every farmer at the Suttons Bay market was munching on grapes and I wanted to know what I was missing. I bought a bag and had to sit down I was so over the moon.
The fruit still had the dusting of being fresh picked—just like real blueberries. Each sphere burst with sweet and tart juice. The skin tasted real and contributed the tannic backdrop to the sweet flesh. And far from disdaining the seeds, I had a second time to revel in the Rockwellian, bucolic joy of eating fruit and spitting the seeds straight onto the grass.
And now along with the joy of pulling a sweater from the closet or putting on wooly socks for the first time is eating grapes. I rarely do anything besides pull them from their clusters and send them straight to my mouth for the first couple of weeks. But then as a cook, I get the itch to work them into a dish. Though if you haven’t ever made a traditional Waldorf salad, give it a try with all of its mayonnaise and mini-marshmallow glory.
It’s true that there aren’t many grapes in Northern Michigan this year—two vine killing winters and slow springs to blame. And that’s the rub of local, seasonal eating, so treasure the ones you get.
For a more fall-y dish, substitute some fried sage leaves for the parsley. This will pair well with any sort of starch but especially wild rice or boiled potatoes and a big green salad on the side.
- 4 filet whitefish, skin on
- 1 lb grapes, removed from the stems
- 1 shallot, minced
- ¼ tsp vanilla
- ¼ C white wine
- 4 T butter
- ¼ C parsley, chopped
- Season the fish with salt
- Heat a frying pan with a glug of neutral oil
- When starting to smoke, pat the skin of the fish dry and place, skin-side-down, in the frying pan
- Sear until the fish moves easily when nudged with a spatula
- Remove the fish and transfer to a serving platter, skin side up
- Add the grapes and sear until they pop
- Add the white wine and shallots to the pan and scrape up any brown bits in the pan
- When the wine is reduced add the butter and swirl to emulsify into a sauce
- Taste and season with salt and pepper
- Add the parsley and spoon over the fish
- Serve immediately
Spoon it over a pork roast, seared duck breast, fresh goat cheese, grilled cabbage, any greens, or grilled salmon. Smashing the walnuts, ideally while they are still warm, instead of chopping them releases their oil yielding a more intense flavor and creamier texture.
- ½ lb good table grapes, removed from the stems
- 1 tart apple
- ½ lb walnuts
- 1 bu parsley
- 4 sprigs tarragon, optional
- ¼ C olive oil
- salt and course black pepper
- Heat the oven to 350F
- Toast the walnuts until golden and fragrant (about 7-10 minutes)
- Remove from the oven and let cool 2-3 minutes
- Transfer the walnuts to a bag or bowl and smash with a rolling pin until well bashed
- Cut the apple into a small dice
- Roughly chop the herbs
- Combine all and stir to combine
- Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed
- If it tastes flat to you, add a splash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon