October is a month synonymous with the true start of fall in the US, which means gorgeous foliage, pumpkin-spice flavored everything, and of course, apple season!
Not only are apples the focus of a favorite autumnal activity for families and kids of all ages, but they are a reflection of the ubiquitous nature of the fruit itself. It is the first fruit people refer to when comparing unlike items or experiences (‘it’s like comparing apples and oranges…), it is ever present in proverbs (‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’), and it is supposedly the ultimate health defense, as the quintessential saying goes, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away…’ So where does the old adage really come from, and does it still hold true today?
Apples are fundamental nutrition bombs: they are full of vitamins C and K, as well as potassium and fiber; they are also full of phytonutrients and polyphenols (yes, like those found in olive oil!), which give them their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. They have a low glycemic index, and are great for heart healthy, diabetics, and weight loss too.
With all these nutritional benefits, it’s no wonder apples were the original prophylactic prescription for good health!
However, the apples we see today in 2021 are not like those we encountered 100, 50, or even 20 years ago. With the incorporation of GMOs into the food chain, many conventional apples found in grocery stores around the country are flavorless and devoid of nutrients, adding fuel to the proverbial food desert fire.
Often the question is asked whether it’s necessary to buy organic – when it comes to apples, the answer is a resounding YES! Apples are very susceptible to pests and vermin, and as such tend to be treated heavily with pesticides, which leach into not only the fruit growing on the tree, but into the tree’s roots as well.
If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, where is the original tree?
As far back as 800 BC, apples found their first official literary mention in Homer’s Odyssey, but for sure, the apples which he wrote about are not the same as what we find today. As apples spread around the world, different varieties emerged to cope with the newfound environments. Many native populations around the world added to this assortment by intentionally breeding apples for taste and size.
Currently, there are over 7,500 distinct apple varietals in the world, and thousands more that are now extinct. There are multiple ongoing projects dedicated to reviving extinct varieties, and many more dedicated to developing new ones. If you can conceive it in your mind, that apple variety likely exists today.
Apples at Home
When I was growing up, our family had a small orchard near our house in Greece with approximately 27 or so apple trees. The varieties we had were limited to red delicious, golden delicious, and crab apples – the classics, as they were.
My grandfather always used to tell us to eat the apples with the skin on, because like many fruits and vegetables, most of the nutrients can be found there. Because of this, my grandmother made the most delicious dessert of skin-on baked apples with honey and cinnamon, and would simmer the crab apples into a tart apple sauce topping for the baked red and golden apples.
I loved this dessert so much, until my grandfather took me on a trip to Mt Pelio, where a special apple varietal known as ‘Firiki’ were grown. When we were there, I tried the specialty ‘spoon sweets’ (dessert preserves) made from these iconic Firiki apples, and my whole world changed. Much to my grandfather’s dismay, I tried to smuggle an entire bag of these apples back home with us, but I didn’t get very far, as I must have tried to hide 30 or so pounds of apples from him!
Big Apples and The Big Apple
Even today, living in The Big Apple, I still think about that amazing trip I took with my Papou (grandfather in Greek). The simplicity of the Firiki spoon sweets often serves as nostalgic inspiration for my apple-related recipes. One of the most interesting and exciting things for me when I moved to the US was seeing the incredible variety of shapes, colors, flavors, textures, aromas, and culinary applications for so many types of apples…all with interesting and unique names, readily available and at my fingertips!
I personally prefer a sweeter, crisp apple, with slightly less dense flesh such as the classic Golden Delicious or Rome apples for desserts like my grandmother’s Baked Apple Cake. When I use apples in salads or as a refreshing garnish for some soups, I prefer something more tart and crisp with a very dense structure, like a Pink Lady or Honey Crisp. I also love roasting apples with fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme, adding some pungent mustard as a savory component for dishes, and creating oven-baked apple chips seasoned with apple cider vinegar as a perfect bar snack to accompany crispy chickpeas (known as stragalia) for a sweet and savory balance.
Of course, with the ever-increasing popularity of Apple Cider Vinegar, more and more people are aware not only of the culinary advantages this acid provides, but also the amazing probiotic benefits we can reap – if it’s good for the gut, it’s good for the soul.
And when it comes to versatility in the kitchen, apples are my secret weapon! Did you know that the pectin present in apples makes an excellent thickening agent for sauces and soups? It’s truly incredible how one simple fruit can do – and be used for – so many things in the kitchen.
One of my absolute favorite songs that I am known to sing in the kitchen is called “Milo Mou Kokkino,” which translates to “My Red Apple.” This is a folk song from Macedonia that every child in Greece learns to sing and dance to from a very early age at school, and still remains one of the most popular Greek songs across the culture, even today.
For me, every time I sing it, whether in the kitchen, or on my morning walks in Central Park, I am reminded of everything that makes the humble apple so incredibly special. This apple season, remember that apples are more than just a healthy snack; remember that they are a magical fruit to behold, and the old adage holds true – with a caveat – An ORGANIC apple a day keeps the doctor away! Kalí órexi! Enjoy your meal!
All Photos courtesy of Loi Estiatorio