Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Time to Pick On the Apples!

October is now upon us, the signs are evident: colorful leaves carried on the cooling winds that blow, autumnal hues popping up on every landscape, and hand-painted signs at local farms inviting us all to a day of fresh air, pumpkin picking and apple picking. We all participate in the annual pilgrimage to select the perfect pumpkins for our decorative ideas. These pumpkins are usually destined for a date with the carving knife in their quest to become jack-o-lanterns on our front steps and in our windows. While there are a few comforting dishes which call for pumpkin, such as pumpkin bread or pumpkin soup, the apple seems a much more versatile specimen.

Now is the season to celebrate the apple. The apple has held many bookmarks in literature and culture throughout the ages. Eve tempted Adam with the forbidden apple. Snow White took a bite of the poisoned apple, plunging her into history's record longest comatose state. The famous Halloween party activity is that of bobbing for apples. A proud father informs his much-adored daughter "You're the apple of my eye." The son who displays an inherited less than admirable character trait is declared as "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Finally, medical advice is prescribed through the old adage of "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." While consuming a daily apple may not keep the doctor away completely, it certainly is rich in vitamins and nutrients, qualifies as one of the government food pyramid's recommended daily servings of fruit, and can be enjoyed in so many different ways.

For those who live on Long Island, I would recommend taking a ride to the eastern north fork. There are several farms where apple picking is welcomed, and one location in particular which Brian and I visited last week was Woodside Orchards. A variety of apples are available for harvest at varying points throughout the season. If picking the apples yourself is not your thing, there are plenty of pre-picked apples available for purchase there as well. There are so many different varieties of apples, the orchard offers the opportunity to try something new and different from the usual supermarket red delicious and granny smith. We have sampled and enjoyed some macouns and honeycrisps. My personal favorite is the Arkansas black, a deep red variety which has an ever-so-slight hint of wine flavor to it. You can also find varieties such as empires, Jonathans and winesaps. Many apple orchards also vend their own apple cider, and for the childhood sweet tooth in all of us, candied apples, caramel apples, apple pies, apple butters and cider doughnuts are also offered.

There are infinite ways in which to savor the culinary delight of the apple. Baking is perhaps the first option which comes to mind with the classic apple pie. There are many ways to amp up the classic, which is basically apples with sugar and spices baked in a pie shell. I like to add a second fruit with the apple, such as cranberries. The tartness of the cranberries balances out the sweetness of the apple very nicely. My mother makes an amazing apple tart with a cinnamon custard-like filling. Last Thanksgiving I sampled an apple pie which someone had baked using five different varieties of apples. For those who seek an even simpler option, crisps are the answer. The filling simply gets poured into a pan, then topped with a crumbled streusel mixture. I like to make a crisp with apples and pears combined. I also make an applesauce cake from a very old family recipe. Baked apples are also a very simple yet elegant presentation, filled with a little brown sugar, cinnamon and butter and baked until tender and just starting to caramelize on the cut edges. Some people stuff baked apples with a streusel and raisin mixture. The apple is not fussy, you can pair it with just about anything you like. A single apple can also enhance many savory dishes. I make a fall chicken and root vegetable pot pie which also contains wild mushrooms, chopped hazelnuts and one chopped apple. I also make a mash of potatoes with a couple of root vegetables and an apple goes into that as well. The flexible apple also has the ability to take on a co-starring role in entrees. Pork chops baked with sliced apples, onions and acorn squash is a fall favorite in my house. Roasted chicken or Cornish hens take on a very nice flavor when basted with a glaze made from apple jelly. The simplest way to enjoy an apple is in its original form, either munched away to stave off the afternoon hungries until dinner, or cut into wedges and plated with a high quality cheese or two. However you choose to serve up the results of your apple picking expedition, your options are boundless.

Apples which are not destined for the baking pan can be a charming fall decor until consumed. Instead of relegating them to the refrigerator where they may be forgotten, find a container large enough to hold about eight or nine apples, such as a basket or an attractive galvanized container or decorative wooden box, all of which you can find in a craft store. Place a variety of apples in the container and leave it either as a centerpiece on the table, inviting diners to a healthy snack or dessert, or in any welcoming spot in your kitchen or living room. I like to display granny smiths, golden delicious and galas for an eye-pleasing color variety. A friend of mine displayed red delicious apples mixed with pine cones all in a big basket.

October is the peak time for fall festivals and harvests. Before we know it, Halloween has come and gone. Take advantage now of all of the produce that fall has to offer, such as acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, pears and of course apples. Make a day of it, take the family out for brunch and then spend a leisurely afternoon of always-needed quality family time as you pay homage to your local farms, orchards and vineyards. When you return home, you will reap the tasty rewards and nutritional benefits of the bounty. By storing apples in ventilated wooden crates in a very cool basement or garage, you'll be able to treat yourself for anywhere from two to four months depending upon the variety of apple and the storage conditions. After that, it is back to the supermarket for your fruit purchases. So enjoy the not-so-forbidden fruit, and the pies and other culinary delights which result from the apple's versatile and delicious enhancement.

Happy picking!

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Harvest Moon: Ingredients for Quick Winter Eats

As the harvest moon brings cooling winds and falling leaves, you might be surveying the garden plots abundant with vegetables. It will soon be time to gather them all and whisk them indoors to safety from that first frost. Once you hear that foreboding prediction from your local meteorologist, you suddenly find your kitchen counter concealed by a blanket of freshly harvested tomatoes, squashes, basil, peppers and perhaps even fruits and pumpkins. This is a golden opportunity to stock up your freezer and your pantry. By cooking up batches of culinary delights from your garden ingredients, you will have the makings of some quick weekday meals to enjoy during the winter months.

When a frost is imminent, gather all of the tomatoes from the garden, even the green ones. Tomatoes will ripen indoors, simply place the green specimens into paper bags and place the bag into a cupboard or closet for several days, checking on them periodically. Once ripened, the best use for an overabundance of tomatoes is to make a marinara pasta sauce. Anyone with an Italian grandmother has a family recipe. If you are not blessed with such a relation in your family tree, there are so many recipes out there for the basic Italian red "gravy". The ingredient list usually includes, but is not restricted to, onions, garlic, tomatoes, basil, parsley and a splash of red wine. Cook a couple of large stockpots of the sauce; then ladle into quart-sized plastic food storage containers and freeze. When you anticipate a hectic day ahead, take a container out to thaw in the refrigerator during the day. When you come home on one of those cold, dark winter evenings, all you'll have to do is boil some spaghetti, heat the sauce and you have an instant simple pasta meal. All you'll need with it is a salad, some wine, and dessert. The sauce can also be used for other dishes, such as eggplant or chicken parmesan. While you are playing in the kitchen, you can also make up a couple of trays of lasagna using some of the sauce. Have one tray that evening for dinner and freeze the other tray for a future meal, lasagna is a very freezer-friendly entree.

Pesto sauce is also ideal for making ahead and freezing for a rainy - or, in this case, snowy - day. Pesto is simply basil leaves, parsley, garlic, olive oil, grated parmesan cheese and pignoli nuts whirred together in a food processor. Once again, make several batches of this, spoon it into plastic food containers, top with a film of olive oil before covering, and freeze. Once thawed, boil some fusili pasta and toss the cooked pasta with the pesto sauce, another quick pasta dinner that will make your Italian family sing for their supper. Pesto is also excellent spread on the inside of bread for a pannini, on top of fish before roasting, and stirred into soups.

Many soups also freeze well. One favorite is to make a soup with some cut up vegetables, freeze; then when you're ready to enjoy it, add a little pasta or some tortellini when reheating, serve with a spoonful of the pesto sauce on top. I would recommend adding any pastas to your soups only at the time of reheating, otherwise the pasta tends to absorb all of the liquid of the soup. You can also use some vegetables to boil into some water with salt, pepper and seasonings of your choosing, strain, and the result will be a base vegetable stock which you can freeze for future use when making soups. Adding chicken during the boiling process will provide you with chicken broth. There are recipes for every kind of stock you will ever need to start a soup with when that warming comfort food craving strikes.

Other things you can prepare for storage in your pantry will require the purchase of some canning jars. Bell peppers can be easily turned into roasted pepper salad. Roast the peppers, let them cool, remove the peel and the seeds and tear into strips. Toss them into a homemade olive oil-balsamic vinaigrette and divide into the jars. Close the sealing lids, and you'll have roasted peppers all winter for use as a small side-dish salad, tossed into larger salads or pastas, as a filler for sandwiches or a topping for pizzas.

If you have harvested berries from your garden, make some homemade jam. There isn't much to making jam, and it can simmer in a large pot while you take care of other household tasks (like laundry or catching up on your e-mails). Once the jam is done, allow to cool to room temperature, ladle into canning jars and seal. You'll have the best and most natural topping for english muffins or scones for Sunday breakfast with your family, only a pantry door away. Another nice use would be stirred into plain yogurt, or warmed to drizzling consistency and spooned over ice cream.

Turn zucchini and pumpkins into tasty sweet breads. I have a recipe for my grandmother's pumpkin-nut bread which yields two loaves. We eat one fresh and warm the day it comes out of the oven, the other loaf I freeze for when we want an afternoon treat one winter's afternoon in front of a DVD. Zucchini bread and pumpkin bread both freeze well. Of course remember to save a few pumpkins for fall decoration and jack-o-lantern carving, a festive seasonal sentry for your front door.

If you have achieved an enthusiastic green thumb, one aspect of kitchen gardening can be enjoyed all year from your kitchen window. Herbs are very simple to grow, and add a fresher, superior flavor to dishes than their store-bought dried counterparts. If you have a sunny window sill in your kitchen, plant four to six herbs which you use most often. You can satiate your gardening needs all winter long, and benefit from that fresh herb taste in your cooking.

Finally, you may as well cook up a batch of harvest for your dinner tonight. A ratatouille is essentially a French vegetable stew, the basic ingredients being eggplant, zucchini, onion, garlic, tomato and bell pepper, plus some herbs. It makes an excellent side dish accompaniment to any meat. It is also good as a main dish when browned chicken pieces then simmer in the stew with the vegetables. Serve ratatouille over a couple of grilled portobello mushrooms, or over pasta or couscous and you have an excellent vegetarian dish. You can also add any other ingredients to the basic recipe that your creative genius comes up with: chick peas, olives, Italian sausages, saffron, whatever you find in your pantry. It's a very flexible dish, and it's a colorful way to serve up some of those harvested late summer veggies.

By devoting an autumn day to harvesting and cooking, you can be rewarded into the winter months with some nutritious and flavorful treats, courtesy of your last summer's garden. You will know exactly what ingredients went into your pasta sauce or pumpkin dessert bread. Knowing this fact and knowing that you grew the vegetables and fruits yourself make all of the above ideas comfort foods in themselves that will warm your soul as the flavors transport you back to sunny days spent toiling in your garden. By the time you eat your way through that stash of harvest goodies, it will be time to begin reflecting and planning next summer's garden!