A Quick Wintertime Refrigerator Relish

What can you do with a few beets, some slowly shriveling apples from last fall’s harvest, and an ever-expanding patch of horseradish? Inspired by a traditional beet-horseradish relish from Russia and a canned beet-apple pickle that I read about somewhere last year, I decided to make a relish of grated beets, apples, and horseradish.

horseradishUsually gardeners dig the transverse roots of horseradish for kitchen use, but my horseradish has apparently reacted to abuse—occasional mowing and a total lack of irrigation or fertilizer of any sort—by running its horizontal roots unusually deep. Fortunately, the young vertical roots are good to eat as well, in winter or early spring, and when you have too many you don’t mind sacrificing some. Here you see a four-headed root ready to burst into spring finery. (I dug many more little roots, so Robert could share them with his pals at work. He looked at me oddly and left for work without them.)

For the quantities here, you’ll need one big or two small beets, and one big or two small apples. I used Fuji apples. Bake the beets whole, in their skins, at 400 degrees F. for about an hour or until they are just tender.

This recipe could be adapted for canning, by adding more vinegar, heating the relish, and putting it through a boiling-water bath. But that would make the relish too liquid and cause the horseradish to lose its delicious pungency. I would prefer to make this relish in small quantities, store it in the refrigerator, and use it up within a few weeks.

Beet-Apple Relish

6 tablespoons cider vinegar
½ pound tart, firm apples, with peels intact
¾ pound beets, baked, cooled, and peeled
1 small piece horseradish root
1 teaspoon pickling salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
1½ teaspoons yellow mustard seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed

Put the vinegar into a bowl. Coarsely grate the apples around their cores, and add the gratings to the bowl. Coarsely grate the beets; mince any pieces that you can’t grate without risking cut fingers; and add the beet bits to the bowl. Peel the horseradish root; finely grate enough to make 1½ tablespoons; and add the grated horseradish to the bowl. Stir gently. Add the salt, and mince and add the garlic. Toast the mustard and coriander in a small, dry pan until the spices release their aroma and the mustard begins to pop. Grind the spices in a mortar until the coriander pieces are fine, and add the spices to the bowl. (Mustard is much harder to grind than coriander, but you want to leave it mostly whole for texture anyway.) Stir once more, and pack the relish into a pint jar.

beet-apple relishI love this relish for its gentle sweetness (notice that I added no sugar), the bit of heat from the horseradish and mustard, the fragrance of the coriander, and the mild sourness that allows you to heap the relish on other foods without overpowering them. Here you see my lunch of beet-apple relish with pickled herring and sourdough rye bread. It’s a pleasant combination, but every taste of this relish makes me crave corned beef or pastrami. Somehow, my beet-apple relish seems to demand a pairing with spicy salted beef.

Which reminds me: I should corn some beef for St. Paddy’s Day. The relish may not last until then, but I can easily make more. I won’t even have to dig in the horseradish patch again, because all those roots Robert wouldn’t take to work will keep well in the refrigerator for several weeks.

Pommé: Breton Apple Butter

A jar of pommé, with the last of this year’s Braeburns

I first learned of this traditional preserve of Brittany from a travel guide. In our subsequent trip to Brittany, last spring, my family and I searched the grocery stores and gift shops for pommé. Some people we talked with mentioned a traditional bread or pastry called pommé, but none had heard of the confiture. We thought we’d found what we were looking for at a festival in Dol-de-Bretagne, but the pommé there turned out to be bread with apple filling.

Though apparently once very popular in the eastern, traditionally Gallo-speaking part of Brittany, pommé the preserve is little known today. It rarely appears in shops catering to tourists. As I learned with further research from home, pommé is now prepared, sold, and consumed mainly in the countryside.

Pommé is none other than apple butter, usually made without spices or added sugar, so that a spoonful offers a full taste of the caramelization that occurs with long cooking along with concentrated natural fruit sugars and acids. For farmers in the pays Gallo, making pommé was an excuse for a party. Each autumn, they would empty a barrel of fresh cider into a copper cauldron and add peeled, cored, and cut apples. Family members and neighbors would take turns stirring for twelve hours or longer until the apples had broken down and the cider had condensed to make a thick, brick-red, glossy jam. Once the apples were in the pot, everyone but the person stirring would sing and dance to the music of an accordion player or fiddler.

 Pommé was sometimes called le beurre du pauvre, the butter of the poor, because when you couldn’t afford to buy butter, or needed to sell all your homemade butter for cash, you could spread your bread with pommé instead. This made pommé especially popular during the world wars. After World War II, though, butter was more affordable, and so was the refined sugar for making modern jams. Pommé was nearly forgotten.

In the 1970s, residents of the villages of Bazouges-la-Pérouse and Tremblay began to revive the custom of the ramaougerie (“stirring”) de pommé as a public event, complete with live music, sales of artisanal goods, and cider pressings. The finished pommé is packed into jars and sold to the crowd.

Making pommé in a small batch at home is a less festive but also less time-consuming affair. Constant stirring isn’t actually necessary until the cooking is mostly done. This is how I’ve made pommé:

Small-Batch Pommé

1 gallon sweet cider
5 pounds cored, peeled, and quartered apples

In a big, wide, heavy-bottomed pot (mine holds 7.5 liters), begin heating the cider. Add the quartered apples—you can do this gradually, if you like—and simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally. When the apples have broken down and the pommé starts to spatter, stir it constantly for about 10 minutes, until it has thickened and darkened.  The finished pommé will be glossy and a warm red-brown. The total cooking time should be about 4 hours.

Ladle the pommé into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

Makes about 4 pints

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 got its name in the seventeenth century in a German-speaking area of what is now Denmark (some say the scion came from Italy or southern Tyrol). Danes still so love the Gravenstein–though they usually call it the Gråsten–that the Danish food minister declared it the national apple in 2005. Russian otter hunters apparently 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 sizeable North American Gravenstein production is in Nova Scotia (although the eastern Gravenstein seems to me a different apple–smaller, redder, and less tasty). Slow Food recently listed the Sebastopol Gravenstein in the Ark of Taste, its catalog of “forgotten flavors.”

Although the Gravenstein prefers a cool, coastal climate, it does grow elsewhere. It is a favorite backyard tree in the Willamette Valley, where in my flat, low-lying 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 purée 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 brewing-supplies 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.


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 five 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.