If buying food from farms sounds too complicated, apples are a great way to get your feet wet. Consider:
- Picking is easy and quick.
- By the time they're ripe, the weather is cool and bug-free.
- The fruit lasts many days at room temperature and many weeks in cold storage, giving you lots of time to further preserve it by canning, freezing or drying.
- We live in one of the best areas of the world for apples: dozens of varieties mean you'll be able to find something to please everyone in your family.
Where to go? Baugher's and Larriland are probably the two most well-known spots around here, but they're too pricey and gimmicky for my taste. (I don't need a petting zoo -- I just want high-quality fruit!) Their popularity also draws crowds, which mean slower picking and less selection.
For my money, I like the farms in southern Pennsylvania, just 20 or 30 minutes outside the Westminster-Mt. Airy-Catonsville triangle. Shaw Orchards, Brown's Orchards and Blevins Fruit Farm (real farms, it could be argued, don't have websites) are all great finds. If you're planning to make applesauce or even pies, ask for the seconds -- fruit with a couple of spots that will still taste great and might cost only half as much.
So, assuming you have a haul of fruit after your trip to the farm or market, what's next?
- Apple Pie Filling: I actually prefer crisps to pies, as they tend to showcase the flavor of the fruit -- but this filling can do either. In a large pan, heat 2 quarts water, 3 cups sugar, 1/2 cup lemon juice and as many spices as you like (cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger are good, for starters.) Once it boils, stir in a solution of one cup cornstarch and one cup water. Meanwhile, pack chunks or slices of apple into six quart-sized jars. (Thinner slices yields a softer filling.) Pour syrup over apples, run a knife in and around them to ensure there are no air bubbles, and seal in a boiling-water bath for 20 minutes.
- Apple Crisp: Toss fresh apples with a little sugar and lemon juice, or simply dump your filling into a baking pan. For the crisp topping, mix 2 cups flour, 1 cup rolled oats, 1 cup brown sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons cinnamon with a fork; cut in 2 sticks butter until the mixture is, well, crumb-y. Sprinkle as much as you want over the top and freeze the rest -- it keeps indefinitely and will be useful the next time you have berries, peaches or plums to use up.
- Applesauce / Apple Butter: I've shared my recipes here before, and I can only say that everyone loves them! The high acidity of apples means that they need very little processing to can safely, and their sweetness means you can get away with a minimum of added sugar.
- Apple Cake: This simple recipe was the most viewed on Martha Stewart's website for months, and with good reason: it's foolproof and delicious even without the caramel sauce and ice cream. You could use any tart baking apple in place of the Granny Smith she recommends.
- Baked Apples: This is really one of my favorite recipes. Core the apple (one of these helps) and fill the space with a mixture of butter, sugar, spices and chopped nuts or fruit (crystallized ginger, rasins and pecans are all spectacular.) Bake at 350 until soft; serve with a drizzle of pan juices and another of fresh cream.
- Salads: both the beet slaw and cabbage slaw recipes I've shared in the past call for shredded or chopped fresh apple. It's also good with shredded carrots, walnuts and raisins in a mustard vinaigrette, or in the classic Waldorf version.
Meanwhile, of course, fresh apples are delicious with nut butter, sharp cheese, and even pate (for those who like pate) as a wonderful snack or light meal.
Keep them as long as you can; blemish-free and wrapped in newspaper, they'll keep in a cool basement or crisper drawer for several weeks. Enjoy them while you can.