Life is good when travel and good food merge. That graphic meme “Will travel for food” couldn’t be truer in my life. I’ve managed to turn it into a real, viable thing. It’s now my work’s mission: to find the best food and culinary trends around the world. Fortunately, for me, I’m only a 2.50 hour train ride from New York – unquestionably the No.1 city where the world converges and anyone can unearth the most amazing food. It requires travel, yes, but if the end goal is to find, enjoy, and share with you some incredible cuisine, than it’s worth it. Sometimes I get a bit luckier and actually break bread with esteemed personalities and machines behind that coveted food.
And sometimes those characters happen to be one of your favourite chefs. And sometimes those fave chefs and you share certain commonalities.
This time, it was Food Network’s “Chopped” judge, Aáron Sánchez. A few weeks ago, California Table Grape Commission, aka, Grapes from California, hosted a relatively intimate dinner in a super swanky, utterly sexy, and enviously ambient kitchen studio in downtown Manhattan. An evening of delectable dining could not go wrong with there. The grape folks strategically enlisted El Jefe’s talent to develop seasonal dishes using a variety of uvas. The outspoken and hyper-tatted Latino chef came up with a three-course dinner to welcome the fall season.
A telling diversion. Three days prior to being invited, I was on a smoothie cleanse. Grapes are my go-to snack during the torturous 10-day period. I was averaging about 2 pounds of seedlees green grapes on a daily. It had me thinking of funky dishes I could create using all the grapes I was casually noshing. Certainly, there are plenty of things I could do with them. Adding them to the smoothies seemed like such a negligent waste of an easy food. My wheels started spinning and I jotted some notes.
Before I could execute a plan, I was happily introduced to Sánchez after passing copious amounts of crates filled with perfectly shaped grape bunches (look for an Africa shaped punch for guaranteed goodness). I chuckled, really. Because if you know me, story of my life is that I’m always late; literally and figuratively speaking.
Bubbly and handfuls of grapes with an outstanding view of the city, set the tone for the dinner. Aáron did a quick intro, explaining his affinity for the simplicity of the grape and deconstructing their characteristics; at least as he saw them. Some are acidic, some are sweet, others are a bit savory. That was his basis for creating threes dishes that highlighted those notes in ways few can really think of bring to life
His roasted pork tostada with ancho chile grape jam starter was perfectly balance of sweet and savory using black grapes, so I heard. I wouldn’t really know since I passed on the pork and opted for a really good veggie version he kindly accommodated. Of course, sans the meat, mine was a bit too dulce. The slight kick of heat helped temper it. My table mates’ reaction let me know I seriously missed out, tho. As I nibbled on my itty bitty stacked tortilla chip, I finalized in my head an idea I had the week prior.
We also heard from the Commission’s marketing director, a really friendly man whom is clearly passionate about the grape farmers and their mission. We learned California is responsible for 90% of the grape consumption in the US. I only wonder why they’re so expensive. I just don’t get it. It has the same effect as tomatoes. And until that dinner, had a perceived singular profile.
Our two hour dinner came to a close with a lovely stash of carefully crafted soft shell duck tacos with a grape pico de gallo. Sánchez’s use of grapes in lieu of tomatoes brought home the grape point home. It’s a little nugget of juicy goodness that can be incorporated into many dishes, in many ways. A tart bunch mirrors the acidic notes in tomatoes. And if you’re a crop purist, grapes are the absolute perfect substitute for the red fruit during off season. I’m of that school of thought: cook seasonally. No juicy tomatoes? Use grapes.
Dinner with Aáron (with a firm nod to his talented team) was delicious. More importantly, it was sexy and inspiring — two very key ingredients when traveling in search of good food! It also cemented my thoughts that I’m on the right path of forecasting what’s next in haute cuisine. Thanks to that affirmation, my smoothie cleanse is on indefinite hiatus. My clients will appreciate it the most.
More to come from California grapes as the season formalizes and the holidays visit. In the meantime, enjoy the crazy good duck taquitos… from Chef Aarón’s gracious hands to my tasting to your liking!
*Check out the grape Commission’s site for more recipes using grapes. All images c/o of the Commission.
Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.
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DUCK CARNITA TACOS WITH GRAPE PICO DE GALLO by Chef Aaron Sanchez
- 3 pounds duck legs
- 1 medium Spanish onion, diced
- 5 garlic cloves
- 2 oranges, cut in quarters (with rind)
- 1 Mexican cinnamon stick broken in half
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 thyme stems
Grape Pico De Gallo
- 2 cups red grapes, medium dice
- 2 cups green grapes, medium dice
- 1/4 red onion diced
- 1 jalapeno diced
- 1/2 bunch of cilantro diced
- 2 limes juiced
- 1 TBS olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
To Build Tacos
- Duck meat
- Duck fat
- 12 warm corn tortillas, appx. 4-6 inches
- Grapes pico de gallo
- Chopped cilantro
- Lime wedges
Place all ingredients in a mixing bowl and combine, season with salt and paper to taste and set aside.To build tacos, heat 2 TBS of the reserved duck fat in a large sauté pan, when hot add half of the chopped duck meat, let the meat sear for about 2 minutes before turning and cooking for 2 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Place seared meat on warm corn tortillas and top with pico de gallo and cilantro.