Our son just started junior high school (junior high!) but Labor Day still had one long weekend to gift us and we went up to our house in Michigan to swim and pick apples from our orchard. It made me remember when Nate came back from first grade talking about apples. He learned about Johnny Appleseed who “came to Ohio and Michigan and Canada ‘cause people love apples, right? That’s why he gave us apples.” I asked him what types of apples he planted and his list “yellow delicious, small ones with seeds, big ripe ones that are delicious, sour ones” was impressive.
We’ve got about 16 trees in the orchard we share with our neighbors and along with the “big ripe ones that are delicious” our varieties include Jonathans, Gala, Macintosh and Braeburn. We also have a couple of pear trees and a struggling plum.
Each spring we head over to the orchard to marvel at the blossoms. Such fragile, snowy and breathtakingly short blooms. In the summer we drop by to check out the herb gardens where we’ll snack on freshly picked cherry tomatoes wrapped in fat basil leaves. But it is fall that we love best when the bees have quieted down and the trees are heavy with fruit.
When Nate was a toddler he liked the act of picking more than the eating. He’d pluck an apple, take a bite and toss it aside so he could pull another. He was more than happy to join us in filling up a few bags to bring back to our restaurants.
What I love about the apple picking is that we never have an end goal as we pick. When we go blueberry picking in summer it is always with pies and breakfast breads in mind but an apple has so many possibilities. We’d rather bring it back to the kitchens and look around. See what is waiting for us that seems to be seeking a tart companion.
I think my favorite use is making applesauce to pair with double cut pork chops. Dan’s go-to recipe is a thyme applesauce with white wine and guests are always so excited and intrigued at the idea of house made applesauce.
And I haven’t even mentioned the beverage possibilities. We have an antique cider press on the property that we still put to use. It is a heavy and slow and laborious process that is worth every minute. I recall one year pressing cider with half a dozen kids crowded round the press and dozens of yellow jackets jockeying for position. There were so many bees that an occasional one would get too greedy and drown in the freshly squeezed juice. But it was the kids that stuck with me. No fear. None of them running in circles shrieking and swatting at the air. They understood that if they left the bees alone we could all cohabitate and enjoy the cider. I’m proud to instill that respect for the land into my son.
This year we set out bluebird boxes to entice bluebirds to nest in the orchard and surrounding prairies. We had great success with 2 or 3 bluebird families taking turns in the boxes. Nate asked if we could open one of the boxes this weekend, so I undid the eye screw and opened it slowly, hoping to find an empty nest but fearing I might find something grisly. What I found was a small wasp nest with 2 sleepy wasps feeling the fist chill of fall.
I considered knocking the nest out and thought better of it. Cohabitate. Instead we gathered our mesh bags and our muddy dog and walked the trail home munching apples because as Johnny Appleseed knew, “people love apples, right?”
Recipe courtesy Dan Smith; The Hearty Boys
8 Jonathon or Gala apples, quartered
1 cup white wine
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
3 fat sprigs fresh thyme
Place all the ingredients into a large saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and let simmer until the apples are fork tender. Be careful not to let the pan dry out in the cooking process – if too dry add a little water.
Spoon the whole mixture into a china cap or sieve and mash the apples with a large wooden spoon, letting the pulp fall into a bowl. Press down well to get as much of the pulp as possible. Discard the skins and thyme sprigs. Let the apple sauce come to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for up to one week.