You know something is popular when people are willing to stick their heads in a tub of water to get it. Go figure. Bobbing for apples aside, the apple remains a symbol of all that is healthy and American, not to mention it's a staple in lunchboxes nationwide.
European pears, on the other hand, possess a stately, refined elegance that harkens back to their early days of cultivation in Europe when they were first enjoyed by French nobility.
Apples and pears are pomes, a class of fruit that possess seeds encased in membranous chambers surrounded by fleshy fruit. Though most strongly associated with autumn and winter, apples actually have two distinct growing seasons - summer and late fall - while pears are generally harvested by early to mid-fall.
The year-round availability of these U.S.-grown fruits can be attributed to their affinity for cold storage. While many of the apple growers I spoke to believe that long-term cold storage destroys the flavor and texture of most apples, they agree that some varieties are better suited to storage than others.
Although the import of apples from China has led to dwindling production in the United States, those of us with access to Bay Area farmers' markets are fortunate to have locally grown apples at our fingertips. Nothing can compare to the flavor of a crisp, sweet, freshly picked, golden delicious. You certainly won't find it in a bland, watery, commercially grown apple that has languished in cold storage for up to a year before being shipped cross-country or internationally.
Apple grower Joanne Krueger of Flatland Flower Farm recommends storing apples for no more than a month in the refrigerator. ``Over-ripe apples are dull-looking and somewhat tacky to the touch," she says, ``and excessive cold storage will make the fruit mealy."
Krueger suggests choosing apples that are heavy for their size and that possess a slight bloom - the same natural wax that produces the whitish haze found on plums, grapes and blueberries.
As consumers, we expect our apples - if not all of our produce - to have flawless, polished skin, but that's not usually a realistic expectation for organically grown fruits and vegetables. According to Krueger, apple scab, which produces a scarring or pitted appearance on the skin of some apples, doesn' t affect the flavor. So if appearance isn't a factor in the presentation of your final dish, don't be afraid of a few superficial blemishes.
Krueger likes to serve Flatland's gorgeous Rome beauty apples in a salad with bacon, caramelized nuts, and a strong blue cheese such as the locally crafted Pt. Reyes Farmstead Blue. The pinkish streaks in the flesh of Rome beauties are visually stunning, and the flavor is tart and crisp.
Grower Bob Bernstein of Pomo Tierra Orchards uses gravensteins for his organic cider and applesauces. He also produces what he calls Autumn Blend, a juice made from his golden, Jonathan, and gala apples.
Bernstein prefers gravensteins for his products because they possess a zingy tartness that is heightened by Pomo Tierra's technique of not irrigating its apple trees. He believes that holding back on irrigation produces a more intense, less watery flavor for the fruit.
Other apple varieties worth seeking out at Bay Area farmers' markets include pink pearl, mutsu and sierra beauty.
Unlike apples, European pears require a period of cold storage at 32 to 35 degrees before being ripened for several days at room temperature prior to selling. Pears are simply too delicate for picking and shipping when ripe.
To further ripen pears at home, put them in a paper bag on the counter. Fully ripe pears you're not using immediately must go into the refrigerator or they will turn mushy.
European varieties differ from their round, crunchy, almost apple-like Asian pear counterparts in that they have softer flesh and a wider range of flavors and skin colors.
Didar Singh Khalsa of Guru Ram Das Orchards actually prefers to sell his anjou and California pears not quite ripe. ``I've trained my customers to be willing to buy unripe fruit because I believe it's worth waiting for," he says. ``It's difficult to sell perfectly ripe pears because they don't hold up well. And I don't like to waste the fruit."
Khalsa recommends his sweet, buttery California pears, a comice/red bartlett hybrid, which he describes as ``a gorgeous reddish-yellow and the prettiest pear you've ever seen." He eats them as is or for breakfast sliced into yogurt with walnuts and raisins.
Frog Hollow Farm's Al Courchesne is partial to his Warren pears, a relatively recent hybrid first discovered 20 years ago. According to Courchesne, Warren pears possess all the best qualities a pear can have, including great texture, no grit cells, and a smooth, thin skin. The intensely sweet, creamy Warren pears are ideal served simply with a glass of port and Gorgonzola cheese.
The following growers sell at the following markets. Apples: Gabriel (San Francisco Ferry Plaza, Berkeley), Flatland Flower Farm (Marin, Berkeley), Pomo Tierra (Berkeley), Smit (Berkeley). Pears: Guru Ram Das Orchards (Berkeley), Frog Hollow Farm (Danville, Santa Cruz, San Francisco Ferry Plaza, Berkeley).
PORK CHOPS BRAISED WITH RED CABBAGE AND APPLES
Recipe from chef Bradley Ogden, Lark Creek Inn (Larkspur). As featured in Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area (Eating Fresh Publications, $17.95).
4 rib-cut pork chops, 1-inch thick (Make this with rib chops that have a little fat. Loin chops are too lean for this recipe and will become tough and dry.)
Fresh cracked black pepper
¼ cup diced onion
¼ cup diced carrot
¼ cup diced celery
1 small head red cabbage, quartered, cored, and sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 medium cooking apples, peeled, cored, and diced
1 clove garlic, unpeeled
6 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped from the stem (or 1/3 teaspoon dried)
½ bay leaf
1 cup dry white wine or chicken stock
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
¼ cup Mustard Thyme Butter (recipe follows)
Trim excess fat from the pork chops, leaving about 1/8-inch around the edges. Place the trimmings in a heavy-bottomed skillet that is large enough to eventually hold all the pork chops. Cook the trimmings over low heat to render (melt) the fat. Remove the browned pieces and use the rendered fat to lightly coat the skillet. Increase the heat to moderate and brown the pork chops well on both sides. Remove and season with salt and pepper.
Saute onion, carrot, and celery in the pork drippings for 5 minutes. Add the cabbage, apples, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Saute for another 5 minutes or until the cabbage has wilted. Season with salt and pepper and add the white wine or stock and the balsamic vinegar.
Arrange the pork chops in the pan and baste with the cabbage and its juices. Reduce the heat, cover, and cook slowly for about 45 minutes, turning the meat and basting once or twice, until the pork chops are tender. Be careful that the liquid never boils while the pork chops are in the pan or they will be tough.
To serve, remove the garlic and bay leaf and arrange the cabbage on hot serving plates. Place a pork chop on each plate and top each with a dollop of Mustard Thyme Butter. Serves 4.
MUSTARD THYME BUTTER
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon fresh cracked pepper
Juice of ½ lemon
Combine all the ingredients in a small bowl. Cover and refrigerate. Serve at room temperature. Makes ½ cup.
E-mail Laurel Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
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