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