Apples are, hands down, my favorite fruit. So when fall rolls around and they begin appearing at the farmers’ markets, I do a little happy dance*. The sheer poetry of the apple is, in and of itself, something I enjoy. They are iconic, the ultimate fall fruit. Yes, the persimmon is more exotic and decorative. Pears are more delicate and subtle in flavor. But the apple! I’ve mentioned my childhood obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder? An adult obsession I have is collecting book passages about apples. Here are a couple of favorites:
“Ada and Ruby spent much of the autumn working with apples. Apples had come in heavy and had to be picked, peeled, sliced, and juiced; pleasant, clean work, out among the trees handling the fruit. The sky for much of that time was cloudless blue, the air dry. The light, even at midday, brittle and raking, so that by angle alone it told of the year’s waning. In the mornings they went carrying ladders when the dew still stood in the orchard grass. They’d climb among the tree limbs to fill sacks with apples, the ladders swaying as the limbs they were propped against gave under their weight. When all the sacks were full, they would bring the horse and sled to the orchard, haul them in, empty them, and begin again.” – Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain, p 323.
“An apple orchard was a basic part of every homestead…Apples were used in more ways than any other fruit. In early summer, before they were ripe enough to eat, they were best used for making applesauce and, because of their tart flavor, they made the best apple pie. On the hottest days of summer they were peeled, sliced, and dried on the roof of the porch to put away for the winter when we would use them to make apple puffs and pies. They were on the breakfast table every morning during the summer and fall in the form of fried apples…During the winter we consumed bushels of apples. After supper, when all the evening work was finished, we would settle down to study and would bring in a basket of apples to munch on…and we would be up until past midnight studying, singing, reciting poetry, and devouring apples, pickles, and anything else edible.” – Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking, p.154-155.
No matter how many times I encounter these passages, they offer me something: a connection to the harvest, a remembrance of the season’s cycles and, of course, a plan for my kitchen.
Let’s start with the basics. Apple Cider, Applesauce, and Apple Pie.
Apple Cider is sheer fun. The first time I really hung out with Travis was a cider pressing. I was new to Vermont and a couple of us went out and collected apples from the side of a dirt road and carried them in a ratty plastic laundry basket to the yard then pressed them right into champagne glasses. It was not hard to fall in love with Vermont. Today, we try to host a cider pressing party or at least attend one every year. This year, in Seattle, our friend Tyler’s annual cider party has reached creative and somewhat epic proportions. He and a few others run around the city collecting fallen apples from public parks and then bring them back to the press. He’s rigged up a two-part press: the first part is attached to a bike and when a party attendant jumps on and pedals, the bike chain turns a crank that chunks up the apples; the second part presses the chunks and makes up the cider to fill the line of containers.
Although cider is lovely, there is really only so much that you can drink. Thankfully, cooking with it is equally fun. Use it in a marinade, throw it in a pancake or quick-bread batter, cook down a pot of greens, mix it into a salad dressing, add a small amount to a soup or sauce… pretty much anything for which you would use lemon juice, orange juice, or a sweet liquid will work! And as it starts to ferment consider leaving it out to acidify and make your own cider vinegar!
Applesauce is one of the best things to eat. It just is. And if you disagree with me, you are probably just doing it wrong. For starters, there is more to the world of applesauce than the fine, peel-less puree from a jar that we all consumed as kids. That is fine, and it has its place. But what about an applesauce made with red apples that still contains the peels? Pink applesauce! What about a sauce made from large and small chunks so the small chunks break down finely but you are left with large delicious chunks throughout? What about applesauce made with a small amount of butter or coconut oil so there is a hint of creaminess and a more luxurious mouthfeel? And then there’s the eating of it. You could just choose to eat your applesauce out of a bowl and with a spoon, or you could go a little applesauce crazy. Put some on your pancakes. Mix some in with your yogurt. Use a thick chunky sauce on your pork chops or your roast chicken. Stir that tiny leftover bit into your quick-bread or pancake batter. Pour a little cream in, or pour it on a little ice cream. Not convinced? Martha Stewart agrees with me that applesauce is great – just see her October 2014 issue.
Apple Pie is American. It is the 4th of July, it is Thanksgiving. And I’m not going to risk posting a recipe, mostly because I don’t exactly have one. Here’s what I’ve got: a basic pate brisee with half whole wheat flour, 4 or so apples sliced up and tossed with a bit of sugar (1/8 cup?), a bit of cloves (1/2 tsp?), and a lot of cinnamon (3 tsp?), and an oven. But what I lack in specifics I can make up for in suggestion! Here are some great places to look for more detailed guidance: Smitten Kitchen’s lattice top pie or slab apple pie, Martha’s classic apple pie, or Edna Lewis’ pie (full confession: I haven’t made this yet, but Edna Lewis is brilliant and I can’t imagine that this pie is less than amazing). Play with these and develop your own pie identity. But for heaven’s sake don’t heat the pie up to much when you eat it, and be sure to have at least one slice for breakfast.
We’ve covered the basics. On to some of the less obvious uses! Apple Pancakes, Apple Quiche, and Apple Hash.
Apple Pancakes are my favorite breakfast at my Mom’s house. I get to feel like a kid again, we all get to have slices of pancakes right out of the skillet, and I get my apple fix early in the day. It’s hard to go wrong.
My Mom’s lovely apple pancake is the result of sauteing apple chunks with butter, cinnamon and sugar in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Then she pours a pancake batter over the sauteed apples and slides it in the pre-heated oven (375?) until it’s done. She then inverts the pancake onto a plate and we eat the whole thing in about 15 minutes. Apple pancakes could be as simple as adding chunks of apple directly to batter or adding applesauce to batter. I’ve even seen a great idea for making apple rings and dropping them into a skillet then pouring the batter onto them to make individual apple-ring pancakes. I haven’t tried the apple ring variation yet, I’m too addicted to this fancy-pants version my Mom makes. But if you too it, let me know how it goes!
Apple Quiche is a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The trick is that you cannot use too many apples – they do contain water which will release during cooking and mess with the texture of the quiche. I’ve tried cooking them down just slightly to release some liquid but then they start to go the way of applesauce and that does not suit this purpose. So just restrain yourself and let apples be part of the quiche filling, not the whole quiche filling. Other additions could be julienned red onions, chard, and cheddar cheese. Or maybe scallions and bleu cheese. Or diced yellow onion and sausage. Or leeks and bacon. You can pretty much use apples as the cohesive element and just clean out your refrigerator produce drawers! For the quiche itself I suggest using a pate brisee or some other crust you like then mixing 4 or so eggs with 1 cup or so milk and/or cream (I do a combination of whole milk and cream; you don’t have to be so decadent but I do recommend some fat; this is not the place for a full cup of skim milk), some seasoning like sea salt and a pinch of nutmeg, maybe some cayenne, and that is that. If you need more ideas, turn of course to Martha.
Apple Hash is a great thing to eat every day. It can be with or without meat, although apple and pig is surely one of the best culinary combinations ever. Onions or leeks are a must. I like some kind of green, usually collard greens or chard. Potatoes are good, although sweet potatoes are even better. If you have frozen corn kernels from the summer they make a nice touch, as do late-season summer squash. Other root vegetables can be good, although I do recommend beets, turnips, or rutabaga over carrots. Top with a fried egg for breakfast, serve with biscuits and ham for lunch or dinner.
There are, of course, so many more fun things you could try! I love apple butter, and if you do too read my friend Aaron’s blog post about making his grandmother’s apple butter. And I remember loving applesauce meatloaf when I was growing up, but I haven’t tried it in years (and I’m planning a meatloaf post otherwise I would discuss it further here).
What makes apples so darn versatile? In my opinion, a few key things. First, they aren’t soft like the stone fruits (peaches, plums, etc.) so they hold up well in savory dishes such as hashes, meatloaf, and quiche. Second, they are the perfect sweetness – not cloying when freshly eaten, but not tart when cooked and thus requiring lots of sugar. How is it that an apple pie requires minimal sweetening, but sweet strawberries need gobs of sugar to make a nice pie? Third, the pectin and relative dryness of the fruit (think of the quantity of liquid produced in a apple pie vs. an bery pie) make it an excellent component of baked foods like pancakes, quick-breads, and cakes.
A last point of excellence regarding apples are their total kid-friendliness. They are the perfect go-to snack. They are refreshing and hydrating but still have substance (see here for a breakdown of popular fruits and vegetables by water content — hydration is important, but so is insoluble fiber!). They can be eaten plain while on the go or dressed up and made silly. James loves to grab a whole apple and just eat all the skin off; I then take the chunk of fruit left around the core and save it in the fridge and once I have a few of these I dice them up and make applesauce. My favorite go-to treat for James is apples sliced up and sauteed in butter or coconut oil until barely soft and then topped with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Up at the farm, there are wild apple trees all over. The apples are great for cider, or sauce. The cows love them. But we’ve also been planting an apple orchard. We’re up to 9 trees by now, and I’m looking forward to more, and to harvests that get me and my apple addiction through the year. Until then, I’ll just be grateful for every locally grown apple I can get.
*Buy local if at all possible! Or at least buy American if you’re in a state that truly does not produce apples (are there any?). Less local apples mostly appear from March to July – those are the months that I stick with anything I’ve managed to can, or I just go without. It’s been harder since having kids, apples are definitely a James staple, so I just need to up my canning game. Impressively, only 6% of the fresh apples consumed in the U.S. are international apples. Not sure what percentage makes up all the juice and applesauce…. when in doubt, try to buy and make your own, or support those that do!
A last point is to buy organic. I generally try not to push this as I know it’s more than a value decision, it’s also a budget decision. But with apples it’s too important. In 2014, they tested #1 for pesticide residue. And for as many apples as my family and I eat, that adds up to a whole lot of residue fast. This is one place where I am adamant about organic. Back in 1989, the issue of chemical residue and apples reared its head as the Alar Scare (see here and here for conflicting descriptions!). Regardless of the details of both sides, one truth remains constant: children are the most vulnerable food consumers of the population. So this is one place where I highly encourage buying organic or not at all.