Thursday, February 24, 2011

Apples In Extremis

I've been dreaming of apple blossoms, both literally and figuratively. Can you dream figuratively? Can you dream literally? What I mean is, I've been having apple blossom night-dreams, and apple blossom daydreams, too.

I am, in other words, well and truly sick of winter now. There, I said it. You soldier on, keep 'er steady, even find many ways to enjoy the long, white season, and then.... The thaw brought hope, the snow sort of snuffed it--the final blow for me was falling ill just at that time, couldn't do anything, stuck inside, so the latest dumping was an unmitigated pain.

I'm getting better now, and hoping to get out on the skis this weekend. It won't stop me dreaming of apple blossoms. One productive thing we can get started on, an activity with the prospect of future rewards, is pruning the apple trees. This will be our fourth pruning season, but given how wild our trees were when we acquired the land, most still look entirely untended. By now we have a good idea about which trees are our best producers, so we can concentrate our efforts there. But it's not only the apple trees that are wild--the whole freakin' scenario is one of Great Nature run amok--so we have to start with clearing thickets of prickly ash and blackberry canes to even get to some of the trees. And it's tough to do that when there are still three feet of snow on the ground. Tough, but satisfying, and it's a pleasure to see the supply of apple wood being replenished, bringing thoughts of apple smoke drifting up around a rack of pork ribs on a long--nay, endless!--summer evening, as aspen shadows dapple the gravel garden and a warm breeze swirls gently down the valley....

In the meantime I take my apple-y longings down to the basement, see what's left of last year's small crop in our spare fridge. There I am reminded of what a remarkable fruit the apple is. Those shriveled, gnarly looking things will not win any beauty contests, but beneath the wrinkled skin the flesh of many of these apples is still juicy, a little crisp, and utterly delicious. They bring huge flavor to salads and slaws--last night I combined grated carrot with shredded ginger and apples with some cider vinegar and a splash each of maple syrup and grapeseed oil. The carrot, from the root cellar, was a little dull, and the ginger and apple flavors completely dominated. It was like some sort of laboratory demonstration of the alchemy of flavors.

Those winter apples are also good for grating into pancake batter (Mary makes a corn-apple cake that is our Bide-A-Wee mainstay) or into bread doughs. The apple disappears in the baking, but it gives a surprising lightness and background apple aroma to even quite heavy whole grain levain loaves.

Many apples develop surprising flavors in storage, flavors which are actually enhanced, concentrated, as the flesh loses moisture. I've noticed tropical, spicy, and honeyed notes in some of our long-keeping apples. It's an incredibly versatile fruit, but of course, as with so many other crops, the "variety" of apples represented in the stores is a tiny sliver of the whole picture, a largely homogeneous selection of reliably producing, keepable, shippable products.

At Bide-A-Wee a few weeks ago, as I was on the epic recipe-editing push, I recreated an apple "kimchi" I'd first made a year or so back, inspired by David Chang's Momofuku cookbook. "Recreated" is exactly the right word, as I wound up completely changing the preparation. Apple kimchi became

Sweet & Spicy Apple Slices

1 large firm tart-sweet apple (like a Haralson)
1 good pinch salt
1/2 tsp sambal chili paste
1 ½ Tbsp maple syrup-cider vinegar reduction*

Peel, quarter, and core the apple. Cut each quarter into 6 slices. Combine all. You can use it right away, or make it up to a day ahead.

* Combine equal quantities maple syrup and apple cider vinegar in a saucepan, say 1/4 cup each; bring to a boil and simmer briskly until reduced by half. Keep the heat moderate to avoid boil-overs.

Great with rillettes spread on crusty bread.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


el said...

Hah! I knew you could cry Uncle!

It's usually during the February thaw that I get out and prune, too, both the grapevines and the apple trees. And usually, the sandhill cranes are flying back overhead.

The robins and red-winged blackbirds are back here, but can I tell you about our dire weather predictions for tonight/tomorrow? Or about the new 10" that's blanketed the newly-thawed ground?

Apples, indeed. They're such mainstays. This guy doesn't update his website often, but take a gander at the historic fruit he offers. I am getting 12 bearing-age trees from him in April! He's just down the road, come visit!

s said...

Mmm, it's like a more sophisticated version of eating the extra unbaked apple filling from a pie. :)

I'm not crying uncle yet, and I still maintain that winter has lost her grip, but she's sure clawing at the edges.

Trout Caviar said...

Hah! Yourself, Miss Zone 6B "I can grow artichokes outside...". Don't make me come over, I mean, can I please come over there?

The thing is, when you're sick, it's just so BORING!! this time of year. I'm really looking forward to getting out there, starting the pruning, and before you know it we'll be sugaring, too. I so hope we have a good apple crop this year; I'm totally jazzed about diving into all things apple. I've seen that Southmeadow site before, very cool. I don't think we've ordered anything from them, though.

Sara, you're stronger than I am(!). But last week's thaw did show us how quickly things can turn--and then we saw again how quickly they can turn back, and it will be back below zero this weekend. Brrr. Good weather for the Birkie, the big Cable to Hayward ski race, though. We love listening to the live coverage on WOJB.

I wonder how a spicy, mapley apple pie would be? Interesting thought.

Cheers~ Brett

Jen (She said.She said.) said...

I'm with you. I've had it with the white stuff and the whole season. This is the time of year I tend to get into a cooking rut. I'm sick of the comforting stews and soups, but it's to early for the spring produce. We're having pesto tonight from the big freezer batch I made this summer. I hope it transports me to that wonderful season.

The apples look tasty. Thanks for the idea!

WeekendFarmer said...

I hope you feel better soon! hmmmm...I am confused ...can you prune the trees now? Wouldn't that take away the flower buds that are to come in a few weeks?? I need to trim my plum tree, but I am worried I will mess up its blooming schedule. That was cool what you did with the apples! We used to do that back home with green mangoes sans the maple syrup...I would think it would work the same.

Hey el...Are you really in 6B?? Thats just similar to us. How can that be? : )

Trout Caviar said...

Definitely time to break out the pesto, Jen. I'll bet that tasted pretty summery, indeed. I've been drawn to the citrus lately--blood orange and fennel salads.

Hey WF: Where we are, this is definitely fruit tree pruning time, while the trees are still dormant but the threat of the worst cold is past. Pruning shouldn't affect the blooming, as long as you're not doing radical pruning. We're in a bit of a special situation, as our apple trees went unpruned for so long. I assume you're doing a "normal" pruning, a bit of thinning, removing water sprouts, dead or damaged wood. The idea, as I understand it--and I am not an expert--is that you sacrifice some branches/potential fruit for the sake of sending more energy to the remaining wood, and for the health of the tree as a whole--opening up the center, say, to allow more light and air to get in, which allows wet leaves to dry quicker, preventing fungal diseases, etc.

I recall spicy fruit pickles from the time I spent in SW China, too. Mango sounds pretty good right now...!

Cheers~ Brett