Chris Hastings understands the complexity of the seemingly simple grape.
The chef at Birmingham, Alabama’s Hot and Hot Fish Club restaurant appreciates the fact that this fruit offers a deliciously diverse spectrum of flavors—sweet, sour and astringent—and uses it three ways to balance one of his signature salads.
Without grapes, Hastings’ escarole salad would risk one-note bitterness. So he starts with fresh grapes—and not just any grape. He is a fan of scuppernongs, a distinctive variety so particular to the American South they make an appearance in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” They’re known for their intensely sweet flesh, cloaked inside an especially pucker-inducing green-gold skin.
Hastings then simmers those grapes in verjus, a tart concentrate made from crushed unripened grapes. Once the skins burst, infusing the verjus with flavor, he intensifies the mixture even further, adding a splash of Champagne vinegar—which, of course, gets its bracing complexity from fermented grapes—along with shallots, olive oil and herbs.
The sweet-tart dressing proves an excellent foil for a salad of peppery winter greens, pungent blue cheese and juicy, crisp fruits like Asian pears. We loved this approach. But for most of us, scuppernongs and verjus can be elusive specialty items. So we looked for a way to achieve similar flavors with more readily available ingredients.
Though conventional seedless grapes are milder than scuppernongs, we found that we could boost their flavor by first charring the grapes in a skillet, then stirring in Champagne vinegar (which is sharper than verjus), along with the herbs, aromatics, and salt and pepper. And we discovered that dressing the escarole while the vinaigrette is still warm wakes up the flavors even further. The many delicious ways of grapes!