It’s Rosh Hashanah, so there must be apples


When I was growing up, my favorite fruit was apples. Red Delicious apples. Crisp, crunchy and dripping with juice. Their skin was thin and aromatic, the outside competing with the inside for Best Flavor.  The peel always won. 

Farmers markets hadn’t mushroomed as they have in decades since, so we frequented the colorful, makeshift fruit stands on the outskirts of Culver City and Encino, and on the windy canyon roads of Topanga and Malibu, plus up and down Pacific Coast Highway, from here to San Diego. Apple farmers would sit in canvas chairs on the side of the road with their families, waiting to sell us the apples they had picked that morning, and the cider they had pressed the night before. 

At some point, my father, who was always up for anything, but especially a cold swig of apple cider, began making a stop in the town of Julian, west of San Diego, on our way to SeaWorld and the San Diego Zoo. There, we would pick apples, buy jugs of cider and go crazy over the delectable apple cobbler. Little did we know the historic gold-mining town was building a reputation for growing some of the best apples in the United States.

These memories flood my soul every autumn when I troll Los Angeles for my old friend, Red Delicious, or the sweet juicy McIntosh, a favorite of my mother, Celia, and my daughter Julie’s must-have tart, green Pippins to dip in honey during Rosh Hashanah. Price is no object. It’s the High Holy Days! 

But my mood dampens when I realize that not only has the price of apples risen dramatically —in 1955, they cost 15 cents a pound; today they are about 13 times that — but the Big Reds of today are tasteless, mealy and thick skinned — a mere shadow of their former glory. And so, in preparation for the holiday when we don’t ask questions — we meditate upon them — I decided to commune with some apple experts to understand what has  happened.

“A chef’s best friend is his farmer,” says Josh Rasmussen, owner of the prized Down the Road Farms and neighbor to Jeremy Manley, chef-owner of Jeremy’s on the Hill, a farm-to-table California bistro in Julian. “I grow several varieties of apples, which are harvested at different times. I tell Jeremy which fruit I’ve just picked; he puts a dish featuring them on the menu. If it’s McIntosh, Gravenstein or Jonathans, he starts baking cobblers.”

A former law student who became a sustainable farmer because he was concerned about the state of our food supply, Rasmussen says apples you find in supermarkets are valued for appearance more than flavor. “Commercial farmers are told apples have to look perfect when they’re lined up in the display case. They’re picked unripe instead of being allowed to ripen naturally, because it’s more important they last 12 days on the shelf or up to a year in cold storage.”

So, that’s where all the good apples have gone. Now, how do we get them back?

“Pick them yourself right off the tree or, even better, from under the tree, wormholes, blemishes, and all,” Rasmussen says. “A ripe apple comes off the branch easily. When they fall off themselves they taste best. 

Chef Jeremy Manley. Photo by Edward Masterson

“A good farmer knows exactly the right moment to pick the apples. And it’s not for their good looks; it’s their aroma. If you can’t smell the fruit, it’s not ripe. And if you still can’t smell it by the time it makes its way to market, it’s in trouble.”

I laugh, as I think about my old house in Mar Vista, where every autumn, the best apples I’ve tasted since the good old days, weighed down the branches on my apple tree and made everyone on our block happy. Yes, Eve, apples do grow in suburbia …

If you do decide to become a suburban apple farmer, Rasmussen suggests feeding them compost and manure instead of fertilizer.  And plant clover and grass underneath the trees. “What I love most is when an orchard is small enough so the farmer is connected to his fruit. As in cooking, I think a farmer’s love comes through to his produce.”

You can also find excellent apples at farmers markets. Make friends with the farmer who grew them. You can ask him all the questions you want.

“Julian is famous for their smaller, sweeter apples such as McIntosh, Pippins, Jonathans and Red Delicious,” Manley said. “Some of the classic apples, such as Red Delicious, don’t ship well. You may not believe this, but a Red Delicious really can be delicious. But to get the best flavor, it must be left on the tree long enough for it to ripen. Since most commercial fruit is picked unripe, by the time Old Red makes it to the market, it’s flavor quotient is not only bland, it’s boring. And always mushy! Think about it. … When was the last time you had a delicious Red Delicious?”  

So, in honor of the High Holy Days, head to the nursery and bring home an apple tree. Virtually every Jewish holiday eulogizes the fairest of fruits. How about picking your apples from the tree and eating them for Tu b’Shevat; baking them inside hamantashen during Purim; making homegrown charoset for Pesach; dipping them in honey for Rosh Hashanah; breaking the fast with apple juice for Yom Kippur; tying them to the ceiling of your sukkah during Sukkot; serving homemade applesauce for Hanukkah. And remember what the Bible says in the Song of Solomon: “Comfort me with apples …” 

The following recipes are provided by Jeremy Manley, executive chef/owner of Jeremy’s on the Hill in Julian, Calif.:

APPLE COBBLER

APPLE FILLING

– 7 to 10 apples (Gravenstein, Early Mac and Jonathan) cut into small cubes
– 1/4 cup granulated sugar
– 1/4 cup brown sugar
– 1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
– Pinch of nutmeg
– Pinch of salt

Place apples, sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and salt in a glass or stainless steel bowl or zip-lock bag. Let sit in refrigerator for 1 to 3 days.

FLAKY BISCUIT CRUMB TOPPING

– 2 1/2 cups flour
– 2 teaspoons baking powder
– 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
– 1 small pinch salt
– 1/2 cup sugar
– 6 ounces butter at room temperature
– 1/2 cup buttermilk
– 2 tablespoons raw sugar

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Using your fingers, gradually mix in butter until it is evenly distributed. Slowly add buttermilk. Crumble mixture into small pieces.

Lightly butter a 13-by-10 1/2-inch pan. Place apple mixture in pan. Crumble topping over apple mixture and then sprinkle sugar over the top of cobbler to give it a nice shine. Bake for about 40 minutes, rotating halfway through cooking, until it is golden brown. Let cobbler sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Serves 10.

JULIAN HARD CIDER BRAISED SHORT RIBS

– 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (more if needed)
– 4 pounds of short ribs, cut in thirds
– 2 teaspoons kosher salt
– 1 teaspoon black pepper
– 1/4 jumbo white onion, cut into 2-inch dice
– 1 carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice
– 2 stalks celery, cut into 1/2-inch dice
– 6 cloves garlic, crushed with the side of knife
– 1 tablespoon celery seeds
– 1/4 cup flour
– 1 22-ounce bottle of hard cider
– 1 quart water
– 2 bay leaves
– 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
– 4 sprigs of thyme
– 1 bunch parsley stems

Preheat oven to 350 F.

In a large skillet over a high flame, heat oil until it is smoking. Season ribs with salt and pepper and place in skillet. Over moderate heat, cook ribs, turning once, until browned and crusty, about 18 minutes. You will create a firm coating on the outside of each short rib. Flip over and repeat on the opposite side. Remove short ribs from pan. 

Add vegetables, garlic and celery seeds to the skillet. Cook over low heat for one minute to flavor them. Remove from pan. Pour flour into pan and, after a minute, add hard cider to deglaze it, scraping flour and hard bits off the bottom. Add water to pan, along with bay leaves and mustard. Put short ribs and vegetables back into the pan.

Bring to a simmer. Add thyme and parsley stems to pan. Place in oven and braise for 90 minutes until meat is tender. Flip short ribs and cook 90 minutes more. The short ribs should be very tender, with the meat falling off the bones. If they are not, braise another 10 to 20 minutes. Transfer meat to plates, spoon sauce on top and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

APPLE PICO DE GALLO

– 2 sweet-tart apples such as Fuji, diced
– 1 red onion, diced
– 1 heirloom tomato, diced
– 1 teaspoon honey
– Pinch of salt
– Minced jalapeño pepper to taste

Combine ingredients and spoon into a glass or pottery container. Let sit for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator before serving.

This article is dedicated to my mother, Celia Levitt, who will celebrate her 100th birthday Oct. 12.

+