California Seedless Grapes
Grapes symbolize the good life. Commercially grown mainly in California, this late spring to early fall crop is now also available throughout the winter at good prices, thanks to imports from Chile, which has a season opposite to our own. Despite some negative press, Chilean grapes, in my experience, are high in quality and offer a welcome way to add fresh fruit to the table during the winter months.
There are basically three types of seedless grapes - white, red, and black. California Pearlettes usually arrive in early May. They're round, very light green, and have a firm and crisp texture. Look for grapes that have a golden-yellow undertone to the green - they're sweeter. The ones that are very green are very, very tart - they'll make your mouth pucker. The season is six to eight weeks long, wait a week or two after they first arrive before you buy them.
The familiar California Thompson seedless, another pale green grape, is America's favorite. Thompsons are larger, more oval than round, and have a sweeter taste and more tender skin and flesh than Pearlettes. Here, too, you should look for a grape that has a golden glow, which indicates ripeness. The Thompsons start coming in about a month later than the Pearlettes and stay on the market a couple of months longer.
White grapes from Chile start arriving in December. They tend to have a more-raisiny look compared to California varieties. Some people pass them up because they think they're overripe, but they're not. That golden color is a sign that they're good and sweet.
Red seedless grapes, which come on the market after Thompsons, are becoming one of the most popular grapes around. The Red Flame variety is relatively new, but it may soon surpass Thompsons in popularity. A cross between the Tokay (a seeded grape) and a round seedless, Red Flames are firm and sweet, with a very good crisp texture.
The ruby seedless has a richer, deeper color than the Flame, but the grapes are smaller, with a shape like a Pearlette. They have a tougher skin and less flavor than Flames. They're the last of the season for seedless grapes.
Black Beauty is a new variety of seedless grape with a relatively short season. It doesn't have quite the flavor that the other varieties do. The Chilean black seedless grapes are better than those we get from California. Domestic black grapes are available in June and July, while Black Beauties from Chile are available in mid-winter.
Champagne grapes are probably the sweetest of all. These tiny red grapes are available virtually year round because they are cultivated everywhere, mainly for restaurant use. You're most likely to find them in gourmet or specialty markets. They're so tiny you eat them by putting a small branchful into your mouth, then pulling the stem out between your teeth to remove the grapes - sort of like eating an artichoke leaf.
Grapes are available year round, with the California grapes available from late spring through fall, followed by grapes from Chile, which begin in December and end in May.
Look for plump, smooth grapes with good color. They should be firmly attached to a fresh-looking green stem, with no evidence of wrinkling and withering. There should be a dusty bloom on the skin of the grape itself. Like the dusty bloom on blueberries, it's a naturally occurring substance that helps protect the grapes and is a good indication of freshness. Green or white grapes will have a golden glow when they're ripe, red grapes will be a soft, rich red, and black grapes will have a full, deep, blue-black color.
Grapes don't ripen off the vine, so what you buy is what you get. They're very delicate and need to be handled carefully. Refrigerate them dry in a plastic bag. Never wash them until you're ready to eat - moisture will make them deteriorate very quickly. Grapes will last up to a week properly stored in the refrigerator, but it's best to eat them as soon as possible.
Oriental Chicken and Grapes
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