Until recently I didn't have much use for summer apples. Apples worth eating, it seemed to me, didn't start coming off trees until midway through September. Fall was the only season for apples.
When I saw apples in the markets during the summer I figured they had been picked last fall and held in cold storage. This storage method is said to preserve the moisture and flavor of the apples for up to 12 months. Maybe so, but I prefer apples that have been recently picked from a tree, not a storage cellar.
Moreover, when I was a kid the only thing you did with apples during the summer was to throw them. In my neighborhood there was a tree that every summer would drop small green apples into the alley behind my house. For me and the kids who patrolled this alley, these apples weren't fruit, they were ammunition.
We would scoop up armfuls of them and send an apple barrage into a back yard filled with unsuspecting neighborhood kids. The attacked group would quickly return fire, using as ammunition both the apples that had been tossed at them and a round or two of crab apples gathered from another nearby tree.
This fruit-as-fusillade upbringing prevented me from thinking of summer apples as a culinary treat. So when a group of visiting in-laws presented me a few weeks ago with a bag of summer apples, Paula Reds, I was less than thrilled.
The apples, along with some cantaloupe and peaches, came from Cumberland. Just before making the final push of their long drive from the Midwest to the East Coast, these Kansas City relatives had stopped for provisions at the Thursday farmers' market in Cumberland. There they loaded their already stuffed van with apples, cantaloupe and peaches. Then they rolled down from the mountains and rendezvoused in Baltimore with us and our stuffed station wagon. Together the two families pushed east across Maryland for a few days' vacation at a beach house near the Atlantic Ocean.
At the beach house, the peaches disappeared first. These were bright-yellow, late-summer peaches, full of sweetness and sun. Many of them ended up in a peach cobbler that was so good that several of us volunteered to wash the dishes that night, figuring that as dishwashers we could feast on the bits of cobbler stuck to the pan.
The cantaloupe was also dispatched quickly. Sliced up and served as an appetizer, it disappeared faster than shrimp served at happy hour.
The summer apples, however, lingered. No one was tempted to eat them raw. And rather than tossing apples, the kids amused themselves by throwing water balloons off the porch.
Several days into the stay, a deal was proposed. The men would take the kids crabbing for the afternoon if the women made apple pies for supper.
My brother-in-law and I took three hand lines, two dip nets, a pound of raw chicken parts and our three kids to a small bay a few miles back from the beach.
Weatherwise, it was not a good day to go crabbing. The wind and tides were so strong that you couldn't tell whether a crab, Moby Dick or just the current was attacking the pieces of submerged chicken.
In three hours we caught three crabs, only one big enough to keep. We had scooped up and admired several jellyfish, countless minnows and a couple of empty potato chip bags. But no one fell in, and only one crab line had inadvertently been tossed in the water. It was, by all accounts, a successful outing.
We steamed our solo crab and offered it to the two kids from the Midwest. One loved it, one wouldn't touch it. The adults ate steamed shrimp, which had been bought from a seaside vendor. For dessert we all ate a pie made with summer apples.
The pie surprised me. I was expecting the filling to be mealy, to wilt in the heat. It didn't. These summer apples held their shape. Sweetened with some brown sugar, these Paula Reds made a filling that was an excellent companion for a flaky, made-with-shortening pie crust.
The pie made me revise my opinion of summer apples. Later I called Rick Heflebower, regional fruit specialist for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Western Maryland. told me summer apples often get a bad rap. They aren't as versatile as the ones that are harvested in the fall, he said. Summer apples, for instance, are rarely used in cider or eaten raw. But, he said, the green Lodi variety summer apple, harvested in late July, is a good cooking apple, and the Summer Rambo variety, which shows up in August, makes good applesauce.
The Gala, which arrives in early September and is considered either the last of the summer apples or the first of the fall crop, is an amazingly sweet apple that many people eat raw, he said.
I had to admit that the Paula Red made an excellent apple pie, even if it showed up in August, the "wrong" season.