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Apple cider is the real flavor of fall

Sorry, pumpkin spice. I appreciate you plenty. But for me, the finest flavor of fall is fresh, pure apple cider.

I developed a deeper connection with apple cider in the past couple of years cultivating relationships at an organic farm, where apple orchards coexist with native oak meadows, and a hand-cranked cider press is vital at harvest time. My two sons eagerly have lent their hands in anticipation of drinking their fill of just-squeezed apple juice, often marketed as cider when it’s raw and unfiltered.

Indeed, “cider” can be a confusing term. Some commercial ciders already are steeped in spices prior to bottling. Predictably, they are more visible in grocery stores around the holidays. The pouches sold near tea in grocery stores — often labeled “instant drink mix” — contain merely artificially apple-flavored sugar.

Then there’s “hard” cider, typically known as such only in the United States. Other countries simply refer to it as “cider,” commonly understood in their parlance as an alcoholic beverage.

In simple terms, fresh cider ferments into hard cider, then eventually becomes vinegar, in much the same straightforward microbiological process that transforms grape juice into wine, then vinegar. Most cider has 5% to 6% alcohol, about the same as many beers, and half that of most wines.

The rapid rise of cider as an American beer alternative has de-emphasized the “hard” modifier over the past decade, during which craft producers have reinstituted the traditional term. Blame the Temperance Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s for the century or so when alcoholic cider was consigned to obscurity after its Colonial-era heyday.

The first apple trees planted in the New World were intended to yield fruit for an alcoholic beverage safer than water for the Pilgrims to drink. In Colonial times, cider was so popular that children commonly drank it diluted, and John Adams downed a draught for breakfast daily to settle his stomach.

When the Temperance Movement captivated the American conscience, apple orchards across the country were razed and never recovered by the advent of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. German settlers to the United States already had ushered in mammoth breweries, and the American palate had shifted to beer.

Wine often serves as a model for evaluating cider’s complexities of fruit, acid and tannin. A good, dry cider tastes clean, fresh, crisp and refreshing. And cider can pair with a wide variety of foods from sushi and other seafood to smoked sausages and spicy ethnic fare to, predictably, the cheese course, especially blue, Gouda and Emmenthaler.

In cooking, both fresh and fermented ciders can serve in many capacities. And pressing our own — after climbing ladders, shaking limbs, collecting apples in 25-pound boxes and schlepping them to the cider press — whets our appetites for using cider in myriad ways. The golden, nectar-like liquid extracted with plenty of elbow grease resides for a short time in 5-gallon buckets before being canned in quart-sized glass jars.

I popped the top on a jar a few weeks ago to oven-braise spiced lamb ribs and stovetop-braise collard greens to accompany cheesy polenta. Use alcoholic cider as they do on France’s Atlantic coast to steam mussels and other shellfish or to poach fish or chicken.

Fresh and fermented ciders also work magic to deglaze a pan of seared sausages and lightly sautéed apple slices for serving with sauerkraut. Similarly, I like to start a batch of risotto by deglazing sautéed sausage, onions, fennel and Arborio rice with cider.

Layering the flavors of cider with fresh apples in recipes not only heightens the savor of other ingredients. The technique, owing to fresh cider’s natural sugars, can help to reduce quantities of refined sugar in sauces, sweets and baked goods.

Extending the flavor even farther is apple syrup, essentially cider that’s been reduced to a thick consistency that concentrates all the fruit’s sweetness and tang. It’s easy to boil a batch of apple syrup on your stovetop and keep it on hand for spooning over pancakes, waffles, yogurt, oatmeal or even roasted vegetables. Serve apple syrup as a dipping sauce for sausages alongside good-quality mustard, or drizzle it over ice cream cozied up to a baked apple.

Find instructions for making apple syrup in the following recipe for oven-roasted winter squash that calls for whisking the syrup into a mustardy vinaigrette.

Apple and Sausage Risotto

3-1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1 tablespoon mild olive or vegetable oil

8 ounces mild sausage, casings removed

1 small onion, peeled and cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup)

2 medium crisp apples (such as Granny Smith, Jonathan or Cortland), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice

1 cup Arborio or other risotto-style rice

1/2 to 1 cup warm apple cider, as needed

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the chicken broth just until it comes to a boil, then reduce heat to low to keep broth warm.

While chicken broth is heating, heat the oil in a large (at least 4-quart) pot over medium-high heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up with a spoon. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring, until sausage has lost its raw look and is starting to brown.

Add the onion and apples and cook for 7 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they soften and start to take on color. Add the rice, stirring to combine. Add 1 cup warm chicken broth and stir continuously until the liquid is almost fully absorbed; then add broth 1/2 cup at a time, stirring continuously and allowing liquid to be absorbed each time before adding more.

When all broth has been incorporated, add 1/2 cup of the apple cider. When that is absorbed, taste rice for doneness. If it is still too firm, add remaining 1/2 cup of cider. When risotto looks creamy and rice is slightly firm to the bite, it’s done.

Remove from heat and add the Parmesan, stirring just to combine. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Cider Baked Beans

3 cups dried great northern beans, picked over and rinsed

6 slices bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

1/3 cup tomato paste

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar

2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 dried bay leaves

3 to 4 cups apple cider and/or hard cider, as needed

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the beans in large bowl. Cover with water by several inches. Refrigerate, covered, overnight, then drain.

Preheat a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker.

In large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon until crisp, for 5 to 7 minutes, then drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from skillet, reduce heat to medium-low and add the onion. Cook until translucent, for about 15 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, then raise heat to medium and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the Worcestershire, mustard, brown sugar, vinegar, cayenne, bay leaves and 3 cups of the cider. Stir well to combine and simmer until thickened slightly for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.

Add soaked and drained beans to slow cooker and toss with cider sauce. Pour cider sauce over beans and stir to combine. If necessary, add up to 1 cup more cider to cover beans. Cover and cook on low until beans are tender, for 6 to 7 hours (or on high for 3 to 3 1/2 hours). Season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

— Recipe from “Martha Stewart’s Slow Cooker” from the Kitchens of Martha Stewart Living (Clarkson Potter, August 2017, $26)

Apple Cider-Roasted Squash

2 medium acorn squash

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

1 cup apple cider

1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar

1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Peel the squash and cut into 1-inch pieces. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss squash with 2 tablespoons of the oil and 3/4 teaspoon of the salt. Roast squash in preheated oven until golden-brown and tender, for 20 to 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring the cider to boil in a small non-reactive saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid has reduced to 1/4 cup, for 12 to 15 minutes.

In a medium bowl, whisk reduced cider with the vinegar, mustard, remaining 2 tablespoons oil and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Stir in the parsley.

Transfer squash to a platter and drizzle with vinaigrette just before serving.

— Recipe from Delish.com

Tune in to Sarah Lemon’s podcast at www.mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-whole-dish. Email her at thewholedish@gmail.com.