Apples: Jeepers Keepers
Today the shapely pear is queen of the orchards, but the Rogue Valley's first commercial crop was apples, and many local apple varieties are ready now. Their diverse flavors can be enjoyed for months... without settling for applesauce. Instead, dedicate a few days to preserving and creating wholesome snacks and desserts. Slice, spice, then dry or freeze these juicy fruits to keep them all year long.
Apple season lasts now through November. Many early varieties are better for eating than storage, but "If you like the flavor, then try to preserve it" advises Laura Goodman, owner of Medford's Fox Run Farm. She and her husband cultivate over 60 apple varieties. Ripening now are 'Yellow Transparent,' 'Jonathan' apples, and 'New Jersey 46,' which has a slight cherry flavor, according to Goodman.
Marilyn Moore, owner of Phoenix's Creative Catering, encourages eating locally-grown organic apples. To enjoy their fresh flavors, she prepares and freezes a fruit medley. "Just chop the apples, sweeten them (she uses Zylitol), and toss them with fresh lime juice and some natural extracts," she says. "It sets the stage for a 'party in your mouth.' She prefers vanilla, almond and nut extracts, and adding some farm-fresh berries to the mixture. Combine and freeze in snack-size freezer bags for portable, healthy snacks later in the year.
Store prepared apples for use in pies, turnovers and crisps in the freezer. Goodman suggests mixing apple favorites for ready-to-use frozen fillings. She says 'Jonathan' apples make an excellent sweet/tart flavor when mixed with 'Pippin,' 'Winesap,' 'Newton' or 'Granny Smith' apples. Simply select flavors that complement one another, clean, peel and slice them in equal-sized slices, and toss them in a little sugar and seasoning. Place them in airtight plastic containers in the coldest part of the freezer. Even better, put the mixture in a zip-close freezer bag, place in a pie tin and let it freeze in pie-ready shape. When it's pie time, remove the plastic and place the filling in the crust. Frozen fillings will keep for six months.
Making dried apples is one of the oldest and easiest methods for preservation. The old fashioned way was to harness the power of the sun and wait. You can still do it with dry sliced fruit on a large flat surface during a heat wave. Although inexpensive, it takes 3-5 days of 100 degree days for the apples to dry, and the fruit can scorch. For a small investment, an electric dehydrator gives consistent, reliable, and in many cases, preferable results for seasons to come.
No matter what technique you choose, start with the freshest apples. If it's not delicious to eat, it is not suitable to save. Overripe fruit has poor texture and immature fruits are bland. Always leave a few apples for fresh storage. Goodman notes late-season apples, stored in a cellar or garage during the cool days and cold nights, will probably keep for a few months. Apples are one of the greatest taste treats available to us in the valley, so make them last.
There are a few guidelines for making dried apples. Wash the apples in tepid water to remove the soil, says Moore, and never bring dirty produce to your cutting board to prevent cross-contamination. Peel, core and thinly cut apples into equal 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick slices.
To help prevent discoloring and vitamin retention, they'll need to be pre-treated. Ascorbic acid crystals work well, but lemon juice is easier. Simply mix one cup fresh lemon juice with one quart of water and soak the apple slices for not more than 10 minutes and drain. At this point, Moore likes to take them one step further, adding flavor. Sprinkle apples with cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar or even flavored gelatin crystals.
Place the fruit slices in the dehydrator set to 150 degrees for 2 to 3 hours. Then turn it down to 130 degrees until the centers are dry when cut. The fruit will be soft. Store fruit in an airtight container. Watch it for a few days to see if any moisture develops. If it does, dry them more.
To reconstitute them for pies, cobbles, cookies and cakes, simply soak the fruit in liquid. Hot water quickly hydrates apples, but reconstituting them in fruit juices, cordials and fruit liquors make interesting flavor combinations.