By Barbara Kobsar | Art by Margo Rivera-Weiss

Apples abound, but heirlooms ascend, bringing us back to a world with apples worthy of biting into—apples with crunch and flavor. Storage apples are still available from last year’s harvest (or from half a world away), but they just can’t compare with the delectable fresh-harvest California apples now rolling into the local farmers markets.

During the peak of the apple season, any apple, from the ubiquitous Red Delicious through our favorite heirloom varieties, must be crisp, crunchy, and juicy. The differences in the 7,500 varieties of apples grown in temperate zones throughout the world lie in flavor, size, and skin color. Only those left to linger on the trees too long become soft, dry, mealy and completely unacceptable.

Until late November, I’ll be happy roaming the market aisles looking for the week’s apple harvest. Gravensteins usher in the season with great fanfare. Their skin is yellow green and sports crimson spots and reddish lines. The juicy, tart-flavored flesh lends itself well to applesauce, apple cider, and pies, but it also perks up the palate as a snacking apple.

We’re lucky to live so close to the main source of Gravensteins for the nation, which is centered around Sebastopol in Sonoma County. Luther Burbank, the great American botanist, horticulturist and a pioneer in agricultural science stated, “It has often been said that if the Gravenstein could be had throughout the year, no other apple need be grown.”

Stan Devoto, from Devoto Gardens in Sebastopol, is a familiar face at several East Bay farmers’ markets. He harvests close to 50 varieties of heirloom apples each season. Devoto farms 20 acres of the mere 3,800 acres of apples remaining in western Sonoma County (compared to 50,000 acres of wine grapes) and he’s forecasting another good year. He attributes the superior quality of his crisp fruit to the relatively mild growing season in Sebastopol, with its ocean breezes and late afternoon fog. The apples love it!

Gravensteins enjoy only a fleeting season because of their poor storage qualities. Other apples produced on a commercial level, such as Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Rome Beauty can be successfully stored for months at a time by carefully monitoring oxygen levels and temperature in large storage rooms. These apples are generally available during the first six months of the year.

Galas, an import from New Zealand, grow successfully in California’s temperate zones and are now a mainstay at farmers markets and produce aisles alike. This early- to mid-season apple is about three inches in diameter and identified by a yellow-colored background, streaked with red—more red is visible on those that receive more sun. The Gala’s dense, sweet, aromatic flesh makes it one of my favorites for eating out-of-hand.

Fujis find their way into my market basket on a regular basis. They usually guarantee outstanding juiciness, crisp texture, and a sweet-tart taste that is hard to resist. The variety is one of only a few available year-round that offer some satisfaction for my taste buds.

At the farmers market stands, I often find myself rubbing elbows each week with other shoppers at the boxes of heirloom apples. Devoto limits the number of heirloom varieties he brings to market in order to avoid mass confusion, but eventually I get to each one. These old-fashioned varieties may have fallen out of favor because of poor shipping or storage qualities, or vulnerability to disease, but they’re back and I’m lovin’ it. The taste of these apples is genuine, the real thing.

Here’s a sneak peek at some of the other heirloom apples arriving at the markets during the next few months:

In general, apples must be picked when mature but before reaching the completely ripe stage. A mature apple is smooth, firm-skinned, and rich in color for its variety. Rubbing an apple with a soft cloth brings out its natural shine, but shiny is not a guarantee of a perfect apple. Apples destined for shipping are given a spray of wax (not harmful) to protect the fruit and prevent dehydration. Buyer beware!

I’ll admit that I often feel the urge to set out a bowl filled with fine-looking fresh apples on my kitchen counter, but it’s not a good idea. Apples ripen 10 times faster at room temperature than in the refrigerator, so it’s best to give in and follow the rules—keep them cool.

Enjoy, and see you at the farmers markets.

Fall Apple Guide

Arkansas Black – A regularly round apple with smooth red skin and a tart flavor; a relatively good storage apple.

Black Twig – Tart, crisp, aromatic flesh and an excellent apple for eating out-of-hand.

Hubbardson Nonesuch – A mostly red apple with a hard, crisp, fine-grained flesh.

Jonathan – A bright red apple streaked with green. A pleasant sweet-tart flavor great for both eating out-of-hand and cooking.

Jonagold – Brilliant golden red color reflects the cross between a Jonathan and a Golden Delicious. Sweet, tart, and crisp.

Hawaiian – A sweet apple with a tropical aftertaste.

Ozark Gold – Similar to Hawaiian and Golden Delicious apples. Golden yellow with an orange blush and a spicy taste.

Pink Pearl – Medium-sized apple with a beautiful bright-pink flesh and an almost translucent, creamy yellow-green skin. Pink pearls offer a tart, sweet taste and make up into a nice pink applesauce.

Mutsu – A large apple, good for eating fresh and making pies and sauce.

 

Cooking with Apples at Nibblers Eatery & Wine Bar

Formerly at 1922 Oak Park Blvd., Pleasant Hill. Closed in 2011.

At this unique small-plates eatery, Chef de Cuisine Daniel Clayton and Chef de Patisserie Trace Leighton feature many locally sourced ingredients and an eclectic wine collection. “Buying local products is important to us, since it helps us as we try to keep our imprint on the world’s resources small,” says Daniel. “Shopping at the farmers markets keeps us in touch with seasons and availability; since a retail supplier wouldn’t generally tell you that they are no longer sourcing local products and have moved to imports. At a market, you know that what you’re seeing is in season. You can judge quality based on touching and tasting the produce before you buy: One farm’s berries may be sweeter at different times; another farm’s cherries may still be available but taste cooked; loose greens may be beginning to wilt. We certainly take this into account when we develop our weekly menus; in fact we’re usually doing a large part of the menu creation in our heads as we walk through the market.”

 

 

 

Nibblers’ Black Forest Hash

We serve this as the setup for a deconstructed “Holstein Duck,” serving the apples and ham as a hash under a pan-seared duck breast, rather than as stuffing for a whole duck; and replacing the pan sauce with a brandy-infused crema deepened with a roasted duck stock. It is also an excellent side dish with a simply prepared omelet, or under warmed duck confit.

5 ounces Niman Ranch Black Forest ham, ½-inch dice
2 Fuji apples, ½-inch dice
2 russet potatoes
1 yellow onion, medium dice
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon coriander seeds (or caraway)
Salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Boil potatoes until just tender, cool, peel, and cut in ½-inch dice. Heat oil in a heavy skillet, when almost smoking add potatoes, season, and fry without stirring for 2 minutes. Add ham, onion, and apples, turn the mixture with an offset spatula. Continue frying, stirring every few minutes, until onions are translucent and apples are tender. Mix in seeds, adjust seasoning and serve.

 

Pink Lady Apple Mostardo

This condiment works beautifully as an accoutrement to a semi-firm or blue cheese, preferably one made from sheep milk, such as a Roquefort or Abbaye de Belloc. Alternately, it can be warmed in a pan and brushed as a glaze over roast duck or pork.

Makes 2 cups mostardo

2 Pink Lady apples, ½-inch dice
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
2 tablespoons apple cider or champagne vinegar

Melt sugar with 2 cups water over low heat in a small saucepan. Increase temperature and cook until it forms a syrup, carefully stirring to prevent caramelization. Just after soft ball stage, remove from heat, and cool for 5 minutes. Stir in apples and return to low heat for 10 minutes. Pour into a non-reactive bowl, stir in mustard seed and vinegar, let cool slowly. The mustardo will keep for a month if refrigerated.

 

 

 

Nibblers’ Roast Chicken and Apple Gyoza with Pecan Brown Butter

This hors d’oeuvre works well served over thinly shredded romaine or Napa cabbage, or as a coursed dish over large pearl couscous pilaf or sautéed sliced apples. Dumplings can be made ahead and frozen.

Makes 36 dumplings

2 boneless chicken thighs with skin (about 5 ounces each)
2 Gravenstein apples, halved and cored
1 large yellow onion or 12 small cippolini onions, peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
Pinch rubbed sage
2 tablespoons organic butter, room temperature
1 package round wonton skins (approximately 50)
6 tablespoons organic European-style sweet (unsalted) butter
¼ cup raw pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 425°.

Toss apple, onion, and chicken with olive oil, salt, pepper, and sage and roast in a shallow baking pan at 425 degrees for 20 minutes or until fairly browned. Let cool.

Place cooled contents into food processor bowl and pulse until coarsely chopped, then empty mixture into a bowl and mix with softened butter.

Place about 1 tablespoon of mixture into the center of wonton skin and bring up each of the 4 corners with your fingers pinching together so that contents become a nice purse dumpling. If necessary, dampen edges of wonton skin with water to help them stick.

Heat olive oil in a skillet at medium heat. (Do not use a non-stick pan.) Add 6 gyoza purses to oil in pan; cook until they stick to the bottom of the pan. Gently separate them from the pan with a spatula. Add ⅓ cup water to the pan and cover to steam dumplings. When the skins are translucent, the gyoza are done.

Remove them from the pan, lower temperature and add butter. Cook over low heat until butter begins to color and smell turns nutty. Add pecans and sauté for 1 minute, stirring constantly, until pecans are toasted. Pour a small amount over each cooked gyoza.

 

 

Trace’s Tarta de Manzana

4 to 5 medium apples
½ lemon
¼ cup apricot jam
1 sheet puff pastry

If you are using commercially made puff pastry, let the dough thaw 10 to 15 minutes. While the dough is thawing, peel the apples and slice them so that each piece is about ¼ inch thick. (Uniform slices make for even cooking.) Squeeze the ½ lemon over the apples.

Roll out the pastry so that is about ⅛-inch thick uniformly.  Using a large pie plate or platter as a guide, cut out a 10-inch circle of dough. Cover the inside 7 inches of the pastry with the apple slices and fold the rest of the dough up around the apples to form the shell. Place in a preheated 350° oven for approximately 20 minutes.

While the tarta is baking, slowly heat the apricot jam in a small pot with 1 tablespoon water. Remove tart from the oven when the edges of the crust are brown and lightly brush the apricot jam over the apples. Set aside to cool before serving.