I am on a culinary quest to forage for all the fresh and local ingredients I can find across the entire Chesapeake region. The joy of this plan is meeting so many wonderful farmers, producers and shop owners, as well as their very interesting and (always vocal) customers. Driving the back roads and walking the rolling hills of Maryland has gifted me with a deep appreciation for the incredible beauty and natural wonders inherent to this area.
Admittedly, my jaunts forth to farm and field became a little difficult after blueberry harvest, when the weather was wickedly hot and humid. At that point I abandoned ship for more hospitable climes (Oregon! Washington! Hawaii!…more on that later!)
Thankfully, upon my return the weather took a sudden change toward autumn, and now I am once again happily on the hunt. This past weekend was beautiful, so we decided to pick apples. You would think that Anne Arundel County or Maryland in general would be an easy place to find an orchard for picking. But this is not the case.
According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington State claims the most acreage and highest production of apples, followed by New York, Michigan, California, and Pennsylvania. Maryland is on the lower end of national production.
The Maryland Apple Promotion Board helps market about twenty-five orchards across the state. That’s twenty-five opportunities from the Eastern Shore to the West Virginia border to experience the great fun of a day spent in the fresh air on teetering ladders, hunting for that perfectly crunchy, sweet and juicy apple. The hay-rides, farm animal petting zoos, produce stands, hot cider and other entertainment these sorts of orchards typically provide are just a la mode, as it were.
But the number of orchards to visit is a small part of the total apple picture in this state. According to a census by the NASS, in 1982, there were 551 farms with apples in Maryland, producing on 7,119 acres. By 2007, there were only 230 farms producing on 2,064 acres. The loss of total farming acreage to development has been devastating not only to farmers, but to all advocates of open space, land preservation and frankly, fresh food.
This year the few orchards left were significantly impacted by a trifecta of damage: warm weather this past spring, bugs and deer. The premature arrival of warm spring weather brought an early harvest and was followed by a hot summer where the temperature didn’t cool much overnight. Many farms are reporting much lower harvests than usual, with most of the farms on the eastern shore picked out already.
The deer are an enduring nuisance. One popular orchard in Montgomery County, Webber’s Cider Mill Farm, had to cut down its entire orchard due to damage from deer and pests. They replanted and expect to offer picking again in 2014. Still, that is a huge loss of income to this family-owned farm.
Bugs are always a problem for farmers in Maryland. In Washington State, the apple growing areas are very dry; they are referred to as high-mountain desert. The days are blazing hot, the nights are cool. Bugs don’t seem to find this climate as hospitable as they do Maryland’s. Here, the humidity and lush greenery seem to create the perfect breeding ground for moths, borers, worms and stinkbugs. The warm weather brought an early and prolific arrival of bugs this year, and they haven’t stopped. One farmer told me that in Maryland, if you aren’t spraying, you aren’t producing. I believe in clean, pesticide-free food, so the spraying is troublesome for me. Apples are one of the Dirty Dozen fruits produced in our country: they require substantial amounts of pesticide to grow to maturity and ripeness. Large apple producers not only spray but also wax and then treat the apples to help cushion the effects of shipping and warehousing and to make them look pretty on the shelf.
Nevertheless, presented with the difficulties afforded Maryland farmers to simply make a living and to continue growing a tradition as American as well, apple pie, I am even more appreciative of the apples I did find this weekend. I contributed to the bottom line of small, family owned orchards, and I feel good about that.
And I have bushels of apples. I am dreaming of apples: apple sauce, apple strudel, apple muffins, cakes and pies.
Here are a few of my favorite easy recipes, although certainly not the sum of my apple repertoire. I love savory apples-they are as simple to cook as slicing apples to roast alongside poultry, pork or beef. But I have an extra affection for dessert, as you will see.
Apple Sauce Apple sauce is so simple, so delicious and potentially so nutritious, it would be a shame not to make it. And once you do, it will eliminate the need to ever buy all those little disposable cups again! If you leave the peel on the fruit, the sauce becomes an interesting and beautiful rosy-to-deep pink color, depending on the type of apple you choose. This makes it an elegant side or a fun lunch item. Canning the sauce, while intimidating to some, isn’t difficult at all. For good canning help, refer to the Ball Blue Book® Guide to Preserving.
- 8 red-skinned cooking apples, such as Pink Lad or Idared, cored but not peeled, cut into thick slices
- 1 TB sugar, honey or agave nectar or more to taste (optional)
- 1 ts apple pie spice
- ¼ ts coriander (optional)
- In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the apples with ¼ cup water. Cover and cook over low heat until the apples are very soft, 15-30 minutes.
- Let the apples cool, uncovered, then strain or (even better) press through a food mill into a bowl, taking care to not push through the skins. If you peeled the apples, just mash them with a heavy spoon.
- Stir the sugar or honey in gradually, adjusting to taste. Do the same with the spices, if you choose to use them. If you want thicker sauce, return to the pan over moderate heat, stirring to reduce some of the liquid.
Sauteed Apples My kids love these with pork chops, chicken or really, pretty much anything. I frequently use this recipe to fill crepes, top pancakes or add as a garnish to butternut squash soup. The quantity of ingredients is flexible, depending on how much you need.
- 3-4 organic baking/saucing apples, thinly sliced or small dice
- 2 TB salted butter
- 2 TB agave nectar, brown sugar, coconut sugar or demerera sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1 tsp apple pie spice
Melt the butter in a saucepan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the apples, stirring occasionally so the apples don’t stick and burn. Add the sugar, vanilla and spice. Cook until the apples are soft, rich and tender, and the sugar is dissolved, 3-4 minutes. Note you can add finely chopped toasted, salted nuts to this recipe for added richness and crunch.
Pannenkoeken (Dutch Pancakes) The Dutch are famous for their pancakes. Try this simple recipe, and when you feel ready, add rich, creamy melt-able cheeses such as extra sharp cheddar or gouda.
- ¼ cup salted butter
- 3 eggs, beaten
- 1 ts vanilla
- 1 ts almond extract
- 3/4 c. milk
- 3/4 c. flour
- ½ ts table salt
- 1/2 c. brown sugar or agave nectar
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- ½ ts nutmeg
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Prepare sautéed apples in a Dutch oven or heavy oven proof pan as noted above. Keep warm.
- In a medium bowl, whisk eggs and flavorings, then slowly add in milk, flour, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. Whisk to combine.
- Over medium heat, add the butter and agave nectar to the hot apple sauté, cooking for 3-4 minutes or until the butter is melted, and the sugar/nectar is dissolved into a syrup.
- Pour the batter over the apples. Swirl (do not stir!) the apple syrup mix through the batter with a fork or spatula; you don’t want to fully combine the syrup into the batter. Cook until small bubbles form around the edge, almost like making pancakes.
- Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown and batter has set. To serve, invert on plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Apple Breakfast Crepes These crepes are a little thicker than what you may be used to. I use white whole wheat flour or spelt flour to slightly improve the nutrition of traditional crepes. You can use regular flour, but add a little less milk, as it is less absorbent than whole wheat. My family enjoys these as an after-school snack.
- ½ cup white whole wheat flour
- ½ cup spelt flour
- ¼ cup all purpose flour
- ½ ts table salt
- 1 ts baking powder
- 2 large eggs
- 1 ½ cups milk
- 1 TB melted butter
- 1 ts pure vanilla extract
- 1 ts almond extract
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar for sprinkling
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In another medium bowl, whisk the eggs. Add milk, butter and flavorings. Slowly stir in flour mixture. Whisk just to combine. Do not overwork the flour.
- Heat a flat skillet over medium heat. Spray with nonstick spray. Pour about ¼-plus-a-pinch cup batter onto skillet (how much you use will decide how big your crepe is and depends on the size of your skillet), swirling the pan so the batter spreads in an even circle.
- Cook until slightly golden, only 2-3 minutes. Transfer to a dinner plate and cover with foil. Just like crepes, these delicious treats can be made in advance. Cook the entire batch, cover with plastic wrap. Reheat in a hot oven, loosely covered with foil so they don’t dry out.
- To serve: place a couple of tablespoons of sautéed apples in the center. Roll up like a burrito. Sprinkle with a little powdered sugar. Alternatively, just eat the hot-from-the-pan-crepe swathed with a little melted butter and honey….
Baked Apples My kids love to make this treat. Using a melon baller is safer than a knife and makes it easy to remove the seeds. Just make sure to not break through to the blossom end of the apple. We serve it warm with ice cream or loosely beaten homemade whipped cream. Note: if you have cut off the top of the apple, you can place it like a little cap on top prior to baking and not only does it look a little more sophisticated, but the kids really love it.
- Organic baking apples, as many as you need, stuffed with any of the following:
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 1 TB almond paste
- ¾ cup apple juice
- Shredded sweetened coconut
- Dried fruit, such as the cherry-berry mix found at Whole Foods Market or Trader Joe’s
- Toasted and salted nuts such as walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts or macadamias
- Preheat oven to 350. Wash apples; peel away top inch or so of skin to prevent bursting during baking. Remove core with a melon baller, taking care to not puncture the blossom end.
- In a small bowl mix together the sugar and all of your preferred flavorings. Stuff the apples with the mix, mounding a little at the top. Place a little pat of butter on each mound, and put the apple cap on.
- Cover a baking dish with parchment paper. Place stuffed apples in the dish. Pour the juice evenly over the apples up to about a ¼ inch or so. Cover with foil. Bake 30 minutes. Remove foil and cook another 15-20 minutes or until tender.
Apple Coleslaw I am a huge advocate of foraging for ingredients at a local market; this recipe gives ample opportunity for doing so. You could, in a very tight pinch and only on very special occasions, use the bagged coleslaw mix found in most grocery stores. The point is that you are making our own coleslaw, which is infinitely better and healthier than store-bought.
- 2 cups ½ inch dice apples
- 5 cups sliced cabbage
- 2 cups grated carrot
- 1 cup grated broccoli
- ½ cups finely minced shallot
- ½ cup raisins, dried cranberries or dried cherry/berry mix
- ½ cup chopped pecans, toasted and salted
- ½ cup mayonnaise or plain Greek yogurt
- (this will make it slightly more tart)
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup agave nectar
- 2 TB lemon juice
- 1 ts ground sea salt
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
Mix together the mayonnaise, sugar, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Pour over the vegetables and apples and mix. Chill before serving.
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