As the weather turns colder here in northeast Ohio, harvests are tapering off and farmers markets are dwindling, both on the farmer side and the shopper side. We're approaching that time of year when the only local produce you can expect to find for months consists of potatoes, onions, cabbage, and squash.
For me, though, when the leaves turn into one briefly shimmering array of jewel tones and the mercury starts to tumble, I'm finally ready for apples. In this neck of the woods, I can find berries galore through the summer, but the quintessential Ohio fruit has always been — in my mind, at least — the humble apple.
Maybe that's because like other Ohio schoolchildren, I was raised on the legend of Johnny Appleseed, a raggle-taggle fellow walking barefoot across the state with a saucepan on his head and a handful of seeds that he scattered along the way. While it's true that John Chapman did ramble across the area, he actually was more of a nurseryman, planting seedlings and nurturing orchards.
None of his original orchards remain, but drive down almost any country highway in the state, and you'll likely run into an apple orchard one place or another. Here in Wayne County, we're blessed with three or four large commercial orchards and many more homestead plantings. Come fall, trees everywhere are loaded with deep red and sparkling yellow fruit that instantly makes my mouth water.
With Malus toward none
The apple (Malus spp.) turns out to be a versatile fruit in the kitchen. Of the hundreds of varieties of apples, only a handful tend to be grown commercially, such as the Red and Golden Delicious, McIntosh, Jonathan, Gala, and Granny Smith known to us all. But when you start looking at what local orchards have available, names like Cortland, Freedom, Macoun, Mollie, and Wolf River provide a peek at how widely apples have adapted to different regions and how extensively they are used. The official state apple of Ohio — Melrose, a locally developed variety — suits almost any kind of use, even storage, and is almost big enough to feed a family. (Well, not quite, but it did take two hands to pick. That's it perched on the top of the bowl pictured.)
Harvest season begins in July with Transparent apples, which make a nice, sweet-tart sauce, and extends well into fall with the solid storage varieties of Honeycrisp, Northern Spy, and Winesap. Flavors range from a clean sweet taste to a crisp, sharp bite, and at any given time there's bound to be something to please any palate. Most orchards offer a chart of varieties (published by the Ohio Apple Association, a wealth of information) indicating which apples are best for eating out of hand, turning into apple sauce, or baking in pies.
It's enough to make any true gourmet giddy with the possibilities. A friend and I enjoy holding an apple taste test come fall, trying to decide which variety we most enjoy eating fresh. Even kids have fun learning about the different kinds of apples: I recently took my nephews picking at one of the local orchards, and they insisted on picking samples of each of the varieties so that they could try them all. I barely had to do any of the work; they thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of searching for their "prize winning" apples to show their parents. My work will come soon when we turn some of those excellent apples into applesauce and perhaps even a pie.
Supply cider economics
And since we're talking about the many culinary uses for apples, let's not forget my favorite: cider. Pressed to release all their juicy flavors, apples turned into cider make a satisfying addition to any meal — and for me, at this time of year, that means almost every meal. The best ciders combine different varieties of apples, mingling sharp, sweet, bitter-sharp, and bittersweet flavors for a more robust drink. (The book "Cider: Making, Using & Enjoying Sweet & Hard Cider, Third Edition" by novelist Annie Proulx and Lew Nichols is packed with information on how to make truly good cider, and it's got me yearning for my own cider press.)
When you have the chance to sample cider from different orchards, you can start to pick up on some of these different flavors. I recently had two gallons of cider on hand — one from a small local mill and one from a local farmer who took a selection of her apples to a friend's press — and enjoyed a revelatory taste testing with a friend. Whether I was influenced by personal bias or discovered that raw cider really was different than pasteurized, I found the farmer's cider to have a more complex flavor that was about as close as you could get to sticking a straw into an apple and slurping down the juice.
Bake to the kitchen
Come Saturdays throughout fall, I'm likely to head into the kitchen and simmer a pot of cider on the stove (or in a slow cooker) with a sprinkling of cinnamon bark, whole cloves, and dried orange peel while I slip into my annual cold-weather baking groove. How appropriate it is, then, that apples play a starring role in many comforting, old-fashioned desserts. I can't let myself get to Thanksgiving without having baked at least one classic pie or even a decadent buttery tarte tatin, but I'll often bake another with an herbal twist: a touch of rosemary and orange peel, a dash of lavender, or even with cardamom and rose petals, topped with a thin syrup of honey and pomegranate molasses (recipes at the links on my other blog).
I also enjoy pairing apples with oatmeal and brown sugar. Sometimes that's just in a simple bowl of oatmeal, cooked with the other two ingredients, but sometimes it comes in the form of my aunt's "apple stuff" (apples baked just with a secret streusel topping) or in the apple pie squares (left; based on my favorite date bars) I tried one chilly evening this fall. The combination also makes for good muffins or a wonderful coffee cake.
If you're not a fan of sweet dishes for any reason, you'll be happy to know that apples work well in savory recipes, too, adding a hint of wholesome sweetness while also providing a little natural pectin to thicken the mixture. I like shredding an apple into hash browns with onions and thyme (add crumbled sausage, too, if that's what you like), and chunks of apples can add a pleasant difference in texture in a saute with squash. Even sauteed on their own with onions and herbs, you can have a flavorful bruschette topping for parties. Chicken lovers may find that apples enhance a curry dish, and who hasn't seen the age-old image of a roast pig with an apple in its mouth?
By the end of winter, I'll be heartily sick of apples and not want to touch the mealy morsels again for months. Not surprisingly: the apples that keep that long can end up feeling sort of mushy in your mouth. But right now, I can't get enough of my native fruit — and I'm pretty happy about that.