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When creating a new dish, where does a chef begin? It’s always intriguing to peek “behind the scenes” in the creative process, to try to understand where inspiration comes from and how an artist — a chef, for example — manipulates the tools of his or her craft. Like a painter’s brush strokes, which can alter our impression of a scene, a chef’s imaginative use of cooking technique can transform an ingredient we think we know well.

Asked to develop some contemporary recipes with California table grapes, Culinary Institute of America instructor Scott Samuel first evaluated the raw materials. Everybody knows what grapes taste like… or do they? 

As Chef Samuel discovered on closer inspection, California table grapes have subtly different flavor profiles that a cook can exploit in the kitchen. Green grapes have a bright, fresh, invigorating sweetness and a relative delicacy. Red grapes are a little more robust in flavor, with a savory quality. Black grapes, while still offering sweetness, have more tannin in the skins, a consideration in some dishes. 

“When I made the black grape sorbet with goat cheese mousse, I pureed the grapes with their skins to get more of the tannins and color,” says Chef Samuel, “so it was almost a savory dessert.” 

3 Colors Br Paper

We value raw grapes for their crunch, but what other compelling textures can a chef elicit? Chef Samuel experimented with juicing grapes and reducing the sugary juice to a syrup. He battered and deep-fried grapes to create textural contrast. He carbonated grapes (more on that later) to produce yet another textural sensation. This off-the-beaten-path exploration prompted some successful recipe ideas. 

Grapes’ vivid, gemlike colors are another reason to love them. They’re the eye candy on a pale chicken salad or soufflé, the colorful contrast on a cheese plate. Cooking them transforms their color while concentrating flavor. Chef Samuel found a way to intensify the color of the cooked grapes, too. 

In a recipe for roast chicken with a red grape sauce, the grapes lost a little of their rich burgundy hue. “So I added some Port to the sauce,” says Chef Samuel. “The Port brought out some sweetness and deepened the color.” 

Grapes have their own natural acidity, but Chef Samuel found that many of the recipes he devised needed a boost of acidity to balance the grapes’ sweetness. Grapes marry well with any wine vinegar, so he could have introduced a judicious splash. But rather than reaching for a conventional vinegar, the chef took the opportunity to introduce aromatic notes of lemon zest, lime, and sherry vinegar. Verjus — the unfermented juice of underripe grapes — is increasingly popular in restaurant kitchens, especially in salad dressings, and provides another tart option. 

Red and black grapes also supply tannin, the same pleasant astringency that we look for in a cup of brewed black tea. In a sauce, grape tannins provide the sensation of structure or backbone and a bracing note that refreshes. 

In the pages that follow, you’ll see how Chef Samuel executed his assignment — highlighting the potential of California table grapes to provide the contrast that every dish needs. 

Featured Recipe: Watch Chef Samuel make a sorbet that retains the grapes’ vivid color and fresh flavor, in Black Grape Sorbet with Goat Cheese Mousse and Honey Tuile.

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Family farmers have been growing the finest grapes from California’s fertile soil for more than 100 years. Knowledge, tradition and passion have been passed down from generation to generation.