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Feature Fri Feb 12 2010

Honeycrisps Are Not the Only Apples

winesap applesWhen we visited the Door County two years ago, we brought home a big bag of honeycrisp apples. It was not the first time we had these sweet, crunchy apples, but the specimen in the bag were so amazingly good we were completely hooked.

Until the end of that season, we almost exclusively ate honeycrisps. To make our addiction even worse, the honeycrisps were consistently tasty--no mushy or flavorless "loser"apple got into our shopping basket. Everybody else seems to be discovering this variety around us, too. I saw huge crates full of honeycrisps at farmers markets with a large crowd milling around them, as other varieties sat untouched on the next table. Being a contrarian that I am, I started to grow a little skeptical about my (and others') enthusiasm about honeycrisps.

I had (and still have) nothing against honeycrisps, really. They have good sweet flavor, decent aroma, nicely crunchy texture, and are a good keeper to boot. All around quite an agreeable apple. But what about other varietals, with quaint names like cox's orange pipin or enticingly mysterious one like northern spy? There are so many other, an almost dizzying number of varieties. Thinking that honey crisp fever may be obscuring other great apples, I went back to trying other varieties in the following year. And what an amazing year that was--I discovered at least a few varieties that suit my taste better than honeycrisps, with very juicy yet firm flesh and much more complex, floral flavors. One such underappreciated variety that is beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat is the winesap.

Winesap is an old strain that presumably goes back to the pre-revolutionary Virginia, although accounts seem to vary. As Michael Pollan writes in Botany of Desire, all trees in one apple variety are genetically identical. Because apple seedlings does not predictably produce the qualities of their parent trees, apple trees are created by grafting. So, the winesap apples you eat today are, genetically speaking, exactly the same as those eaten by the revolutionary fighters (or the red coats, I suppose), if they were ever well-behaved enough to actually eat them, instead of brewing them all into hard cider. Either way, I have to say I do get a kick out of eating the same apples that sat on people's tables two and a half centuries ago.

black radish & winesap apple saladWinesap gets its name from the deep crimson color of the skin, but there is something in the flavor that hints at fruity red wines, too--perhaps a slightest hint of tannin-like astringency that adds complexity. The flesh is firm, finely textured and juicy. Winesap is a great keeper; I got my last batch on the last day of the Evanston Farmers Market, which was in late November, and they are still perfectly crisp and juicy after more than a month of sitting in the crisper. The old man I bought these apples from told me that winesap is a good all-around performer. It's good either as is, or baked in a pie (although we haven't had a chance to try the latter ourselves).

Where winesap really shines is, however, in a salad. Because its beautiful, almost snow-white flesh doesn't discolor for hours, you don't have to sprinkle lemon juice or float cut pieces in salted water to prevent discoloration. This may not be a big deal, but for a lazy cook like myself, it's a great perk (plus, you don't get the acid taste of the lemon in a salad where you may not want too much acidity). Winesap's deep crimson skin adds just the right amount of interest to the visual appeal of a salad as well. Winter months tend to bring us "vegetable blah," but with winesap and a couple of hardy root vegetables, you can put a refreshing burst of light
flavors and crisp textures on the table.

WINESAP APPLES, CELERY ROOT, AND BLACK RADISH SALAD
(serves two)
1 cup winesap apples, thinly sliced with skin on
1 cup celery root, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup black radish, peeled and thinly sliced (or use
unpeeled regular radish)
1-2 cups arugula or watercress, torn into small pieces
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry or champagne vinegar
a small pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper

There's not much for instructions: Lightly toss everything in a bowl and serve, is about all there is to it. The idea is to use just enough oil and vinegar to lightly coat the vegetables and apple, which are flavorful enough on their own. And use good oil and good vinegar.

 

Bec / February 12, 2010 11:40 AM

Where around here can we find heirloom apple varieties? I had my first Honey Crisp when I moved to Chicago, so I like it more because I think of it as a regional apple. I had heard of honey crisps, but never seen them when I lived in New England or California.

Yu / February 12, 2010 2:06 PM

That's interesting that honeycrisps aren't around in other parts of the country--I never thought about that! The best bet for heirloom apples are the farmers markets, although sometimes I see local (not necessarily heirloom) apples at Whole Foods. Green City Market's indoor market is this Saturday at the Notebaert Nature Museum; some growers may still have cold-stored apples from the last harvest. Good luck!

V / February 12, 2010 7:05 PM

It seems strange, eating apples in Feburary.

Rob Gardner / February 15, 2010 8:37 PM

What's unusual about eating apples in February! Very winter ready recipe too. I'll have to give it a shot.

Our weekly Local Calendar on the Local Beet will give you some ideas where to find good apples still.

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