Friends of Wine
An old axiom of charcuterie makers is that everything on the pig is used except the squeal. When it comes to the wine grape, you could say that everything is used except the wind whistling through the vineyard. Unfermented juice from crushed grapes becomes verjus, a tangy alternative to wine or vinegar that is increasingly popular with chefs. Chefs also like oil made from grape seeds for its high smoke point and neutral flavor. Vin cotto is a cooked grape juice that is the sweeter counterpoint to verjus. Navarro Vineyards in Philo, Calif., even makes varietal grape juices from Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer.
“Verjus is great in cooking, especially salads, because you don’t have to worry about matching a wine to it like you would if you used vinegar in a dressing [verjus acids are gentler than those of vinegar],” says Jim Klein, winemaker at Navarro, which makes verjus. “Grape juice is even better in cooking, because you get the varietal character without the fermented flavors of wine.”
Verjus (pronounced “vair-zhoo”) begins at veraison, when grapes are turning color and winemakers cut away clusters of grapes to reduce yields. Instead of letting the snipped green grapes go to waste, wineries such as Navarro and Wölffer Estate, on Long Island, New York, save them for this “green juice.” Wölffer winemaker Roman Roth, doesn’t think that the grape variety matters much. “Real varietal characters only come out later in wine. Here it is mostly lemon, capsicum [bell pepper], mint and gooseberries—the more green and herbaceous flavors,” Roth says.
There is also a great deal of acidity in verjus, primarily from malic acid, which gives it a green apple aroma and flavor. And though the grapes aren’t fully ripe, there is still sweetness.
Lidia Bastianich, owner of New York’s Felidia restaurant, a Wine Spectator Grand Award winner, thinks verjus is great with pork chops and fowl. “It gives you freshness and acidity, like apples, the complexity of the fruit, and a bit of residual tannin,” she says. I’ve used verjus in place of vinegar in a variation of the French classic chicken in vinegar sauce. I’ve also added verjus to sautéed medallions of pork with slices of apple.
When making salad dressing, you can reduce the usual ratio of four parts oil to one part acid to one to one because verjus’ acidity is gentler than vinegar’s. Verjus marries wonderfully with seafood—try it in a court bouillon for poaching fish, or with steamed mussels instead of white wine. A blend of verjus and soda water makes a nice nonalcoholic spritzer.
In Italy, unfermented grape juice is cooked to concentrate its flavors and intensify its sweetness. In southern Italy, this dark and syrupy liquid is called vin cotto (“cooked wine,” although it has never been fermented). In northern Italy, it goes by the name of saba or sapa, depending on the local dialect. But as Lynne Rossetto Kasper writes in The Splendid Table (Morrow): “No matter what it is called, this boiled down juice of freshly pressed wine grapes has sweetened and flavored dishes as far back as biblical times. When sugar was the property of the rich, peasants used sapa and honey.”
Azienda Agricola Calogiuri Vincotto, from Puglia on the Adriatic coast, is made from Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera grapes and is aged for about four years in oak. It is sweet and grapey, with dried and cooked fruit flavors balanced by a lemony acidity. Calogiuri also makes versions flavored with lemon, raspberry, fig and carob. Acetaia Leonardi Saba from Modena, in northern central Italy, is made from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes. It is aged several years in chestnut and oak, and is more intense, deeper and richer than Calogiuri.
According to Kasper, saba may have been the precursor to the more celebrated balsamic vinegar, which is aged much longer. However, its shorter production time makes saba less expensive than balsamic vinegar, which at as much as $100 an ounce could be considered the vinegar equivalent of a first-growth Bordeaux.
“Balsamic has all this complexity. Vin cotto is more straightforward and simple,” Bastianich says. “I like that. I don’t always like a lot going on.”
Which is not to say that vin cotto doesn’t have plenty of uses. Bastianich particularly likes it with braised meats. In her cookbook Lidia’s Family Table (Knopf), Bastianich presents a recipe for Venetian braised lamb shanks with vin cotto, cloves, cinnamon, cocoa and coffee beans.
Mark Vetri, chef-owner of Vetri restaurant in Philadelphia, uses vin cotto to finish dishes such as seared diver scallops with porcini or a grilled rib eye steak. He’s also added it to meat glazes and has even made vin cotto ice cream. “It just brings out a lot of flavors,” Vetri says. “You can taste a purity in it.”
Try vin cotto drizzled over grilled chicken, splashed on roasted vegetables or added to sautéed sweet peppers or baked pears. It’s also great over vanilla ice cream and on fresh strawberries.
Until a few years ago, grape seed oil could be found only in restaurant kitchens or health food stores. “Chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten [who now has his own brand] and Daniel Boulud have used it for years as a secret ingredient,” says Valentin Humer, founder of Salute Santé in Napa, Calif., which has been making grape seed oil since 1994.
Because of grape seed oil’s light, neutral quality, Bastianich uses it in emulsions with lemon or orange juice on poached chicken, rabbit or white fish (like cod) and on grilled vegetables. Grape seed oil’s high smoke point makes it ideal for frying foods. “It lets you have a nice sear. It gives fish a nice crust,” says Vetri, who also mixes grape seed oil with olive oil to “mellow out” dressings.
But not all grape seed oil is as neutral as Switzerland. Humer makes two extra virgin oils (which he may discontinue) with considerable character, a Chardonnay and one called “Unfiltered” from red varieties and Riesling. Unlike most grape seed oils, which are heat treated, these oils are cold pressed and unfiltered. Thus, they have a richer green color and a nutty, buttery flavor. I’ve also tasted a German Riesling extra virgin grape seed oil (from www.zingermans.com), which was, unfortunately, oxidized.
Use extra virgin grape seed oils as you would extra virgin olive oil. Salute Santé also makes grape seed oils infused with ingredients such as basil and roasted garlic; they are very good on grilled meats, vegetables, pastas and pizzas.
Because the oil content in grape seeds is very low, grape seed oils are more expensive ($8 to $12 for a half-liter, though cheaper in larger amounts) than other neutral oils such as canola oil. Extra virgin grape seed oils are even pricier: $25 to $40 for 250ml.
Health stores have long carried grape seed oils because they are high in antioxidants and have been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. Definitely something to squeal about.
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