The World’s Best Apple

Gravensteins 2

“The Gravensteins are almost ripe,” I emailed my mother. “Want some?”

“We’ll be down after dinner,” came the reply five minutes later.

Still farming at eighty, my parents hadn’t had time to come to dinner for a long time. But they would drop everything and drive two hours for a bucket of Gravenstein apples.

Who wouldn’t? As Luther Burbank wrote, “It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.” This broad green apple, often striped with red, is wonderfully tart, sweet, juicy, and aromatic. It ripens early, beginning in late July, to provide first aid from the long hunger for fresh apples. The Gravenstein isn’t a keeper; its short stem often makes it fall; and its moist, crisp flesh bruises easily. But there are plenty of good ways to preserve this apple, bruised or not. I believe it makes the very best sauce, butter, pies, sweet cider, and hard cider.

The Gravenstein originated in the seventeenth century in Denmark, where it is still well appreciated; the Danish food minister declared it the national apple in 2005. Russian otter hunters planted it, along with other fruits, at Fort Ross on the northern California coast in 1820, and their orchard became the foundation of a thriving Sonoma County apple industry. Growing up in Santa Rosa, I ate little besides Gravensteins for a month every summer.

Sadly, California apple orchards have been pushed out by housing tracts, vineyards, and imports of apple-juice concentrate from China. Only 900 acres of Gravenstein orchards remain in Sonoma County, and the only other North American Gravenstein orchards are in Nova Scotia. Slow Food recently listed the Sebastopol Gravenstein in its catalog of “forgotten flavors.”

Although the Gravenstein prefers a cool, coastal climate, it does grow elsewhere. In my flat, low-lying Willamette Valley orchard, I get a crop at least every other year. This year’s crop is big. The apples may not be as good as Sonoma County Gravensteins, but they are very, very good.

If somebody offers you apples in mid-August or earlier, there’s a good chance they’ll be Gravensteins. If they start softening faster than you can eat them, here’s what to do: Peel, core, and slice them, and freeze them for pies and crisps. Or heat the pieces in a covered pot; soon you’ll have applesauce with a heavenly fragrance and texture—forget the mashing or pureeing. Do you hate peeling and coring apples? Then simply cut them into pieces before cooking them. Sieve out the skins and seeds, add sweet cider or brown sugar or both along with spices, and cook the puree uncovered until it becomes a thick apple butter, a fine treat to put away for winter breakfasts. If you’re lucky enough to have several boxes of Gravensteins, press them into cider yourself (you can rent a crusher and press from a brew store); it will be the best you’ve ever tasted, and it will ferment to an outstanding hard cider with no other varieties added. Before the cider ferments, if you like, boil some down into an amazing no-sugar-added syrup or jelly.

If you are so unlucky to lack a Gravenstein tree, or any friend with a Gravenstein tree, hope is not lost. Gather your nursery catalogs, and start figuring out where you’ll plant your own Gravenstein tree this coming winter.

 

Gooseberries in Syrup

gooseberries, topping & tailing

Before you eat or cook a gooseberry, you must top and tail it–that is, pull off the stem and the shriveled, dry blossom. These are my first harvest of Hinnomaki, a Finnish variety. They’re not only prettier than my green gooseberries (Oregon Champion, a nineteenth-century variety from Salem, Oregon); they’re also sweeter.

Because I’d never done it before, I decided to can the gooseberries in syrup. For a cup of fruit, I used 1/3 cup each sugar and water. That’s a heavy syrup, but not as heavy as recommended by the old preserving book I consulted, which also told me to pour some of the syrup into the jar before adding the berries. This is supposed to keep the berries from floating, as apparently is the Extension recommendation to dip the berries in syrup for 30 second and then drain them before putting them in the jar and pouring the syrup over.

After putting the berries in the jar, you pour the syrup over, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and then process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Although I put some of the syrup in the jar before adding the berries, they floated. They’re beautiful anyway, though, and they should be delicious next winter, over ice cream, cheesecake, or pound cake.

June in a Jar

Alexandria strawberry

This year’s long, wet spring in western Oregon pleased my Alexandria strawberries, which I planted last year under the arching canes of an old climbing rose. The pale pink roses, white from a distance, are just beginning to bloom, and breathing in their fragrance while tasting the just-ripe berries made me dream of my jam pot.

Introduced by Park Seed in 1964, Alexandria is one of several seed-propagated varieties of Fragaria vesca, the European woodland or alpine strawberry. Although the fruits of Alexandria are bigger than those of other F. vesca cultivars, the longest of my berries measure less than an inch. The fruits ripen over a long period, so you have to plant a lot of starts if you want to collect enough berries for jam. For these reasons, many gardeners treat the Alexandria strawberry as an ornamental ground cover rather than a food source. But eating one of the perfectly ripe berries produces a shocking rush of flavor. However jaded you are from crunching gigantic green-picked strawberries from California, you will recognize Alexandria’s flavor as the essence of strawberry.

I collected a couple of handfuls of berries and then looked up at the rose bower. I hadn’t yet made rose preserves this year, and I’d missed the peak bloom of both the rugosas and the delicate pink wild roses. But I knew I could find roses enough to combine with the strawberries. The flowers overhead were too pale for a red jam, sadly. For better color and an equally delicious aroma, I collected some pink moss roses, pulling the blossoms away from each calyx with one hand and, with the other, clipping off each petal’s pale, slightly bitter base with the tiny scissors of my pocket knife.

Then I remembered the rhubarb stalks I’d harvested a few hours earlier. Rhubarb can be problematic for preservers and bakers because it is typically ambivalent about color. The varieties that are red inside and out tend to lack vigor, and all-green varieties are hard to find. Most rhubarb in home gardens has red or red-speckled  skin but green flesh, and even red rhubarb skin may lose much of its color in the wrong growing conditions. The color problem is one reason that rhubarb is so often combined with strawberries. The happy marriage of flavors is another reason; the tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweet perfume of the strawberries. But full-scented roses marry well with rhubarb and strawberry both, so why not a ménage-a trois? This I had to try.

Rhubarb–Rose–Alpine Strawberry Jam

1 pound rhubarb, cut crosswise ½ inch thick
3 ounces Alexandria strawberries (about ¾ cup)
2 ½ ounces fragrant unsprayed rose petals (about 1½ cups, well packed)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups sugar

In a bowl, gently mix the ingredients. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for about 8 hours, until the sugar has mostly dissolved.

Pour the mixture into a preserving pan, and set the pan over medium heat. Stir gently. When the sugar is completely dissolved, raise the heat to medium-high. Boil, stirring occasionally.
 
The mixture will thicken in just a few minutes as the rhubarb fibers separate. When the mixture has reached a jam-like consistency, remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the jam into jars, and close them. You should have about 3 cups.

You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, for 5 minutes if you have sterilized them or 10 minutes if you haven’t.

To smell and to eat, this jam is fantastic. I have captured June in a jar.

Mixed Berry Jam, from the Freezer

mixed berry jam

Here in western Oregon, summer seems a long way off. The heavy soils that dominate the region are still too wet to plant, and my summer vegetable garden is pot-bound in the greenhouse. Strawberries are beginning to ripen, and I have even picked a few raspberries, but the 2010 preserving season has yet to begin.

Yesterday, however, I found in my freezer plenty of berries from last year to make a big batch of jam. So I decided to try combining red currants, raspberries, and strawberries in–

Mixed Berry Jam

2 pounds frozen red currants, thawed
2 pounds frozen red raspberries, thawed
2 pounds frozen strawberries, thawed
7 cups sugar

In a covered preserving pan over medium heat, bring the currants and raspberries to a simmer. Uncover the pan, and simmer the fruits about 5 minutes, until they are quite tender (if you use fresh fruit instead of frozen, the simmering will take a bit longer).

Purée the mixture through the fine screen of a food mill set over a large bowl. Briefly mash the strawberries with a potato masher (to break them into pieces, not to obliterate them), and add them to the fruit purée. Stir in the sugar.

Pour half the mixture into the preserving pan. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, skimming the foam, until the jam mounds in a chilled bowl. Ladle it into pint or half-pint jars, and close the jars. Cook the rest of the fruit mixture in the same way, and fill more jars with the jam. You should have about 5 pints total, with the perfume of raspberries, tartness of currants, and occasional smooth globs of pure strawberry.

Notes:

• The red currants in this jam provide abundant acid and pectin for a strong gel. I undercooked my jam a bit to keep the gel on the soft side.

• Unless your food-mill screen is finer than mine, some seeds will slip through, enough to add a little texture without making the jam unpleasantly seedy.

• Process the jars in a boiling-water bath as usual: 5 minutes if the jars are sterilized, 10 minutes if they’re not.

• You can cut this recipe in half and cook all the jam at once.

Last of the Quinces

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally I am running out of quinces. I have two trees, of the variety called Pineapple, and they produce more reliably than any of the apple, pear, plum, and cherry trees in my lowland orchard. So I always give away quinces, and this year I even sold some. Yet it’s January 20, and still I have a box of the fruit left in the unheated guest bedroom.

I’m not complaining. Quinces are good for a lot of things. From the nineteenth century until after World War II, quinces were valued especially for their pectin. People would cook the sliced fruit in water, and then either make the liquid into jelly or boil it down until it was sour and viscous before combining it with other fruits in jelly or jam. For centuries before that quinces were made into paste, the original marmalade—or, simply, thick, sliceable jam—to be served as finger food. Quince paste has never lost popularity in Spain or parts of Latin America, and it seems to be coming back into style in the United States. Even more appealing than quince paste, to me, are pastes from quinces combined with other fruits, such as berries and plums. Quinces also make delightful, fragrant syrups (I most like a raw syrup of quince and honey), and jams that can turn out red or white, and smooth or rough, depending on your method. Cooked in syrup for nearly two hours, quince cubes or slices become a ruby-red spoon sweet. Steeped in vodka with sugar, quinces become an aromatic liqueur. Poached in white wine with honey, they become a tart relish for roasts or even a dessert. Quinces combine well with apples in pie, and some people like them best simply hollowed out (with a coring tool that looks like a small, heavy spoon with a pointed tip) and baked whole like an apple.

Having made all those things this year, I wanted to try something different. I gazed at the quinces, sitting in the guest bedroom beside the last of the peppers (peppers keep much longer in a cool guest room, by the way, than they do in a refrigerator), and I wanted to combine the two. I’d already made some wonderful quince–red pepper jelly. What else could I try? I decided on—

Quince Chutney

quince chutney 5

1 to 2 tablespoons mustard oil*
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 pound peeled and sliced or diced quinces
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 medium-large (about 1/2 pound) onion, halved and sliced thin
2 ounces small fresh hot red peppers (I used jalapeños and Fresnos), sliced thin
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped gingerroot
1 teaspoon salt
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons raisins

Heat the oil in a preserving pan. Add the garlic and cumin seeds, and stir them over medium heat until they release their aroma. Immediately add the remaining ingredients. Boil the mixture gently, uncovered, over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the liquid is absorbed and the quince is tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

When the chutney has cooled, store it in a covered container in the refrigerator. It’s even better after a week or two.

*Available in Indian markets, mustard oil is always labeled in the United States as “for external use only.” The USDA requires this labeling because the oil contains erucic acid, which is said to cause “nutritional deficiencies as well as cardiac lesions” in lab rats (mustard seeds and prepared mustard also contain this natural chemical, of course). Mustard oil has a very strong flavor. If you’re not sure you like it, use only 1 tablespoon. If you’re sure you don’t like it, or if none is available, substitute another oil.

This recipe is actually a variant of one I developed for apple chutney, and that chutney turned out equally delicious. So if your guest bedroom is filled with apples rather than quinces, this is a good way to use them.

Fresh Lychees

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While in Beaverton yesterday to demonstrate pickling at the farmers’ market, I stopped in Uwajimaya, the Japanese supermarket. I always come upon something amazing in Uwajimaya’s produce section, and yesterday was no different: I found fresh lychees!

A tropical-to-subtropical fruit native to Asia, the lychee has a thin, knobbly, leathery red skin. Cut into it with a knife, fork, or fingernail, and easily peel away the skin to reveal white, fragrant flesh with a gently chewy texture like that of firm jelly. In the center of the flesh is a shiny, inedible seed approximately the size, shape, and color of a Kalamata olive.

Along with its relatives the small longan and the beautiful, hairy rambutan, the lychee has long been treasured in Asia. According to Alan Davidson (The Oxford Companion to Food), during the first century a Pony Express-style courier service began bringing fresh lychees from Canton north to the imperial court of China. Later, during the Ming dynasty, clubs of lychee lovers met in temples and gardens to consume hundreds of the fruits at a sitting.

I don’t know where Uwajimaya got the lychees, but they were quite fresh; if they hadn’t been, they would have been brown rather than red. Lychees grow in Florida and Hawaii as well as Asia, so perhaps we’ll see them in Oregon more often in the future. And maybe, if I’m very lucky, someday while traveling I’ll be able to pluck a ripe lychee from a tree.

What did I do with the lychees? I did not preserve them. Canned lychees, easy to find in Asian markets, are bland in comparison with the fresh fruit. So I put the lychees into a bowl and sat down with my husband and son. Then we slowly unwrapped and ate our perfumed treasures one at a time until they were all gone, all the while trying to fix their look, flavor, and texture in our memories. It may be a long time before we encounter fresh lychees again.

Toshiba Apples

In Marina Lewychka’s Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, an old Ukrainian war refugee, lonely in his English cottage since his wife’s death, refuses to heat his sitting room, because that’s where he stores boxes of apples through the winter. Even after he marries the voluptuous young slattern Valentina, the apples are his dietary staple. He eats them simply sliced and microwaved—Toshiba Apples, his daughter calls them.

Having recently and independently invented Toshiba apples myself, I was embarrassed to read about them. I could have dubbed them Panasonic Apples, after my own trusty nuker, but clearly I was less creative than Lewychka’s character; I hadn’t named the dish at all. Worse, I now realized, I had taken to eating old-people food. Though I still had my teeth, I’d gotten fussy and lazy: I found apple crisp too sweet, apple pie too fatty and troublesome to make, applesauce—well, I loved applesauce, and in fact I had been planning to make some when I discovered Toshiba Apples. I’d sliced and peeled a few apples but then had to go out; there was no time to make a pot of applesauce. So I put the bowl of apple slices in the nuker and ate them hot a few minutes later, with my fingers.

Actually, they were delicious.

It’s a lucky householder who has enough apples to last the winter and a cool room to keep them in (I use an unheated guest bedroom). Good keeping apples, like my Fujis and Braeburns, grow sweeter in storage, and they retain a firm texture instead of growing cottony like a Red Delicious. But by February stored apples may be starting to shrivel; they are no longer attractive as a raw snack or dessert. They are best for cooking, and in winter and early spring you probably prefer a hot snack to a cold one anyway. Microwaving unadorned apple slices is a quick and easy cooking method that preserves the integrity of the slices and their pure apple flavor better than any other.

Here’s how to make Toshiba Apples: Slice and core as many apples as you’d like. I prefer to peel them, but peeling isn’t necessary. Put the slices into a bowl, and nuke them for about ten minutes; the time will vary depending on how much fruit you’re using. You might toss the slices once so they cook evenly. When they are as tender as you like, take them out of the microwave. Sprinkle them with cinnamon if you want, but I never do. Eat and enjoy.