You may note, just off to right side of the page here, a new section that shows Trout Caviar's "followers." Click on the "Follow" button to become one. You probably know better than I do what that actually means. In my mind, it means you've joined the Trout Caviar Righteous Eaters' Army*--a prestigious distinction, indeed!
Happy New Year, everyone. May your gardens grow abundantly, your farmers' markets thrive, your foragers' baskets overflow with bounty, this year and throughout the new decade.
I've been slow getting on to the 2009 Food Highlights. The new decade sort of took me by surprise, I guess. But it was a remarkable year in food for us, and I want to note a few of the more memorable experiences from last year over the next couple of weeks.
Last year was our first full year with Bide-A-Wee, and we spent a lot more time in that cheesy state just east of the Saint Croix and Mississippi Rivers. We added the term "tree crops" to our vocabulary, and then we added our own tree crops to our pantry and table.
We tapped maple trees for syrup for the first time last spring. That was tree crop number one. That was really good fun, and it was amazing to see how much sap a tree could produce on a good day, and to taste it straight from the tree--cold, clear, slightly sweet, a touch woody. Absolutely delicious, a spring tonic. And it was a challenge to figure out how to reduce that sap by a factor of 40 to turn it into syrup. Lot of boiling. More boiling. Boil it some more. We'll get us some better equipment for the task this year. We got a decent amount of syrup, but it wasn't a great year for sugaring--it turned too warm too soon, breaking the freeze and thaw cycle that really gets the sap flowing. We also tapped some of our birches, for you can make birch syrup too (it takes even more boiling!), but we never got enough sap to even begin.
Through the spring and summer we harvested many kinds of wild fruit, some of which we’d never tasted before—nannyberries, highbush cranberries, haws. We picked all the blackberries we wanted for a good five weeks, a remarkable run. Wild plums, black cherries, elderberries, wild grapes—it was indeed a very fruitful year.
But really, 2009 was the year of the apple at Bide-A-Wee. We didn’t know it at the time, but last spring provided perfect pollinating conditions for fruit trees of all kinds. We were kind of disappointed when the blossoms didn’t last as long as the previous year, but now I think that they blew away early because, once the flower had been pollinated, the blossoms weren’t needed anymore. And then we watched as the trees started to fruit, and were amazed at the difference from the previous year.
Many apple trees have a biennial habit; 2008 had provided a fairly meager crop, but in 2009 almost all of our trees were “on”, and how. We started picking apples in August, and I foraged the last basket at the end of November. I was surprised at how much frost the apples were able to withstand. Several times temperatures dropped into the ‘teens overnight, and in the morning the frost-covered fruit appeared frozen solid. But as long as the temperature rose above freezing in the course of the day, the apples recovered with no lasting damage.
Nor was a coating of snow a problem. An October surprise turned the valley white. Annabel strikes a call-of-the-wildish pose:
There was no way we could pick even a small fraction of the apples that bowed the branches of the trees by early autumn. We’ve been doing “triage pruning” for two winters, just getting a start on rehabilitating some of these several dozen long-neglected trees, but many of them are still untouched. Picking apples is difficult on the steep, brambly hills where most of our trees grow. Some trees were completely inaccessible within thickets of blackberry canes. Some trees made repulsively scabby apples. A few trees, heavily laden with beautiful fruit during one of our weekend visits, had suddenly dropped almost all their apples by the next weekend.
In spite of that we had a bountiful harvest, and we’ve been exploring all the many aspects of the apple, a remarkably versatile food crop. We’ve made apple jam and jelly, apple sauce and butter, apple cider and syrup, apple relish, ketchup, and pickles. We’ve eaten apples at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all times in between. We braise meats in apple cider, and sauté apples to serve with meat and fowl, fish and game. We grate apples into pancakes and breads. We have apple cider fermenting in carboys and bottles, and I’m experimenting with apple cider vinegar, too. We use dried apples to pep up granola, to sprinkle over salads, or just for snacks. Since we discovered that Annabel and Lily gobble dried apple slices enthusiastically, I haven’t bothered to bake dog biscuits. Apple salad, apple salsa, apple "kimchi", what the hell?
We invested in a cider press, the Happy Valley Ranch "Homesteader." Thoroughly old-fashioned technology, still quite effective. The press produces apple juice, or sweet cider. That juice we ferment to "hard," alcoholic cider, reduce by boiling to make versatile apple syrup (more tart than sweet; better in salad dressings than over pancakes), or freeze for drinking fresh through the winter. We haven’t bought orange juice in more than a year, start the day with a glass of apple cider, just like Thomas Jefferson did.
Of all the various uses to which we have put the versatile pome, I can recommend a few with particular enthusiasm.
--Braising in cider: There are classic preparations using cider in cooking, a lot of them from the French regions of Normandy and Brittany, where apple trees grow more readily than grapevines. In these dishes the cider, sweet or hard, serves the same purpose as the wine in a coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, etc., a flavorful, tenderizing (because acidic) liquid that mellows in the cooking and the mixing with the meat juices and melting fat to create…man, really, really tasty food. Game birds, chicken, and pork are particularly suited to this kind of cooking. When it’s cooked for a long time, the fruitiness and tartness of the cider recede into the background. The end flavor is distinctive, but not necessarily apple-y. That's country-style pork ribs braised in cider, with apples and chestnuts, above. Here’s a chicken dish with cider and cabbage, and here’s grouse in cider cream. But you can adapt a lot of recipes that call for wine, stock, or even beer as a braising liquid, subbing cider in their place. Give it a try.
--Pickled crab apples. I’ve been absolutely tickled with these pickles, which are pictured at the top of the post. Whole crab apples cooked in a wonderfully fragrant-spiced sweet and sour syrup. Serve these with roast pork or game, chop them to add to dressing for a winter cabbage salad, garnish a cheese plate with them. I tinkered a bit with a recipe from Linda Ziedrich’s excellent The Joy of Pickling, adding some star anise, black peppercorns, and a good deal of fresh ginger slices, to the original recipe’s cinnamon, cloves and allspice:
Pickled Crab Apples
Makes two pints
1 ½ pounds crab apples, stems on
One 2-inch stick cinnamon
1 tsp allspice berries
½ tsp whole cloves
1 whole star anise
6 slices fresh ginger, 1/8-inch thick
½ tsp black peppercorns
1 cup sugar
¾ cup water
1 cup cider vinegar
In a large, non-reactive (stainless or enameled) sauce pan, combine the water, sugar, vinegar, and spices. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Pierce each apple in a couple of spots with a metal or bamboo skewer (this is supposed to keep the apples from exploding, though a lot of mine cracked anyway; no matter).
Add the apples to the syrup and bring the syrup to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer the apples until they start to look translucent, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand overnight.
Next day, use a slotted spoon to transfer the apples to sterilized canning jars--one quart or two pint jars. Strain the syrup to remove the spices, then return the syrup to the sauce pan. Bring it to a boil, then pour the hot syrup over the apples in the jars to cover. Seal with sterilized two-part lids. Process in a hot water bath for ten minutes (or just whack the lids on and refrigerate; they will keep indefinitely in the fridge).
Save any leftover syrup in a jar in the fridge. It’s great used in dressing for beet or cabbage salads. Likewise, use the liquid from the canned apples this same way.
--India relish: I acquired three new cookbooks this past fall—used, but new to me: Hollyhocks & Radishes, Joy of Cooking**, and…a compilation of recipes from The Country Journal magazine, can’t recall the exact title. Weirdly, each one practically fell open to a recipe for “India relish” the first time I picked it up. I had never heard of India relish; India relish calls for a lot of apples; I was intrigued, nay, compelled to try it. It’s great—delightful on a hot dog, a cheese sandwich. Last weekend at Bide-A-Wee we had a lunch of grilled ham (Grass Run Farm, purchased at Seward Co-op) and cheese (Roth Kase "gruyère”) on homemade natural leaven brioche with India relish. Yay, lunch!
I’m not going to give the recipe because, well, it’s in pretty much every old-timey cookbook out there, apparently. In Joy (the old one, mine was printed in 1964)it’s called Indian relish, and it’s on page 785. This is one for next fall, as it also calls for green tomatoes. So if you have a garden, and access to an apple tree, it’s basically free. I always cut back the sugar in traditional recipes like this by 20 or 25 percent. (Also in Joy I’ve just come across a recipe for sweet and sour baked beets and apples, page 264. I have beets and apples! I’m gonna try it.)
So there you go, that’s my exultation of the apple. I think we tend to take the apple for granted, consign it to the obligatory role of the piece of fruit in the lunch bag, or the plop of apple sauce beside the pork chop. But in fact it is an extremely important food crop, and a cook’s delight in the range of its uses. And then, of course, there’s all that cider bubbling in the basement. Will report when we open the first bottle.
Duck confit with crabs and cabbage.
Cider sipper Mary.
*--I was originally calling this the TC Toxic Zombie Cult, because I've noticed that zombies and cults seem to be really hot these days, and the "toxic" part just made it super extra edgy, which people also go for. But it was suggested to me that the whole concept didn't really fit the Trout Caviar zeitgeist, and upon further reflection, I had to agree. But if you'd like to be part of the TC Toxic Zombie Cult, I could probably still manage to make up some membership cards.
**--That is the correct title, Joy of Cooking, no "the" to be seen. Never noticed that before....
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw