As the cold weather continues to march toward us and autumn is in full blush, is there anything that lifts your spirits quite like crisp, juicy apples spilling out of the bins of the local markets? Apple pies, turnovers, or cobblers, baked, stuffed, sautéed or simply enjoyed in their simple exquisiteness, apples are the epitome of autumn.
The fruit of one of the oldest cultivated fruit trees, the apple is believed to have its origins in southeast Asia. Archeological evidence shows that apples have been grown since ancient times, even grown wild in prehistoric Europe.
The symbolism surrounding apples is widespread…from forbidden fruit to the fruit of knowledge to its legendary ability to keep us strong and well. Since ancient Rome, where 37 varieties were cultivated, extensive crossbreeding and hybridization has resulted in some 7500 varieties of apples in existence today.
The apple grows in temperate climates, not in tropical regions, as they require a period of cold and dormancy to really thrive. The largest producers of apples in the world are Russia, the United States, Germany and France. With so many varieties of apples, it won’t surprise you to know that apples come in dozens of shapes and sizes with varying colors, textures, flavors, acidity, nutritional value, harvesting period, crispness and degrees of firmness. It will also come as no surprise that, with all these variations, different apples are better for different dishes. Here’s a primer on apples and where they serve us most deliciously.
For eating fresh, choose an apple that is firm, juicy and crisp. I like red and golden delicious, Granny Smith, Honeycrisp and Golden Russet. For pies, you want apples that are drier and slightly acidic, like Cortland, Golden Delicious, Jonathon Gold and my favorites, Gala or Fuji. For baking, choose an apple that is sweet and doesn’t fall apart easily, like the Cortland, Empire, Macintosh and Rome. For preserves and jellies, choose any apples that are high in pectin. I like empire, Ida Red and Spartan. And finally, applesauce--you need an apple that won’t discolor easily. I choose Cortland, Golden Delicious, Ida Red and Macintosh although any apple will do for this recipe.
Once you decide on the apple you need for which recipe, how do you know how to pick a fresh apple? Apples are most often harvested before they’re ripe so that they withstand shipping and have a longer shelf life. Once an apple is fully ripe, their flesh turns starchy very quickly, so look for apples that are firm, brightly colored and free of bruises. To test for ripeness, lightly flick the skin by the stalk with your fingertip. A hollow sound indicates an overripe apple, while a dull sound indicates perfect ripeness. If the flesh yields easily under your fingers, the apples will be mealy with no flavor. The most expensive apples are the most perfect, but here’s some good news…for cooking, you don’t need perfect apples, as the cooking will sweeten and overcome their little imperfections. (But remember that apples’ flesh will discolor quickly when exposed to air so toss cut apples with a bit of fresh lemon juice to prevent that yucky brown color.)
A good source of potassium and vitamin c, apples are also a rich source of pectin, said to control cholesterol, blood sugar; the apple acts as a muscle tonic, digestive aid, liver tonic and anti-rheumatic. Since most of the apple’s nutrients lie just under the skin, it’s best to use them unpeeled, especially if they are organically grown so you don’t lose the valuable antioxidants that reside in the skin.
An apple a day? One taste of this recipe and you’ll be hooked.