If I had to choose one kind of fruit above all others, I’d pick apples. Luckily, we don’t have to make such choices, but if we did, apples would serve us well. They have an incredibly long season: The earliest ones start ripening in high summer, and the harvest continues straight through until frost. And apples keep well, too.
Apples range in taste from just plain sweet to spicy-sweet to tart; in texture from downright hard to crisp and juicy to dry to mealy; and in color from blackish red to palest yellow. Some are tender skinned, others have thick, waxy coats, and still others, the russets, have tough, leathery skins.
I prefer apples that are sweet-tart, with a definite spicy note. My hands-down favorite for eating out of hand is a Macoun (pronounce the ou as in out). At its best, a Macoun is crisp and juicy with just the right blend of sweetness and spice, and a good quotient of acidity. Sometimes this variety can be mealy, so try one before buying a big bag of them. Braeburn is another favorite, and very reliable; it keeps its shape well when cooked. Golden Delicious is a good-tasting cooking apple, but it turns into a purée when it cooks down. When fresh and locally grown, Goldens are outstanding eaten out of hand. Grimes Golden is another great all-purpose apple, good for eating out of hand, for cooking, and for cider.
A dozen apple ideas
While most people think of pie when you mention apples, these versatile fruits can be enjoyed raw, cooked, dried, pressed for sweet or hard cider, and in savory preparations as well as sweet.
Fry sliced apples in a little butter or oil. After browning them, sprinkle a little sugar into the pan and cook the apples slowly until they’re limp and lightly caramelized. Serve with roast pork or country sausage, flaky biscuits, and milk gravy.
Arrange an easy, elegant salad of fall greens like endive, escarole hearts, or spinach with slices of tart apple, blue cheese, and a sprinkling of toasted walnuts or hazelnuts. Before arranging, dress the greens in a vinaigrette made with walnut or hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar.
Or make a meal-size salad of fall greens with a balsamic vinaigrette. Top the greens with sautéed chicken livers, caramelized onions, and raw or briefly sautéed chunks of apple.
A quick apple chutney makes a sweet-savory garnish for roasted meats or winter squash. In a heavy pan, sauté thinly sliced sweet onions until caramelized, and then add chopped apples. When the apples have browned, add walnuts and dried currants, tart cherries, or cranberries and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are tender. Add a generous dose of balsamic vinegar and cook briefly until the vinegar reduces to a syrupy glaze.
Use apples to season roasting birds. Before roasting turkey, duck, or goose, season the cavity with salt and pepper and fill it with chunks of tart apples, coarsely chopped onion, and sprigs of sage or rosemary.
Make an apple pan sauce for chicken. Season bone-in chicken pieces or small Cornish game hens with salt and pepper and brown them on all sides. Remove them from the pan, add coarsely chopped apples and onions, and brown. Return the chicken or game hens to the pan and add some dry white wine, broth, or water. Cover and simmer gently until the poultry is done.
Spicy apple butter makes a great spread for toast or biscuits. Gently simmer cut-up apples—not peeled or cored—in a very little bit of water, stirring frequently, until the apples grow tender and lose their shape. Run the softened apples through a food mill, return the purée to the pan, and season with a generous amount of sugar and a little ground cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. Add apple-cider vinegar for complexity and punch. Cook the purée over low heat and stir often until the mixture is thick and spreadable.
Make individual apple tartlets. Roll out 7-inch rounds of plain pastry. Lay very thin slices of apple in the center, overlapping them slightly and leaving a 1-inch margin all around. Brush the apples with melted butter, sprinkle sugar over them, and dust lightly with ground nutmeg, cinnamon, or mace. Fold in and pleat the pastry edges. Bake the tartlets in a medium-hot oven until the crusts are browned.
For a delicious apple dumpling, wrap a whole cored, peeled apple in a square of pie pastry. Before closing the pastry, fill the center of the apple with brown sugar and a nub of butter. Bring the edges of the pastry up, pinch them to seal, and bake for an hour at 350°F. Serve with cream.
Make baked apples. Set cored apples in a shallow baking dish and fill the centers with brown sugar, butter, nut pieces, and dried fruits—try raisins, currants, cherries, cranberries, or chopped apricots. Pour about a half cup of sherry into the pan and bake as for apple dumplings. Serve in bowls with the pan juices spooned over the top.
Bake an apple crisp. Combine 1 cup flour, 1 cup old-fashioned oats, 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, and 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter to make the topping. Toss 6 cups peeled sliced apples with 3 or 4 Tbs. sugar and 1/2 tsp. cinnamon. Spread in a 9-inch square baking pan, top with half of the crisp topping, and bake for 20 minutes at 375°F. Add the remaining crisp topping and bake until the apples are tender and the crisp is browned, another 20 to 30 minutes. Serve with vanilla ice-cream.
For the easiest apple dessert of all, set out a plate of several varieties of apples and another of plump dates, nuts, and a top-notch cheese or two—a good blue, an aged Cheddar, Dry Jack, or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Sample the apples with each of the accompaniments and muse on which is the best.
Apples thrive in most areas of the United States, so it’s usually possible to find good local ones. It’s worth visiting orchards or farmstands, since grocery stores only carry ten or twelve of the hundreds of varieties grown in this country. Search online for apple growers closest to you. If the locals don’t grow what you want, you can mail-order apples in season.