I am often in awe at the intelligence and timing of nature – how, just in time, the earth offers up hardy produce like winter squash, root vegetables and apples, thick-skinned and tough enough to last through winter, when all growing is paused.
Fall produce is not only hardy, it is hearty. Meatier and denser than summer crops, fall finds often contain more sugar, perhaps to fatten us up for our long, cold winters. Just look at the difference between summer squash and winter squash. One of fall’s last and sweetest gifts is late-harvest apples, which – if stored properly – will last all the way through winter into spring. Apples like to grow in areas like ours that freeze deeply, faithfully returning after a winter’s rest, their rugged stocks a little more burly than the year before.
Don’t you think that for all their fortitude and tenacity they deserve a celebration?
During September and October, Green Bluff, home to more than 30 orchards, celebrates apples in full force with festivals each weekend. A beautiful, 15-minute drive north of Spokane transports you to gentle rolling hills spotted with farms, orchards and beautiful old barns. Bushels of apples are for sale along with food, hot cider, live music and hayrides. If crowds are not your thing, visit the orchards during the week and experience the tranquility of walking through the trees and picking out your own favorite apples.
“Each tree tastes a little different,” said Rod Hansen, owner of Hansen’s Green Bluff Orchard. “We have customers who walk the orchard tasting all the different varieties (there are more than 50) and will pick out their favorite, then return year after year to that particular tree, almost like it’s theirs.”
Rod and Karen Hansen, along with their son Derrick, have been growing apples in Green Bluff since 1985. But Rod Hansen would visit as a child and still remembers what it was like some 70 years ago.
“There were many more small farms back then,” he said. “People would supplement their income by growing produce and selling it directly to the public. Houses were smaller, orchards were larger and more of the land was used for agriculture.”
The idea of living in Green Bluff and becoming a grower himself was planted in his mind at an early age, but the seed remained dormant while he started a family, moved to Montana and became a university math professor.
During the mid-1980s, he had an opportunity to teach at Whitworth and took it, moving his family back to Spokane, purchasing land in Green Bluff and planting their first apple crop.
“This year, we have an especially good apple crop,” said Karen Hansen.
“Perhaps it’s due to the heavy spring rains, or the hot summer, or the good strong bees pollinating our trees, or the work of our gifted pruner, or heavier thinning – or all these factors coming together at the same time. But it’s not always like this.”
Frustrations come, too, like crop failures, which are heartbreaking and expensive. But to Karen Hansen, farming is still worth it.
“The real satisfaction comes from being a part of the whole cycle: planting trees, watching them grow, and eventually harvesting them,” she said. “It develops patience because it takes so much time.”
The Hansens said they would like to see more farms, orchards and new plantings in Green Bluff due to growing demand.
Consumers, they said, are seeking the “farm experience” and wanting to gather their own food straight from the grower.
“In the past, they would come once or twice a year to fill their car with produce,” Rod Hansen said. “Now, they come weekly to check in and see what’s available. They want to get close and personal with the farmer so they can know and understand what they are consuming.”
Spokane County’s Comprehensive Plan identifies Green Bluff as an agricultural resource land.
Karen Hansen calls it “a treasure that needs to be utilized agriculturally, and protected and cared for.”
It isn’t too often that you will find this number of farms in such a compact area, with this kind of soil and these particular growing conditions. Each one of the Hansens’ apple trees, for example, only gets watered once: when it’s planted.
“The rest of the time,” Rod Hansen said, “God waters them.”
Walking around the orchard recently with his son, I think I fell in love with practically every tree, each one yielding fruit with a slightly different flavor. I learned something new, too: Every apple contains 10 seeds, and if you plant those 10 seeds, each would produce 10 different types of trees, due to cross pollination. That’s because half of the genes of any one seed are received from an outside source. In this case, that source is pollen from other trees, carried by bees, who in return receive sustenance from the nectar of the apple blossoms.
What dawned on me out in the orchard that day, besides the incredible and baffling way everything is interdependent, is how everything in nature serves a unique purpose.
There are hundreds of varieties of apples, making it challenging to know what variety of apple to choose for what recipe. To complicate matters even more, apple crops ripen at different times of the year, depending on the variety.
Getting Karen Hansen to admit her favorite variety is almost like asking her to choose her favorite child.
“There’s not an apple I don’t like,” she said. “Early varieties like Gravenstein, Transparent and Buckley Giants are great for making apple sauce and apple butter because they cook down easily. Jonagolds, Gala and Golden Delicious are great eating apples because of their sweet to acid balance and their good crunch. Empires and Granny Smiths are good pie apples because they keep their shape.”
To prevent pies and apple sauce from becoming too one-noted, Karen Hansen suggests using a mix of apples for added flavor and complexity.
Late-season varieties including Winesap, Granny Smith, Red Rome Beauty and Fujis can be kept until spring if stored between 32 and 36 degrees. Early and midseason apples do not store well.
There is nothing better than biting into a ripe, crisp, juicy apple. And, mostly, I like to eat them that way – not only for health, but for their texture and their bright and startling flavors.
But apples lend themselves well to cooking and baking. Roasted or baked, their flavors deepen and intensify, becoming sweeter as their moisture is released.
More and more often, I find myself using them in savory dishes. Sautéed with sage and butter, paired with grilled pork loin or seared duck, their sweetness and tanginess are a perfect complement.
Blended into soups or purées with winter squash or roasted carrots, celery root or parsnips, they add a welcome and unexpected liveliness.
Here are a few recipes to get you inspired to get cooking with apples.
Grilled Pork Loin with Apple, Serrano, Hard Cider Sage Cream
1 1⁄2 pounds pork tenderloin, whole
1⁄4 cup fresh lime juice and zest from one lime
1⁄4 cup fresh orange juice and zest from one orange
1⁄4 cup maple syrup
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 large shallot finely diced
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup hard apple cider
1⁄2 cup chicken stock
1⁄2 of a whole serrano chili, seeded and finely diced, or more for a spicier dish
3⁄4 cup heavy whipping cream (half-and-half will curdle)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Salt to taste (add last)
3 apples (Honeycrisp, Gala, Granny Smith) unpeeled and thickly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh chopped sage
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
1 1⁄2 teaspoons sugar
Splash cider, about 2 tablespoons
Marinate pork, placing first 6 ingredients in a sealable bag, marinate in a refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. The longer the better.
Bring to room temperature before grilling.
Make sauce: Sauté shallot in butter until tender in a medium pot. Add cider, chicken stock and serrano chili, bring to a boil, then turn heat to medium-low and let simmer uncovered for 20 minutes, or until reduced by half. Add heavy whipping cream. Stirring occasionally, continue to simmer until sauce thickens and turns into a lovely pale golden color, about 15 more minutes. Add cracked pepper and salt to taste.
For the apples, sauté apples in butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet on medium heat until golden and tender. Add sage, salt and sugar, and a splash of cider.
Once cider has evaporated, turn off heat and set aside.
Grill pork using medium heat and turning often until all sides are seared, about 12 minutes.
Turn grill to low and continue to cook (or place in a 350-degree oven) until internal temperature reaches 140 degrees. Promptly remove from heat and wrap tightly in foil and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing into 1-inch portions, placing apple mixture over and around.
Garnish with fresh sage. Spoon Hard Cider sauce over top.
Yield: 4 servings
Apple Brown Butter Bouchons
1 tablespoon butter
1 large apple, diced (Honeycrisp, Empire or Red Rome Beauty work well)
1 3⁄4 cups flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄3 cup oil
3⁄4 cup sugar
1 large egg
3⁄4 cup milk
1⁄4 cup butter
1⁄3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Heat butter in a medium skillet and add diced apple.
Sauté on medium heat until tender, about 5 minutes.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, combine oil, sugar, egg and milk. Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients and stir only to combine. Fold in apples. Pour into greased bouchon molds or cupcake or muffin tins. Bake at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
For the topping, brown the butter over medium heat in a small pot until golden brown, nutty and fragrant. Combine sugar and cinnamon in bowl.
Shake bouchons or muffins out of the tins while still hot. Dip in brown butter, then into the sugar-cinnamon mix. Let cool.
Yield: 10 to 12 bouchons
Roasted Apple Parsnip Soup
1 1⁄2 pounds parsnips
2 medium apples (Pink Lady, Jonagold or Gala work well)
1 medium white onion
5 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1⁄2 cup half and half or soy milk
1⁄4 teaspoon white pepper
1⁄4 teaspoon cardamom
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt plus more to taste
cracked pepper to taste
1⁄8 cup toasted crushed hazelnuts (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash and scrub parsnips, then slice into ¼-inch strips. Cut apples into halves and core (no need to peel).
Slice the onion into ¼-inch strips. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Toss apples, parsnip and onions in a medium bowl with drizzle of olive oil to coat, a generous pinch of salt and cracked pepper. Place all on baking sheet and bake, checking after 30 minutes. Let mix continue to bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until onions are translucent and parsnips are tender. Blend apples, parsnips, onions in a blender with stock and half-and-half in batches, being careful to not over fill. Hold the blender lid on tight with a kitchen towel (the heat will often cause the lid to fly off and create a huge mess). Start on low speed, increasing gradually. Or, place all in a medium pot and blend with an immersion blender. Purée until smooth.
Place in soup pot over low heat. Add white pepper, cardamom, salt and pepper to taste. Pour into individual bowls and garnish with toasted crushed hazelnuts.
Yield: 4 hearty bowls