In supermarkets, there are usually only three or four different kinds of apples: Red Delicious, Gala, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. It was only a century ago, however, that American farmers were growing thousands of unique varieties, producing greater apple diversity than any other country in the world. Specific apples came to define the culinary heritage of the regions in which they were grown. The rise of industrialized agriculture brought about the fall of apple varieties not suited for long-distance travel. Today, many of these once-forgotten heirloom apples are making a comeback.
At the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, producers sell apples with names you might not have heard of, including Esopus Spitzenberg (supposedly Thomas Jefferson's favorite), Ashmead's Kernel, and Smokehouse. They aren't handsome in the traditional sense. Some are oddly shaped. Others have dull skin, not at all like the familiar shiny, waxed fruit placed on teachers' desks. But what they lack in skin-deep perfection, they more than make up for in flavor. Dense, wonderfully juicy, and firm, just-picked apples have a fine balance of sweetness and tartness. So-called "cooking apples" are prized for their ability to hold their shape when baked into pies and tarts. "Dessert apples," on the other hand, are meant to be eaten fresh because they often lose their subtle flavors when cooked. Though there are many varieties of apples that blur this general distinction, the sweeter types are best for cooking whereas the tarter, juicier types are ideal for eating raw.
Once picked from the tree, apples will continue to ripen and can even be used to speed up the ripening process of other fruits. Store them in the refrigerator or a cool place. Whenever possible try eating and cooking apples with their skins, where most of their aroma and phytonutrients are concentrated.
Pick up heirloom apples for their taste, history, intrigue, and quirky personalities.
Chicken Fricassee with Apples and Kabocha Squash
This cross between a sauté and a stew is comforting on an autumn night yet light enough to enjoy for lunch. If the weather feels especially chilly, I sometimes add a splash of cream to the broth just before serving.
1 (4 ½ pound) whole chicken
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 pounds kabocha squash
1½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
3 small cloves garlic, minced
½ cup beer
3½ cups good-quality chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 rosemary sprig
4 sage leaves
3 thyme sprigs
2 large apples (about 6 ounces each), cored and quartered
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
One hour before cooking, take the chicken out of the fridge to warm to room temperature. With a sharp knife, cut chicken into 6 pieces: 2 legs, 2 breasts, and 2 wings. (Reserve the bones for another use, such as making broth.) Season chicken pieces with the mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, and lots of black pepper.
Using a vegetable peeler, remove the skin from the squash. Carefully cut squash in half, scoop out and discard its seeds, then slice it into ¾-inch wedges.
Melt the butter in a Dutch oven (or equivalent heavy-bottomed pot) set over medium heat. Add the olive oil, then place half the chicken pieces in the pan. Cook them for a few minutes, flip, and cook for a few more minutes on the other side. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining chicken. (You shouldn't need to use any additional oil).
Add the onions and squash to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until browned. Add garlic and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook for a minute longer, then pour in the beer. Use a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom and sides of the pot to release the flavorful, browned bits. When most of the liquid has evaporated, add the chicken broth, bay leaf, rosemary, sage, and thyme. Return the browned chicken pieces to the pot in a single layer on top of the vegetables. Partially cover the pot and adjust the heat under it so that the liquid simmers gently. Cook for 30 minutes, then add the apples by tucking them around the chicken. Cook for another 15 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through and the squash is tender.
Transfer the chicken to a baking sheet and place it under the broiler for 3 - 4 minutes to crisp the skin. Serve each guest a piece of chicken, some squash and apple pieces, and a ladleful of broth.
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