This was my first column, published in the "Grunion and Downtown Gazettes," Long Beach, California. Here I actually stuck to my word limit (a rarity now). As a result this first column is quite brief.
I've lived in Long Beach all my life and every year around this time, people start complaining that we don't have seasons.
"You call this fall? Where are the leaves?" or "Winter? What winter? You're still wearing shorts!" and my all-time favorite, "You all don't know what seasons are, you just go from nice to nicer." Well, regardless of these naysayers' complaints, Southern California does have seasons, and autumn is upon us.
That means it is harvest time, and the one food that screams out autumn more than most is the apple. Yes apples, those mushy tasteless orbs from our childhood lunch pails that after a few obligatory bites or failed trading attempts usually ended up in the trash.
And yet, it was this same piece of fruit that captured the imagination of generations past and became a central part of our folklore and mythology. After all it was the apple, the source of all knowledge, that caused our banishment from Eden. It was so divine that John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) spent his adult life planting orchards throughout the Ohio Valley. It has been credited with giving Isaac Newton the idea for gravity and Steve Jobs the idea for the home computer. Surely, the source of this much inspiration was not a bland, boring piece of fruit.
The reason that many apples are so uninspiring is not because they're inherently bad. It is largely due to the fact that they are old. Many apples are stored in warehouses where they may sit for up to a year before making their way to many grocery stores. The longer apples sit, the more flavor they lose. Many commercial growers also over-water their crops, which results in large sumptuous looking fruit that are tasteless and mushy. Try an apple that has been plucked straight from the tree and you'll instantly know what you've been missing. Once you've sunk your teeth into that resilient, crispy, sweet, juicy flesh, there's no going back.
You can find good-tasting fresh apples throughout our local area. In fact, there are a greater variety of fresh apples coming to markets throughout Southern California than ever before. At last count, more than 1,000 varieties of apples are being grown, and more than 100 of them are commonly available to consumers at farmers' markets, roadside stands and in well-stocked supermarkets (look for signs that say "Fresh Picked" or "New Crop"). Our local farmers' market (especially on the Promenade on Fridays) boasts at least 20 different varieties ranging from the sweet and exotic Mutsu and Gordon to wonderfully delicious Granny Smith and Jonathan. Most of these apples are grown organically and lack the shiny wax coating found on supermarket fruit.
While there are so many apples to choose from, some tend to be more appropriate for certain kinds of dishes than others. Apples for cooked or baked goods such as pies, baked apples or salsas should be firm and flavorful so their texture and taste can stand up to the heat of cooking and other ingredients. But, if your making applesauce, chutneys, or puddings, choose an apple with a softer composition that will break down into a smooth puree as it cooks. For eating fresh out of hand, it's all a matter of preference: whether you prefer honey-sweet apples (Golden Delicious, Fuji or McIntosh) or puckery-tart ones (the classic Granny Smith, Ida Red or Baldwin), tantalizingly crunchy (Winesap, Northern Spy or Empire) or soft and yielding (Elstar or Jonathan).
No matter which apple you choose, there are a few things that all good apples should have in common. Choose firm apples that are heavy for their size. You should steer clear of mushy, over-watered apples by checking the bottoms and choosing those that are closed (round bottoms), not open. The apples should have a fresh smell, not a musty one, and the skin should be smooth and tight with no soft spots. Wrinkled skin, mushy spots and a hollow, spongy feel are all traits of an old, improperly stored apple. As with any fruit or vegetable, you want to pick apples at their height of freshness this means searching them out during their peak season. Apples are at their best from late summer to mid-autumn.
So get out there and take a bite of the not-so-forbidden fruit. You only have a few more weeks to enjoy apples at their best.