Apples are easily among the most beloved, and most maligned fruit out there. They’re beloved because of all they were and could be, and maligned predominantly because of the crap that mass production, grocery store apples have become.
Malus domestica is a member of the Rose Family, grown worldwide, with more than 7,500 known cultivars. Apples come from Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, can be found to this very day – here in the U.S., you can find starts for that very tree if you wish.
Yet not so long ago, most grocery chains carried maybe five varieties, two of which were delicious, (Red and Golden, neither of which actually are delicious…), along with Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji. There are deep problems with all of these, and here’s why. These varieties, all of them that you find in the store, are bred not so much for flavor as they are for the ability to withstand storage, travel, and stocking – Those are not attributes we’re wanting in an apple, frankly. Nowadays, there are more varieties in most stores, but we still have the problem of freshness. 90% of the time, what you’re buying is last year’s crop, or maybe this year’s from New Zealand, that travelled thousands of miles to show up in Your Town, U.S.A. Neither of those options brings apples at anything close to peak freshness.
Apples grown in this country are a late summer, early fall crop. For large scale commercial purposes, apples are picked slightly green and then, since 2002, sprayed with 1-methylcyclopropene, a chemical meant to prolong use storage. They’re then waxed or shellacked, boxed, crated, and stored in an low temp/high CO2 environment to discourage ethylene production. There they stay for an average of nine to twelve months. They may, (and often are), also treated with fungicides while in storage.
It’s important to note that buying organic may not save you from all these ills. Much large scale organic farming has been bought out by mega-corporations, and they can and do still use the same 1-methylcyclopropene, wax, shellac, and extended storage techniques as non-organic fruit.
1-methylcyclopropene, trade name SmartFresh, is supposedly not toxic to humans or the environment, but there’s a distinct problem with those claims. According to an article published by the American Society of Horticultural Science, “1-MCP is being used on 16 horticultural products, but much commercially relevant research on its effects is proprietary. For example, research using 1-MCP to increase potential for shipping longer distances or increasing market share of various fruit is being undertaken around the world under confidentiality agreements.” Meanwhile, PesticideInfo.org basically notes that most specific information regarding the potential effects of SmartFresh are “not available,” which is disappointingly in keeping with the ASHS’s findings.
Add to all that a Canadian study that shows that much of the good stuff in apples is seriously degraded after only 3 months of storage, and you’ve pretty much got the big picture view of why store bought apples suck. Fresh apples provide notable dietary fiber, simple, easily digestible sugars, and lots of polyphenols, a potent antioxidant. Yet stored for 9 to 12 months, pretty much all that antioxidant is gone.
But enough doom and gloom: All is not lost – in fact, there’s much light at the end of the tunnel; heirloom apples are making a broad come back, and some cool new varieties are coming available as well. From New England to the Pacific Northwest, and much in between, new-to-most-of-us varieties are finding their way to market. From Community Supported Agriculture, (CSAs), small scale farms, renewed interest by long time growers, and robust university level agricultural programs, variety is returning. Just yesterday, we got notice from our local CSA that one old variety, (Gravenstein, introduced to the U.S. in 1822), and two new varieties were available for as long as they last. A couple weeks ago, in northern Minnesota, I was introduced to the Oriole variety, developed by the University of Minnesota, (as was one of the varieties we were offered here, the Zestar). The Oriole was marvelous; tart, crisp, with just the right sugar balance – Perfect for munching or cooking.
Find and read Rowan Jacobsen’s Apples of Uncommon Character; you’ll find your spirit buoyed, and your interest piqued. Do some research for your neck of the woods – Google heirloom apples and your town, then go out and find them. Hit your farmer’s market or local CSAs. Once you’ve scored, preserve apples the way it’s been done for centuries – can some, dry some, freeze some, and enjoy it all.
Now, let’s cook with some – Here’s what I did with those Orioles in Minnesota, as well as a couple more favorites. Use whatever varieties you find that float your boat – Ask the producers which varieties making for good cooking, and go with those.
Urban’s Apple Crisp
10 Cups fresh Apples
1 Cup Bakers Sugar
1 Cup Quick Oats
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 Cup plus 1 Tablespoon Whole Grain White Flour
1/2 Cup local ESB Ale
1/2 Cup unsalted Butter
1 teaspoon real Cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla
1/4 teaspoon Coriander
1/4 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/4 teaspoon Baking Soda
Pinch Sea Salt
Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack square in the middle.
Rinse, core, seed and slice apples about 1/2″ thick, (I like the skins on, you can peel them if you wish)
Pile sliced apples into a 9″ x 13″ baking pan, glass preferred.
In a small mixing bowl, thoroughly combine bakers sugar, tablespoon of flour, cinnamon, coriander, and pinch of sea salt.
Hand sprinkle that blend over the apples, then pour the ale over all.
In a larger mixing bowl, combine flour, brown sugar, baking soda and powder, and melted butter. Blend thoroughly by hand, then pack that evenly on top of the apples.
Bake at 350° F for 40 to 45 minutes, until topping is nicely browned.
Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes prior to serving.
Belgian Waffles with Apple Compote, Bacon, and Cheddar
Heat oven to Warm, add plates for each person, the bacon, and the waffles.
Make the recipe for Belgian Waffles here – 2 to 4 per person, depending on iron size – set in warm oven to hold.
Fry 3-4 slices of fresh, local bacon for each person – set onto paper towels in warm oven.
Slice extra sharp, aged Cheddar very thin and set aside.
For the compote, (enough for 4 to 6)
6 fresh Apples
4 Tablespoons Butter
1 Tablespoon Grape Seed Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar or local Honey
1/4 teaspoon True Cinammon
1/4 teaspoon Vanilla paste or extract, (If using beans, scrape seeds from 1/2 bean).
1/8 teaspoon Allspice
Pinch Sea Salt
Rinse, core, seed and slice apples to about 1/2″ thickness
In a sauté pan over medium heat, add oil and butter, allow to melt and heat through.
Add sliced apples, agave or honey, and all spices, toss to combine thoroughly and coat with the oil and butter.
When the blend starts to simmer, reduce heat to medium low and sauté for about 15 minutes, until apples are very tender.
Remove from heat and allow to rest for 15 minutes prior to serving.
To serve, lightly butter waffle, add strips of bacon, then compote, then top with cheddar.
Then there’s the savory side…
Chutney is a favorite of mine since I was a kid, making it with my Mom each fall. The combination of fruit and savory elements is a big winner; apple chutney goes great with pork, chicken, wild rice, even soufflés, believe it or not. It’s easy to make and stores well; it’ll last 2 weeks refrigerated, and much long if you decide to water bath can it. Spicier, more piquant apple varieties make for better chutney than the overly sweet ones do.
Apple Chutney – About 6 Cups
10 to 12 fresh Apples
2 fresh large Navel Oranges
1 large Sweet Onion
1 Cup Live Cider Vinegar
1/2 Cup local Honey
1″ piece fresh Ginger Root
1 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground Coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground Turmeric
1 Cup Golden Raisins
6-8 Cherry Tomatoes
Rinse, core, and seed apples, then rough chop.
Rinse, peel, stem and dice onion.
Rinse, peel and mince ginger root.
Rinse and pat dry oranges; zest and juice both, set that aside.
In a large sauce pan over medium high heat, combine all ingredients thoroughly, then bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally.
Reduce heat to medium low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 to 50 minutes, until the mix has thickened notably and most of the free liquid is absorbed.
Remove from heat, transfer to a non-reactive bowl and allow to cool thoroughly. Store in clean, glass canning jars, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.
And of course, I wouldn’t be me without including an apple salsa. Rather than a cooked or blended version, good apples lend themselves especially well to a pico de gallo style salsa. Again, pick a tart, spicy variety when you make this one.
Urban’s Apple Salsa
4-6 fresh Apples, (about 2 Cups volume)
2 fresh, firm Tomatoes
1/2 small, Sweet Onion
1-3 Jalapeño Chiles
1 fresh small Lime
6-8 stalks fresh Cilantro
Drizzle Agave Nectar
Sea Salt and fresh Ground Pepper to taste
Zest and juice the lime, set both aside
Rinse, core, and seed apples, then uniform dice.
Toss apples into a large mixing bowl, then add lime juice and zest, and toss to incorporate.
Peel and stem onion, then fine dice.
Rinse, core and seed tomatoes, then fine dice
Peel, seed, and devein jalapeños, then fine dice.
Add all veggies to the mixing bowl and toss to incorporate.
Add agave, pinch of salt and a couple twists of pepper; taste and adjust seasoning.
Allow salsa to rest in a non-reactive bowl for at least 30 minutes, refrigerated, prior to serving.