Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Apples

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple-tree is connected with that of man, “ wrote Henry David Thoreau in “Wild Apples,” an essay posthumously published in The Atlantic’s November 1862 edition.

A century and a half later, Thoreau’s observation is as true as ever. For a diminutive fruit, the apple is a force to be reckoned with, and we humans have been fascinated with it for millennia. It has inspired Biblical myth; despite no mention of the word “apple” in the Book of Genesis, it is widely assumed the notorious forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden.

The apple also inspired scientific theories, as falling-apple-from-the-tree witness Sir Isaac Newton told the world in 1666 (or was it his niece, who told Voltaire?), as well as practical advice, including the old Wales proverb (1866 ) “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread” that later morphed into “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

And what would have become of New York City if called by any other fruit name? (The Big Pear just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Since a 1970 public relations campaign, the world has known New York as the Big Apple. (For a detailed chronology of this iconic marketing venture, check out etymologist Barry Popnik’s site.)

From art to science, politics to religion, the apple has figured into countless aspects of the human experience since antiquity. Could the ubiquitous fruit be rightfully described as the apple of our collective eyes?  I think so.

Brief History

There is great debate among scientists and food historians about where the apple got its start. Many point to the area just south of the Caucasus Mountains in south-central Asia, but according to the late food historian Waverley Root, it’s not climatically possible, and in his encyclopedic book Food he suggests more northerly points around the Baltic Sea. Others have honed in on the wild apple forests of the Tian Shan mountains in Kazakhstan, an area that has been described as the “real Garden of Eden.”

There’s great consensus, however, that the apple is as ancient as fruit gets. To wit:

  • The apple (or its wild ancestor, the crab apple) figured into the diet of Neolithic era and Bronze Age settlers along lakes in Switzerland. Based on carbonized remains that were discovered in the 1800s, apples were presumably dried for winter consumption.
  • During the reign of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (1279-1213 BC), apple trees were planted along the Nile River delta.
  • The apple got its first mention in the western canon around 800 BC, in The Odyssey, the epic poem written by Homer.
  • According to culinary historian Jonathan Roberts, dried apples threaded on a string were uncovered in a Babylonian tomb at Ur (ancient Mesopotamia), around 200 BC.
  • First century Roman naturalist-philosopher Pliny the Elder describes several varieties of apples in his Historia Naturalis.
  • Meanwhile, the Celtic people of ancient Britain were turning crab apples into hard cider and showed Julius Caesar a thing or two about fermentation around 55 AD.
  • The Romans planted apple trees not just for the fruit but for the blossoms and shade, too. The apple spread throughout Europe, proving its versatility as both beverage and foodstuff, throughout the Middle Ages. Apples were among the 89 plants that Charlemagne (aka Charles the Great) insisted be planted on the grounds of his royal estates in 9th century France.
  • When the Normans invaded England in 1066, they brought seeds of several apple varieties from France, which set the stage for a long love affair with the fruit, as well as its fermented byproduct, “hard” alcoholic cider. For hundreds of years, hard cider was the default beverage and used as currency.
  • The hard cider tradition continued when the English established colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. Not long after establishing the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1620, settlers started planting apple trees, primarily for alcoholic cider production. Until the end of the 18th century, cider would be the default beverage, even for children, as it was considered safer than water. By 1700, New England was apple cider country.
  • Thomas Jefferson planted apples on orchards at Monticello for both cider production (Hewes Crab and Taliaferro) and eating (Newtown Pippin and Spitzenburg). Writing from Paris, Jefferson compared European apples to those growing in America: “They have no apple to compare with our Newtown Pippin." He also said that “Malt liquors & cyder are my table drinks.”
  • Johnny Appleseed, aka John Chapman, is credited for spreading the gospel about apples in the late 18th century. Portrayed as a folk hero, Appleseed did not sprinkle apple seeds like fairy dust, but he did set up apple seedling nurseries from Pennsylvania to Indiana by the time of his death in 1845.

Factual Nibbles

The idea of pairing apples with pork predates the “Pork Chops and Applesauce” episode of The Brady Bunch by a few thousand years; first century Roman gastronome Apicius served up a recipe in his cookbook, De Re Coqinaria for Minutal Matianum, stewed pork shoulder with apples and a variety of spices.

Founding father John Adams drank hard cider at breakfast. According to "The Presidents’ Cookbook” a collection of recipes and lore compiled by Poppy Cannon and Patricia Brooks, “John Adams always drank a tankard of hard cider first thing in the morning.”

During the 1840 presidential campaign, the Whigs proclaimed candidate William Henry Harrison as a “log cabin and hard cider” every-man in comparison to his opponent, the champagne-sipping aristocrat Martin van Buren. The first documented instance of political spin?

The Nomenclature of the Apple,” a government publication printed in 1905, catalogued 17,000 varieties of apples cited from 1804 to 1904 – in the US.

Some 3,800 watercolor drawings of apples are among a vast collection commissioned by the USDA from the late 1880s until the 1930s, now housed at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, Maryland. Here’s a taste of the collection: Northern Spy watercolor and Winesap.

Wenatchee, a Washington farming town located about 150 miles east of Seattle, is known as the Apple Capital of the World. Apples have been commercially grown there since 1884.

Cultivation

Botanically, we’re talking about Malus domestica, a member of the Rose family. The pear, quince, cherry, strawberry and almond are among the apple’s many edible relatives. 

Worldwide, there are more than 7,500 known varieties in circulation, 100 of which are grown commercially in the US. However, as mentioned earlier, this is a just a fraction of the thousands of varieties that were on record just a little over a hundred years ago.

China leads the world in apple production, followed by the US; among European countries, Poland and Italy take the lead, followed by Turkey. Here at home, the apple is grown in all 50 states, with commercial orchards in 36 states. Washington State has been the apple leader since the 1920s; it represents more than half of US apple production, to the tune of $1.5 billion. According to the Washington State Apple Commission, the Evergreen State grows more than 80 percent of all US.-grown organic apples. Other top apple-growing states include New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Organic represents about six percent of total apple acreage, but that demand has grown quickly, as with other foods. Red Delicious is the top-selling variety, followed by Golden Delicious, Gala, Fuji and Granny Smith, although consumer demand for Red Delicious has (thankfully) fallen since the 1990s.

Apple crossbreeding over the past few decades has spawned some wildly popular cultivars in the US, including Honeycrisp (a cross of Macoun and Honeygold), Jazz (Royal Gala and Braeburn) and SweeTango (Honeycrisp and Zestar).

Apple imports that you’re likely to see on American supermarket shelves typically come from Chile and New Zealand. Last but not least, there are heirloom apples to consider, thanks to the continued efforts of apple conservationists. Several antique varieties, including the Sebostopol Gravenstein, Newtown Pippin and the Sierra Beauty, have been added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste and rescued from extinction. Last year, Seed Savers Exchange broke ground on the expansion of an orchard devoted to heirloom apples; the orchard, located in northeast Iowa, is open to the public. (For more on heirloom apples, see agricultural conservationist Gary Nabhan’s excellent Forgotten Fruits Manual and Manifesto: Apples, produced in cooperation with Slow Food USA.)

Lest you think that heirloom apple pickins are slim in the southern part of the country, hold it right there. A rare apple aficionado by the name of Creighton Lee Calhoun will set you straight; he’s the force behind Old Southern Apples, a compendium of 1,800 southern-centric varieties that was recently re-issued in 2010.

In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of sticking my teeth into lesser known beauties such as Belle de Boskoop and Sweet Sixteen. Food writer Amy Traverso, author of the recently published The Apple Lover’s Cookbook, told me in an e-mail that her favorites are Ashmead’s Kernel, Roxbury Russet and Calville Blanc, all of which date to the 17th century. “I can pick all of them at specialty orchards near Boston,” she writes. “Eating them is like tasting history.”

Seasonality

Apple harvest time runs from August until November, when the fruit is at its peak flavor and texture.  Because it can keep for weeks and even months, and owing to a big import market, the apple is a year-round fixture in supermarkets and many farmers’ markets.

Environmental Impact

The conventional apple found itself at the center of a huge environmental controversy in 1989, when 60 Minutes aired a segment about the health risks of Alar (daminozide), a growth regulator sprayed on apples. The late reporter Ed Bradley called Alar “the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today.” The broadcast prompted a nationwide scare that resulted in consumer boycotts, congressional testimony by Meryl Streep and ultimately an EPA ban of Alar later that year. Lawsuits ensued, all of which were subsequently dismissed. (Here’s the sequence of events, as told by the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

24 years later, the conventional apple remains encumbered by chemical conundrums. This 2010 story reports that the USDA found pesticides on 98 percent of all apples tested. Of the 48 produce items analyzed in the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, the conventional apple carries the heaviest pesticide residue load with a rank of #1 and sits atop the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen Plus” list.

From the farmworker front: In 2012, Washington state had its second largest apple harvest in more than 100 years, but due to a labor shortage (driven by both a crackdown on illegal immigration and better job opportunities due to a slight economic upturn), up to a quarter of the harvest went unpicked.

Characteristics

During the 2004 growing season, I worked the stand of a Pennsylvania fruit grower at my neighborhood farmers’ market in Arlington, Virginia. By late summer, the first apples would make their debut, and by Halloween there would be twelve varieties for sale, all differing in shape, size, color, texture, aroma and flavor. If you’ve never ventured beyond the Delicious siblings of your school lunchbox youth, here’s a snippet of the possibilities, from taste to texture, shape to size, based on my firsthand experiences that summer:

Empire: A cross between the Macintosh and the Red Delicious. She’s sweet-tart, this one. Her white flesh, set against a thin green-scarlet skin, is not too soft, not too hard on the tooth. The Empire is a great candidate for applesauce or pie, but with that plump flying-saucer shape, I’m thinking how fab she’d be dipped in caramel.

Fuji: A perfectly nice apple with a pretty pinkish blush, a medium crunch and a delicate sweetness. Not boring but not the most exciting variety, either. I’ve heard it called “less assertive” and “laid-back.” The Fuji is a favorite among kids and less adventurous eaters.

Gala: Another winner for the kids; in fact, it’s so sweet, I’d liken it to pink bubble gum. Fruit forward, soft/medium bite and lunch-bag-friendly size. Would I cook with her? Maybe in pancakes for Saturday morning cartoons.

Jonagold: A cross between the Golden Delicious and the Jonathan, she’s a modern girl who doesn’t want to be characterized. She offers a crisp bite but not too hard. Her perfume is a bit like honey, and in the mouth she feels like a pear. Her skin, aglow with red and golden yellow, evokes a special, complicated experience.

Jonathan: A tomboy apple. On the outside she’s a beautiful scarlet red, and her skin is delicate and easily bruised. On the inside, her flesh is firm and strong. Take a bite, and you’ll get citrus at the tip of your tongue. Pick her as a palate cleanser. Apple sorbet, perhaps?

Mutsu (aka. Crispin): A cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo. The most distinctive characteristic is its size; the Mutsu can be large enough for a meal –  for a family of four. Light green in color, with yellow to off-white flesh, it’ll make you think you’re on your way to eating a Granny Smith, but one bite will bring you back to reality. It’s far from tart, but not really sweet, either. With my eyes closed, the watery, savory, meaty chunks remind me of jicama, a vegetable popular in Central America. Although the Mutsu could hold up well in pies, it needs to be mixed with a more assertively flavored apple for balance.

Winesap: She’s the mean girl at school who also happens to be the cheerleading captain. You love to look at her beautiful mahogany skin, complemented by her almost snow-white flesh. You take a bite, and you can’t believe you’ve bitten into a lemon. Her flesh is so tart, it almost makes you want to pucker. Her firm bite and acidic nature could make her a feisty date for fatty fondue.

What to look for

Regardless of terroir, variety or growing method, an apple worth eating should be firm. Leave behind anything with signs of bruising, mushiness or dings of any variety.

Nutrition

For about 95 calories, a medium apple provides about four grams of fiber, and about 14 percent of the daily recommended amount of Vitamin C. But the apple really shines in the phytonutrient department.  It is loaded with a variety of polyphenols and anthocyanins that are found not just in the pigmented skin but in the flesh and the seeds. The potential benefits include blood sugar regulation and lung support; a 2004 study links apples to a lowered risk of lung cancer and asthma.

Apples are naturally rich in pectin, a fat-soluble fiber that makes you feel full and satiated, a good reason to choose one for your next mid-afternoon snack. A Chinese studypublished earlier this year shows a potential link between apple pectin and the slowing of colon cancer.

Together with the phytonutrients, the apple delivers mega anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular support.  Instead of Cheerios, consider an apple at breakfast to help lower cholesterol And a word to the health-wise: a fourth of the fiber is found in the peel.

In traditional medicine, the apple is considered a cooling food and good for reducing fevers and detoxifying.

What to Do with It

We may not have 17,000 varieties anymore, but there are thousands of ways to prepare them. Just off the top of my head, a sampler of apple-y possibilities: Hunks of apple with hummus or your favorite nut butter; as a pizza topping; tossed with arugula or watercress and a lemon-y vinaigrette or sliced and tucked into a grilled cheese. Speaking of cheese, apples pair well with just about anything, from brie to sharp cheddar. As mentioned earlier, even Apicius knew that pork and apples were a tasty combination. Don’t forget smoked trout – what a great team.

Have you ever made applesauce? It takes about 20 minutes, start to finish: Just you, a few quartered apples, a smidge of water and cinnamon. If you keep cooking that applesauce and add some apple cider and go heavier on the spices, you’ll eventually get apple butter, a thick, “buttery” spread brought to you by the Pennsylvania Dutch and other German immigrant communities.

Storage

Think cool, not cold, storage. Historically, apples were stored in apple cellars, but these days, most contemporary folk must make do with the vegetable bin in the refrigerator. Whatever you do, avoid storing on the counter or at room temperature, or you’re inviting a rapid decline in apple goodness. Stored away from light and heat, apples can keep for a minimum of a few weeks.

Cooking Tips

Try them grated and sautéed with shredded Brussels sprouts, a little bit of garlic and squeeze of lemon or sliced oh-so-thinly and mixed with fennel and walnuts for a refreshing side salad.

Apples oxidize quickly when sliced, which can be minimized with a spritz of fresh lemon juice (but not too much, or it will taste too lemon-y).

One of my all-time favorite ways to cook up apples is to pair them with twiggy herbs like rosemary or thyme. The chopped herbs are grounding yet stimulate the senses; the apple, altogether sweet, tangy and crunchy, gets to have fun with an unconventional mate, and the walnuts lend just enough fat to coat your mouth and let the good times roll. If you’re not up for making pie dough, make the filling anyway and put it on top of a bowl of ice cream. Or a pork chop!

Recipe

Apple-Rosemary-Walnut Pie with Enlightened Pie Dough

Excerpted from The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations by Kim O'Donnel by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

Ingredients

Apple-Rosemary-Walnut Filling
3 to 4 apples of your choice (for a total of 3 cups)
2 tablespoons cornstarch, preferably organic (Plan B: arrowroot)
14 to 13 cup granulated sugar, to taste
112 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped finely
14 teaspoons salt
12 cup unsalted walnuts, chopped
Juice of 12 lemon

Enlightened Pie Dough
6 tablespoons olive oil
12 cup water
3 cups all-purpose flour, at room temperature, plus more for dusting
14 teaspoon plus 18 teaspoon salt
14 teaspoon plus 18 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into tablespoon-size pieces
Egg white wash: 1 egg white, beaten with 1 tablespoon of water
Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Instructions

Apple-Rosemary-Walnut Filling
Peel the apples and thinly slice off their tops and bottoms. Using the core as your focal point, visualize each apple as a four-sided object. Place the blade of your knife on the fleshy edge of the core and slice from top to bottom. You should have four equal pieces, with only the core remaining. Cut into slices about 14-inch thick, and place in a medium-size bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and stir until well mixed and evenly distributed. Set aside until you are ready to fill the dough-lined pan.

Enlightened Pie Dough
Place the olive oil in a small bowl and set aside. Place the water in a small saucepan and heat until very hot. It need not be boiling but should be pretty close. While the water is heating, measure out the flour. Remove 112 tablespoons and reserve for rolling out the dough. (You may need more than your reserve, for rolling.) Place in a food processor, along with the salt and baking powder. Pulse a few times just to mix. Add the butter. Pulse until the mixture looks and feels like fluffy sand. You should not be able to see butter clumps.

Measure out 6 tablespoons of the hot water and add to the oil. With a fork, whisk together; it will look like vinaigrette. Pour the oil mixture on top of the flour mixture, and pulse until the dough just comes together. It may slightly pull away from the sides of the bowl. The dough should feel soft, warm, and pliable, not hard and crumbly. If the dough looks as if it needs more liquid, add the hot water in 1-tablespoon increments, pulse, and check the softness of the dough.

Lightly dust your rolling surface with some of the reserved flour and place the dough on top. Surround the dough with both hands to let it know you’re there, or as my pie guru Kate says, “give it a good handshake,” molding it into a thick, cohesive lump.

Roll the dough in quick, even strokes, making a quarter-turn after every few strokes. As you rotate and roll the dough, check regularly to make sure the dough is not sticking. (The dough scraper is helpful at this stage.) The immediate goal is to make a rectangle roughly 9 by 11-inches. (Don’t worry if it’s not exact.) Fold the dough like a letter: Starting from a short edge, fold over a third of your dough. Take the opposite edge and fold it to the middle, covering the first fold.

Make a quarter-turn, then roll out the dough into a new rectangle, dusting with flour as needed. Make another letter fold with dough. Give the dough another quarter turn and roll the dough in all four directions—north, south, east, west.

Fold the dough in half into a 4- to 5-inch square packet. Roll lightly on the top to seal the layers and surround the edges with both hands to tidy the dough. Cut the dough in half, wrap each in plastic, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Unlike an all-butter dough, this dough never goes into a deep sleep and gets cold; think of it as a brief catnap after all that rolling and folding.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425°F.

Lightly dust the rolling surface and roll out one dough half. With more of those quick, even strokes, roll the dough into a circle until it’s about 1 inch larger than your pie pan. Fold the dough in half and transfer to the pie pan. (Use the dough scraper to help with the lifting.)

Press the dough into the pan, making sure that it’s completely covered. Trim any overhanging dough with kitchen shears or a paring knife and reserve for possible patchwork on the top layer.

Fill the lined pan with the prepared fruit mixture.

Roll out the remaining dough half in the same manner, and fold in half to transfer and lay on top of the filling. Carefully unfold the dough to cover the entire filling. Make sure that the edges of the top and bottom dough layers meet before you trim any overhanging dough with kitchen shears or a paring knife. Use any extra dough to patch holes or tears.

Make a few slashes on the top of the dough with a paring knife. (I like to make four or five in a circular pattern in the center; feel free to get creative.)

Brush with the egg white wash, then sprinkle lightly with the sugar. Transfer the pie to the refrigerator for a quick 5-minute chill.

Place on a baking sheet and bake for 5 minutes. Lower heat to 400°F and bake for an additional 50 to 55 minutes. The crust will be golden and the filling will bubble.

Remove the pie from the baking sheet and let cool on a rack for about 90 minutes so that the filling can set.

Notes

Make the filling first so that it’s ready to go as soon as the dough is rolled out. As for the dough, have all the ingredients at the ready and measured before you get started. I recommend using a silicone baking mat or brown parchment paper as the rolling surface. Either one is temperature neutral and helps to keep your beautiful dough from sticking. If all you have in the house is plastic wrap, use that. If you’ve got a love affair with your marble countertop, go for it.

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