You might have noticed that Granny Smith has plenty of new company in the apple bins these days: Zestars, Elstars, Macouns, Mutsus, Ginger Golds and more.
To a large extent, farmers markets are feeding the demand for different varieties.
“It’s a way of distinguishing ourselves and getting people interested,” says Mary Margaret Kuhn of Kuhn Orchards in Cashtown, Pa., which sells its fruit at markets in Alexandria and at 14th and U streets NW.
Thirty-seven years ago, her family farm grew six kinds of apples; major apple processors requested a minimal number of varieties in order to maintain consistency among their ciders and applesauce. Kuhn now grows more than 40.
A cold, wet spring and the spate of recent bad weather have put a slight dent in the 2011 mid-Atlantic harvest. But experts say the apple trees seem to have withstood the elements. The updates that Elaine Lidholm of the Virginia Department of Agriculture receives from growers show projections for this year’s crop that are relatively strong, even though it’s still early in the season.
“Virginia usually harvests between 5 and 6 million bushes of apples each year,” she says. “This year may be closer to 5 million.”
Checking on the apples to make these projections can be a messy process these days,” says fifth-generation apple farmer Stephen Balderston, of Colora Orchards in Colora, Md. “The fields are still so wet right now.” Though heavy rains cause some of Balterston’s Gala crop to split, he says “the quality and flavor of the other apples is really good.”
For lots of us, the process of experimenting with different apples lags behind similar excursions with heirloom tomatoes and potatoes. Do Winesap apples hold up in a saute pan? Are Jonagolds good for pies? (The answer is yes to both.)
One way to go about it is to group each varietal into at least one of three camps: apples well suited for baking (which tend to be tart and firm-fleshed); the all-purpose varieties that go nicely in salads, sautes and soups (also firm-fleshed, but with a more refined sweet-tart balance); and those that are best for eating out of hand (usually softer and sweeter). The accompanying chart should help.
Then head to the kitchen.
Salads are a natural destination for apples. Slices or chunks of good eating apples such as Fuji or Macoun can get tossed straight into dressed greens. But roasting apples first will concentrate their flavor and will mellow firm-textured varieties such as Ginger Gold or Mutsu (also called Crispin). When roasted apple wedges are paired with an aromatic vegetable such as fennel, plus smoked cheese, rich-tasting Marcona almonds, frisee and more fresh tarragon than you’d reckon would work, a sophisticated salad is born.
Sweet apples such as Rome or Empire add texture and complement the sweet potatoes in a balanced hash that includes jalapeno peppers, cumin and fresh oregano. Sliced Cortlands or Jonagolds retain just enough firmness and moisture to hold up to a quick, eggless batter that bakes into a single-layer pudding cake, topped with toasted pecans and served with a soul-satisfying caramel sauce.
All that’s required is a little homework.
Cookbook author Tony Rosenfeld answers culinary questions at www.cookangel.com . He’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: washingtonpost.com/live.