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From the harvest: Apples' bountiful flavor

Any way you slice them, apples are all about variety

By John Houser III, For The Baltimore Sun

8:38 AM EDT, September 26, 2012

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One bite of a cool, crisp and bittersweet apple, and it's apparent why it is so intertwined with autumn.

No fruit has had a more schizophrenic symbolic history — from the tantalizing tempter of Eve to the sign of appreciation for favorite teachers (and many meanings in between).

At area farmers' markets, you will find the forbidden fruit in more varieties than you could have ever hoped to find at a supermarket. With some orchards selling dozens of varieties, it can get daunting trying to choose. Luckily, many of the purveyors will let you sample their wares.

Local chefs revel in the diversity of local apples. With names like Tsugaru and Cox orange (my current favorite), the bounty provides inspiration for cooks at restaurants as well as in the home.

"I'm all over the place with apples," says Chris Becker, executive chef at Fleet Street Kitchen and director of culinary operations for the Bagby Restaurant Group. "I like to poach them, put them in salads with arugula, walnuts and blue cheese with a champagne vinaigrette."

Becker also has a go-to dessert when cooking at home: "I roast apples and then place them sliced up on puff pastry and bake them for a quick and easy apple galette."

Irena Stein, chef-owner of Cafe Azafran and Alkimia on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, also likes to make desserts at home. "My favorite way to eat apples is simply roasted, with butter and brown sugar in the center [or] in a tarte tatin flambeed with orange rum liqueur [and] a dollop of creme fraiche."

While apples are great in various confections, you shouldn't overlook them as a savory ingredient. These recipes focus on the not-so-sweet aspect of the apple.

john@rouxde.com

Apple-squash soup

Most apple soups use the apple as a background flavor for squash. This version uses apple as the main ingredient, with some squash to add a bit of body. The aromatics (onion and garlic) increase the savory levels, and the spices give the soup a mystery that makes it a joy to eat. Chinese five-spice powder and curry powder are both easily available at your local source for spices.

Makes: 8-12 servings, depending on bowl size

1 pound orange squash, cut in half and seeded (I used delicata, but acorn or butternut work just as well)

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra to coat the squash

1 large onion, medium dice

6 large cloves garlic, crushed and roughly chopped

3 pounds mixed apples, medium dice (I used 3 each of the following: Cox orange, Macintosh, Fuji and Braeburn)

8 cups chicken stock

1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus extra to use while cooking

1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

finely minced chives for garnish (optional)

thinly sliced apple for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat the flesh of the squash with olive oil and place flesh side down on a sheet pan. Place the sheet pan in the hot oven and bake for 45 minutes or until the flesh is easily pierced by a pairing knife. Take out of the oven and let it cool to the touch. Scoop the squash out with a spoon and set aside until needed. In a large pot heated over medium-high heat, add the butter and olive oil, and stir until butter is melted and starts to bubble. Add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion starts to become translucent. Add the apples, turn the heat down to medium, and cook for five minutes. Add the stock, five spice powder, curry powder, and salt and pepper to the pot. Turn the heat up to high and bring the soup to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium low and let it simmer for 10 minutes. Puree the soup in batches using a blender or a food processor. Serve immediately with chive and apple garnishes.

Tip: Switch out the Chinese five-spice powder with garam masala to let the flavors shift in a fragrant direction.

Pork and apple burgers, Coney Island style

When I was a child, I always enjoyed the times my father made burgers. Normally, he grilled them, but every now and then he would take to the stove and make Coney Island hamburgers. Basically miniature meatloaves featuring onions, spices and sometimes green peppers, Coney Island hamburgers were something my father loved in his childhood. The burgers are browned on both sides and then steamed by adding water and covering the pan. This recipe is my ode to my dad's culinary prowess and features pork as the meat, with a heavy dose of apples. The slaw that accompanies the burger is a great complement to the slightly spicy burger.

Makes: 8 servings

For the apple, fennel and celeriac slaw:

1/2 cup mayo

1/2 cup Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons Dijon

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon celery seed

1 tablespoon honey (you can substitute with 1 1/4 tablespoons sugar)

1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 small bulb celeriac (celery root), cut into matchstick sizes

2 crispy semisweet apples, cut into matchstick size (I used Cox orange)

1/8 head of cabbage, thinly sliced

1/2 bulb fennel, cut into matchsticks

For the burgers:

2 tablespoons butter

1 large onion, medium dice

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 mild red chili peppers minced (optional; I used cayenne)

4 apples, finely diced

1 tablespoon kosher salt

6 prunes, chopped

2 pounds ground pork

1/2 bunch parsley, finely chopped

1 tablespoon minced sage leaves

1 tablespoon Dijon

1/4 cup water

Medium burger buns; brioche would be ideal

To make the slaw, whisk together the first eight ingredients in a large, nonreactive bowl. Fold in the celeriac, apples, cabbage and fennel until everything is coated with the sauce (use your hands here; it will be faster and more efficient). Let sit for at least an hour for the flavors to meld. You can make this the night before, and it will be even better.

To make the burgers, melt the butter in a pan over high heat until it foams. Add the onions, garlic and chilies. Cook until the onions are almost translucent and then add the apple. Cook mixture for five minutes and transfer it to a heat-proof bowl to cool down to room temperature. In a large bowl, mix the onion/apple mixture with the prunes, pork, parsley, sage, Dijon and salt. Do this with your hands, and when you think you're done ... mix some more. Using a digital scale, measure out the 6-ounce burgers (the last burger might be a bit heavier) and then get a pan hot over medium heat. Place the burgers into the pan (you will probably have to do them in batches) and cook for 21/2 to 3 minutes per side, or until the burger is caramelized on both sides. Add the 1/4 cup of water, cover the pan and turn the heat down to medium low. Steam the burgers for 5 minutes, then transfer to a plate. Turn the heat up to high and boil the water and drippings down, whisking constantly until it homogenizes into a syrup. Pour the syrup over the burgers and serve on a bun topped with the slaw. Any extra toppings or condiments are used at your own risk (you really don't need them).

Tip: The burger mixture can be packed into a buttered bread pan and baked in a 400-degree oven for an hour (or until a meat thermometer reads 155°), then cooled for 10 minutes. You now have meatloaf. You can eat slices with the slaw on the side or make meatloaf sandwiches (topped with the slaw, of course).

Apple cider cocktail with spiced rum and apple brandy

Cider is almost intoxicating by itself: "The smell of cider is the epitome of the beginning of fall. Drinking it warm gives people a delicious feeling," rhapsodizes Irena Stein of Cafe Azafran and Alkimia. With this in mind, I tried to lighten the drink up with a little fizzy seltzer and keep warmth and spice by adding apple brandy and spiced rum. If the drink is too strong (or too weak) for you, then adjust according to your tastes.

Makes: 2 drinks

5 ounces apple cider

1 1/2 ounces spiced rum

1 1/2 ounces apple brandy

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

4 ounces cold seltzer

Combine the first four ingredients into a shaker over ice. Shake until combines (about 40 shakes) and strain into a glass. Top with the seltzer, stir gently and serve.

Tip: Leave out the seltzer and heat up the cider for a warming and potent drink for the coming winter.