The numbers are impressive.
Somewhere near 8,000 varieties of apples now grow all over the globe. Apples grew wild as long back as the genus Homo did, millions of years ago. They are among the most diverse of living things. Science is closing in on the number of genes in the apple genome (around 50,000, versus a mere 25,000 or so for the human).
And yet, at least in the United States, we pretty much narrow our apple buying and eating to a couple dozen varieties, with six or seven (such as the Gala and the ascendant Honeycrisp) of most interest.
Whereas other countries distinguish between cooking apples and eating apples, we tend to conflate the two purposes into the same apple. For instance, you’ll read that the Braeburn is just as good out of hand as it is in a pie. And it pretty much is, but that disallows us from using an even better apple for a pie (a Jonagold, say, or a Cortland) because it won’t be found with surety at the grocer’s.
Most apples have two lives anyway, one when they are young (recently picked); the other, after some time in storage or on the shelf. They’re better eaten out of hand when young; more useful for baking and cooking when older. One of the reasons for the success in the international market for apples is the ability of the Southern and Northern Hemispheres to feed each other what they want in an apple given the grace of flip-flopping seasons.
What we Americans admire most in an apple is sweetness, often overlooking that it is the apple’s level of acidity (or lack of it) that makes that sweetness interesting (or not).
But we are learning that. It took 50 years for the Gala to unseat the Red Delicious as the most purchased apple in the United States. The underlying story there is the eclipsing of an apple with mere sweetness by one with even greater sugar balanced by super-crisp acidity. Electricity (the play of sugar and acid) outdoes the candle wick (sugar alone).
As a food, we attend to the apple mainly as either a treat or a sweet, eating apples raw out of hand, or as a refreshing accompaniment to other foods such as cheese, and baking them into any number of confections or desserts — the iconic American pie, for example. (About a third of all apples harvested in the U.S. become juice, cider, and applesauce.)
We forget the many uses of apples in our other cooking, over and above baking and dessert-making.
Due to their abundant acidity, apples are a perfect foil for fat. You will find recipes back to Apicius of Rome, a gourmand living in the very early A.D.s, that ally apples with cooked pork. And, so, up to our time, we have many delicious turns on apples and pork: apple-stuffed rolled pork loin; pork chops slit open and filled with apples and breadcrumbs; a skillet of pork chops and sliced apples — all delicious, all perfect.
A pot of red cabbage and onions requires some apple in it. Bits of apples are delicious in baked beans, cream-based soups, and many a hash; or cooked alongside potatoes or parsnips or cauliflower (or all three) in a mash.
And what a lift some chopped apple gives a tuna or chicken salad, yes? Cue the Waldorf, too, of course.
Whenever I want to add both sweetness and crisping acidity — such a terrific partnership — to a long-cooked dish, I often add some grated or chopped apple, as in our recipe here.
Choucroute garnie (Sauerkraut with meats)
This is the hallmark of the cuisine of Alsace, France. It certainly is a winter dish, but could be served in the summertime on a cool night and outdoors.
- 2 smoked ham hocks
- 8 cups sauerkraut
- 1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 pound thick-cut bacon slices, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 large apples, peeled and grated on large holes of grater (no core)
- 1/2 teaspoon each juniper berries, black peppercorns, and allspice berries
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 cups white wine
- 4 pounds pork and pork sausages: kielbasa, bratwurst, smoked loin, thick-cut ham, or other, as you like, all precooked, nothing raw
- Flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped up, for garnish
Cover the hocks with water by 2 inches and cook them in simmering water for 2 hours. Remove to a bowl and reduce the liquid to about 2 cups. When cool enough to handle, strip them of their meat and toss the skin, gristle, and bones, reserving both the meat and the concentrated broth.
In a sieve or colander with small drainage holes, drain the sauerkraut of as much of its liquid as possible. Then wash the sauerkraut 3 times in cold running water, squeezing away the water after each rinse. In a very large pot or Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, cook the onion in the butter for 10 minutes, add the bacon and cook for an additional 10 minutes, lowering the heat if necessary to avoid burning the onions.
To the pot, add the rinsed and drained sauerkraut, the grated apple, the reserved ham hock broth, the wine, the spices and flavorings, and just enough water to cover what is in the pot, mixing everything together well. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 1 hour, with the cover ajar. Add the meats, including the reserved ham hock flesh, distributing them around the pot and submerging them into the sauerkraut, and, cook for another hour, adding a little more water if necessary to keep the mix moist.
Serve with small boiled potatoes, crusty bread, and the meats cut up and distributed among the plates, everything garnished with the parsley.