Friday, December 18, 2009

An apple a day...

It may be December, and the snow may well be covering every inch of sidewalk out there, but it doesn't mean that you can't get your frigid hands on local produce. Yes folks, apples are the local fruit of choice at this time of the year -unless you happen to live in warmer climes, and thus have access to citrus or other warm weather fruits...

If you're still scratching your head for gifts to get your loved ones, apples are a great solution! A pretty basket of local apples may not be your idea of the perfect gift, but jars of homemade applesauce or apple butter do make nice gifts, and they are not difficult or time consuming to make, but you should be choosy of the kind of apple you use. Not all apples are great for making into applesauce.

MacIntosh, Cortland, Jonathan, Jonagold, Winesap, Newtown Pippin, Gala, and Royal Gala are a few varieties that cook down nicely into a smooth, golden pulp. Some say that Granny Smiths are also good saucing apples, but I find that most grannies stay chunky, and in the North East, they are rather flavourless.

If you intend to give jars of sauce to everyone on your list, your best bet would be to buy a bushel of apples from the farmers' market, otherwise you can settle for a kilo bag from your supermarket. But be forewarned, apples that are kept in relative cold -like at a barely heated market- tend to be more flavourful than apples kept in a warm room -like the supermarket or a heated kitchen.

Peel, quarter and core apples. Dump into a heavy bottomed pan, and add some water (anywhere from just enough to cover the bottom of the pot to 1 cup/125mL). Bring up to the boil, and let simmer until the apples are nice and soft. The varieties named above will all fall apart into a smooth sauce. If you are using another variety, you may have to whisk or blitz the apples until smooth, or you may choose to go the chunky sauce route - in which case I really recommend russet apples: they are absolutely lovely for a chunky sauce.

Taste. Add sugar if needed.

For a twist on the whole apple sauce thing, why not add a whole vanilla bean, split in two at the beginning of the cooking process? A friend of mine who is really not into applesauce tasted my vanilla-apple compote and thought it was the best thing ever! Classic, and not so classic, spice and apple combinations are: cinnamon (use whole sticks to avoid over spicing and turning your sauce brown); star anise and clove; ginger (use fresh, not the powdered stuff); and pink peppercorns.

For apple butter, cook down your apple sauce for at least an hour over low heat, until it is quite thick (a wooden spoon should be able to stand in it on its own.)

If you're feeling a little wary about the whole canning process, no worries! You can look it up on the internet, or you can go the half-assed way. Wash you canning jars or re-used jam jars and lids in hot, soapy water, dump them in a large pot, cover with water and bring up to the boil. Let simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. You can leave them in the water until you are ready to use them, or pull them out with tongs as you need them. If your applesauce is piping hot when you pour it in the jars, you will get a tight seal. However, just to be on the safe side, I would advise your recipients to keep the jars in the fridge.

Did you know that early 19th century apple eaters had over a thousand varieties to choose from in North America alone? Although there have been recent efforts around the world to save apple diversity, hundreds of variety have been lost forever. Some varieties may never make it into consumers hands. But things are not all stark and black. While I doubt there will ever be more than 8 different varieties of apples at my local supermarket (only three of which are local), orchards around Montreal are making their fruits available to the public at farmers' markets across the province.

The same goes for growers around Toronto, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco... Ten years ago russet apples were impossible to find unless you went directly to the grower, but now they can be bought by the bushel. MacIntosh, still the number one apple in Canada, is quickly being caught up in popularity by its offsprings the Cortland and Lobo, and other apples are seen as serious contenders for the title of best eating apple.

If you like real crunch in your apple, Empire may be the apple for you. Though russets are not usually though of as eating apples, they offer a nice, clean crunch with the acid bite usually associated with easting apples. Russets' crisp sweetness is underlined by a floral aroma that sticks around after baking, making it the ideal apple pie apple: it would be the perfect foil for a sharp cheddar crust.

But don't limit yourself to my recommendations: each apple is adapted to different climactic conditions, so a variety that is delicious in Montreal might be mealy in Calgary, so ask around, and taste around. If you're looking for culinary adventure, exploring your local apple harvest can be the most bang for your buck!

Bon app'!

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