Set the Table with Apples
By: Helen Labun
Apple season has arrived and it’s a banner year. Apples are raining down all around and walking through my yard is a hazard to heads and ankles. If I properly pruned my backyard trees and thinned fruit on heavy bearing years, then that alternate year bearing would smooth out some, but I’ll pretend I’m intentionally keeping my little orchard’s trees in harmony with their siblings growing wild on the far side of the fields. Meanwhile local debates continue about whether the abundance of large fruit means a paucity of flavor, which seems only a small step up from debating whether the glass is half empty. It is an appropriate moment to review the world of local apples for anyone planning to bring a bushel into the kitchen.
First, the basics. There are apples for eating, apples for cooking, apples for making hard cider.
You can go further. Traditionally an important category has been the storage apple, something that ripens later with a very firm flesh and can wait out the winter well in a root cellar. Not-traditionally apples are still bred for storage, but in a different way, rugged fruit that can be tossed into trucks and brought round the world undamaged to stock grocery shelves. We also have decorative apples, like the star-shaped Api Etoile apple and small, late fruits like the Lady Apple that are traditional in Christmas wreaths. Plus apple trees bred for their good looks and pretty blossoms that have fruit as, at best, an afterthought -- for truly decorative trees, minimizing the mess of fruit is the goal. Apples have been valued for their scent, not only the blossoms but also dainty fruits that could be tucked into sleeves and bodices centuries ago. ‘Apple’ never lost its role as a fragrance note, and even today the most famous perfumeries remain closely entwined with local agriculture. And there are scrubby inedible undrinkables - possibly the majority of apples, but you need thousands of attempts before finding the next great apple, they’re nature’s lottery playing out across the landscape.
Diversity is easy to come by in the world of the apple because they don’t breed true. If you plant an apple from seed, a whole new apple variety will emerge. We can all have our very own, one-of-a-kind apple tree in our yard. It will almost certainly taste lousy, but it will taste lousy in a unique way. Apples raised commercially are propagated through grafting, attaching a cutting from the tree you want to strong root stock . . . or, if you’re feeling cheeky, multiple branches of different trees onto one trunk.
Apples for eating, hand fruit or sometimes called dessert fruit, are . . . apples to pick up and eat. That requires no instruction. However you can go deep on selection. Although it doesn’t seem remarkable today, apples with shocking colors like bright green (ie the Granny Smith) were revolutionary in their time. There’s texture to consider, like the bursting juice of a Honeycrisp, that seems closer to a candy novelty - pop rocks or gushers - than hand fruit. Plus, of course, a complexity of flavors that in some markets get descriptors as long as a wine label. In his book Apples of Uncommon Character, local author Rowan Jacobsen argues we’re entering an apple renaissance. He gives full portraits of 123 different apples, with descriptions like “think ambrosia salad - pineapple, oranges, marshmallow, and coconut. With lime squeezed over the top. And a sprinkle of flower petals” or “mysterious and unfamiliar, with hints of ancient kitchen spices.”
Apples for eating are often also apples for cooking, but the two are not synonymous. The great diversity of apples means that we can tailor the variety to the dish. Apple sauce, apple pie, apple cake, apple butter, apples in salads, apples for sweet cider, they all have different demands on texture and flavor. Yellow Transparents might be the best known culinary apple around Vermont because they’re ready early and make a flawlessly textured applesauce. . . and also taste bland eaten straight from the tree and disintegrate in a mess on your kitchen counter if you let them sit too long after picking. You may have seen the huge Wolf River apples for sale, which don’t taste so hot when eaten fresh but hold up to lots of baking (and hence deepening of flavor) in a pie, plus since they’re gigantic you don’t need many to fill a pie tin. I am told that British cooks swear by Bramley apples, both for their flavor and for their balance of sweetness and acidity. I fact checked the claim of British Bramley enthusiasm on the pages of the Great British Bake Off, and it appears to be true, backed up by contestants’ recipes for Sticky Toffee Pudding, Baked Alaska Tarts, and Bramley Apple Cinnamon Crepe Cake.
This brings us to the apples that have less overlap with eating and cooking apples - the ones for traditional hard cider making. I’m clarifying ‘traditional’ here because a sweeter, some would say soda pop-esque, flavored hard cider does come from the sweeter eating apples and is easy to find for sale. Similarly dessert ciders, like ice cider for example, might also use the higher sugar content fruit. Plus cider makers will blend their fruit different ways, so sweeter apples may end up within a longer recipe. Serious Eats wrote a diplomatic guide a few years ago that describes categories for all apples with the hard cider pantheon.
Traditional cider is more like a wine, as Eleanor Leger of Eden Specialty Ciders explains, and thus requires a strong tannic structure that you’re unlikely to find in an apple you’d want to eat. Plus, bitter is often a desired taste element, giving rise to bittersweet and bittersharp as the dominant flavor profiles for cider apples. Good cider apples can be easy to find in dooryards and field edges, leftovers from an earlier era, but harder to find in large volume commercial production, as Shacksbury Cider highlighted with their Lost Apples project. Because today’s commercial apple production has moved away from those bitter and tannic profiles that cider makers find desirable, Vermont producers have in some instances started to cover the gap by blending cider and grape skins leftover from winemaking, making our own wine/cider style.
That’s a quick introduction to the apples someone might reasonably come across in a fall weekend in Vermont. For more details on apple diversity, check out Apples of Uncommon Character, by Rowan Jacobsen, published by Bloomsbury press in 2014. The following recipe is from that book.
Chorizo in Cider, Asturian Style
A crisp, sweet apple like Gala works, but a sweet-tart russet like Zabergau Reinette or Belle de Boskoop is even better. Any high-acod apple will do: Bramley’s Seedling, Espous Spitzenberg, Ashmead’s Kernel, GoldRush, or Granny Smith in a pinch. Ananas Reinette might be best of all.
1 Tb olive oil
1 pound chorizo, cut into ½ inch slices
½ onion halved and thinly sliced
1 cup dry hard cider
1 apple, cored and sliced into half moons
Parsley for garnish
Bread for serving
Quick: Where can you find the strongest cider tradition in the world? Southwest England? Normandy? Actually, it’s Asturias, the coastal province of northern Spain famed for its apple groves. Instead of sherry, sidra is the traditional drink in the tapas bars; walk into any bar in the region, and you'll be able to order this dish with your glass of cider. This is a bit of a jazzed-up version; more likely in Asturias, you'd get unadorned chorizo cooked in cider. I've made this recipe with dried chorizo, which is rock-hard when you buy it, and with fresh chorizo. Fresh is better, but you can use either one. You might even consider using a touch of dry in addition to the fresh, for intensity of flavor. Either way, serve it with crusty bread and a glass of cold, sparkling, funky cider; the dry, tart drink and the rich, spicy sausage play off each other brilliantly.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Add the chorizo slices and saute until brown, about 2 minutes. The oil will turn a lovely orange color from the paprika.
Turn the chorizo and saute the opposite side another 2 minutes.
Add the onion and cider, continue to cook stirring occasionally for 6 minutes.
Add the apple slices, stir, and cook another 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the sauce is thick. Garnish with parsley if desired, and serve accompanied by thinly sliced bread.