Saturday, September 12, 2009

loo loo loo

A note on pizza, first: though I think flavored doughs should be approached with caution and reluctance, I made a nice one today with Pecorino Romano, grated sweet Italian pepper, and large amounts of ground black pepper.


Apple crisp

You must both forgive and get used to the terrible lighting (and my dirty thumbnail).  It's rainy and dark out, and there are no good places in my house with good lighting for food photographs. This situation will not improve until spring brings better light, so you will have to just deal with it through the seasons of braising and pumpkin-pecan pie and duck confit and roast beast and eggnog and Reubens, until we come at last to radishes and pea shoots and the last of the frozen cherries.

Apples.  There's so much to say about apples.  First, because it's the easiest place to start, this apple crisp: sliced Cortland apples, tossed with Grade B maple syrup, sorghum, wheat whiskey, and cinnamon; a topping of equal parts sugar (I used white sugar and sorghum) and flour, with butter and oats.  I often use crushed pretzels in apple crisp (and in general I cook with pretzels more than anyone I know; the pretzel-crusted pig tails predate this blog, but I'll do that again sometime), but today was an oat day.

Let's digress and talk maple syrup and circle back therefrom to apples.

From age 2 to 15, I lived on a splash of old-school New Hampshire land -- a Colonial farmhouse built in 1743, with a chicken coop (complete with chickens), wild and domesticated grapes, wild and domesticated raspberries, a little creek where I caught "crayfish" too small to eat, horse stables (no horses; we kept the gas generator in one, the riding lawn mower in the other), and, well, a gravel tennis court.  New Hampshire in the 70s and 80s was a place in transition, obviously.

One of the owners back in the day when this place's farm elements were more practical than decorative had planted sugar maples, and we tapped them for sap.  Maple sap has two active seasons: spring and fall, when the days are significantly warmer than the nights, causing the watery sap to run back and forth through the tree.  Hammer a spigot into the trunk, hang a bucket from the spigot, and every day the bucket will collect some barely sweet water.  Dump the buckets into a kettle, cook the sap down, and the water cooks off until you have maple syrup.

Naturally, when I was 8, I preferred Vermont Maid "maple-flavored syrup," but by my teens I had come back around.  Real maple syrup tastes like what it is -- something from a tree.  It has a flavor that's more developed than just "sweet."  Most of the pancake syrups on the shelf offer nothing beyond their texture -- they're just sugar in pourable form, either next to flavorless or packed with artificial flavor.  Ugh.

Real maple syrup is offered in various grades, depending on where you live.  Grade B is the "cooking" grade, while various Grades A are "table" grades.  Grade A is lighter in color and flavor, see, while Grade B is stout enough that if you add it to coffee, the maple flavor won't be overpowered.  The idea that Grade B is too strong for people to use as a condiment ... well, it's fucking ridiculous, frankly.  We're not talking about molasses here.  I understand that not everyone can handle straight-up molasses -- shoo-fly pie's a lot for me to handle.  But maple syrup never gets that strong, and it can be tough to make a gingerbread, for instance, with a strong maple note, without resorting to flavor extracts (which I try to avoid).

Anyway.  I use Grade B.  Even up here, you can't find it in the supermarket.  You buy it from the producer or from a farmstand that carries somebody's maple products.  It often sells out when maple season is over, unlike the large amounts of Grade A which are available year-round, so I pick up a big jug in the spring, a big jug in the fall (which I ought to do next month, come to think of it).

The other thing plentiful up here?  Apples.  Told you we'd be back round.  There is an equivalent divide in apples to the Grade A/Grade B issue in maple syrup.  People who aren't from apple-growing regions, and some of those who are, don't always realize the vast array of apple varieties, but they tend to be divided into "eating apples" and "cooking apples" (or "pie apples" or "cider apples"), the second category being those that are widely considered too tart for eating.

Now, this, again, is nonsense.  Yes, such apples are tarter than Granny Smiths, but apart from crabapples I have yet to encounter an apple that's unpalatable when it's ripe, and when I lived in Indiana a great many of the local orchards made their cooking/pie/cider apples available for the public to purchase ... always noting carefully that they weren't intended for eating out of hand, I guess out of fear that somebody would complain the apple was too sour.

The tartness of apples comes from malic acid, while that of citrus fruit comes from citric acid.  (Grapes have both malic acid and tartaric acid, though the tartaric is present mostly in the vines.)  This is one reason that even a very tart apple isn't tart in the same way as a somewhat tart orange or grapefruit, for instance.

The idea that cooking apples are too tart to eat must stem from the timidity of the British and New England palate, I guess.  That's my theory.

Now, apples are one of the few fruits that travels well all on its own, without needing all the flavor and interest bred out of it the way supermarket tomatoes do -- so if you don't live somewhere with apple orchards, there are plenty of perfectly good apples in your supermarket, for eating or cooking.  The real appeal (ha) of local apples is the sheer variety of them: Ginger Golds, Cortlands, Braeburns, Golden Russets, Winesaps, Northern Spies, and crab apples, for instance, are all excellent user-friendly apples which lack the marketing power and supermarket presence of Granny Smith, Red Delicious, McIntosh, and Fuji -- to say nothing of the hyperbranded varieties like Jazz and Zestar.

One of the nice things about having lived both here and in Indiana is that both areas had plentiful orchards -- Indiana had far, far more, New Hampshire having been largely paved over to put up an office park -- which led to my discovering that the same variety of apple can taste different when grown in different areas.  Arkansas Black, in Indiana, was a spectacular apple -- not just crisp but crunchy, with full flavor.  Up here... meh.  This has held true for tomatoes, too -- the Cherokee Purples I've had in New Hampshire have been fairly watery and bland, compared to the deep tomato flavor of those in Indiana.

Not that New Hampshire lacks good tomatoes and apples, obviously -- but the "hey, this was great there, why isn't it here?" varieties are the ones that have stood out.

So get out there, see what they carry in your neck of the woods.  There's a huge spectrum of flavor, texture, and acidity.

There's a lot more to say about apples -- apple varieties, crab apples, apple cider, apple butter, my remixed appletini -- in the future, but I'll leave that until later.

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