"So ... you must like apples."
As opening lines go, it's quite an understatement. But that astute observation encapsulates the enthusiasm that permeates "The Apple Lover's Cookbook" (Norton, $29.95).
Author and lifelong apple lover Amy Traverso takes readers on a fascinating coast-to-coast journey, celebrating apples from New Mexico to Maine, Washington state to Massachusetts, and points in between. Just in time for apple season, the book also includes dozens of recipes that make delicious use of the world's third-most widely grown fruit (after bananas and grapes).
In a recent phone conversation from her Boston home, Traverso, food editor of Yankee magazine, discussed the apple's western Asia roots, the unexpected joys of apple pickling and her favorable opinion of the Minnesota-made SweeTango.
Q What is it about apples that makes them an easy introduction into local and seasonal cooking and eating?
A Apples grow in most regions of the country, and most people in those regions probably have at least one childhood memory of going apple-picking. It's an attachment, or a fondness, that gets planted in early childhood, and people build on that. Apple picking feels accessible, and it's a gateway for learning about local foods in your area.
Q You've profiled 59 apple varieties in the book, from the Ambrosia to the Zabergau Reinette. How did you choose which ones to spotlight?
A I wish I'd done a hundred. I worked on the book for 4 1/2 years, and I still regularly encounter apples that I've never seen before. There are roughly 2,500 varieties of apples being cultivated in this country, and 7,500 around the world, so there is a lot more to learn.
I wanted to make sure to include some of the better supermarket varieties, because that's what people have access to. Then I wanted to layer in antique varieties, like the Pink Pearl, and then layer in different parts of the country, to appeal to a broad geographic audience. An Arkansas Black will be familiar to a Southerner, and Californians will recognize the Sierra Beauty.
Q Were you as surprised as I was to discover that the apple originated in what is now Kazakhstan?
A I was so sure that there were apples here waiting for the first Europeans, so I was shocked to learn that they weren't native. Crabapples are, but not sweet apples. That's when I got hooked on the research piece of the book.
Q I see that you were married in an apple orchard. Did that happen before or after you signed your book contract?
A [Laughs.] The contract came after. I was a little obsessed about apples after the wedding, and my friend Joy suggested that there would be a place in the market for an apple book. It felt like kismet.
Q Apples often have such lovely names: Opalescent, Keepsake, Hidden Rose. Is that a draw for you, too?
A It speaks to a time when commerce was more wedded to poetry. People were looking to market apples, and to make a buck, of course, but they were also expressing something about the place where the apple came from, or the character of the grower. The golden age of apples in the 19th century was such a poetic time -- I wish we still thought of product names that way, we've lost that. Plus, there was so much local boosterism. Everyone wanted to get their town on the map, which explains names like the Roxbury Russet.
Q You've included a few Minnesota apples in the book. What's your opinion of the new SweeTango?
A I just ate a SweeTango in preparation for this interview [laughs]. It was very good. They were so smart about the release of that apple, it's like the Cabbage Patch Kid of apples, you know? Everyone wants them, but there's limited distribution. I guess Wal-Mart is distributing it. It's a Minnesota apple, shouldn't they have chosen Target? [Laughs.]
Q Can you offer an apple storage tip or two?
A You should keep them in a paper bag -- that ensures the right amount of humidity -- and store them in a cool cellar, somewhere where the temperature is in the low 50s. The next best place is in the produce drawer of the refrigerator, in a paper bag. Some apples are better keepers than others, but I've had apples last into March and still retain their quality.
Q Your large and varied number of recipes proves that the apple is a versatile cooking and baking ingredient. An apple bread-and-butter pickle, for example. Who knew?
A It was a very late addition to the book. I don't remember what sparked the idea. I was having a nice sweet/tart apple and I thought, why not a pickle? I started goofing around in the kitchen, and it just turned out so well. It has been the sleeper hit of the book.
Q Is it wrong of me that I want to make those Dutch Baby skillet pancakes every morning?
A No [laughs]. When I have overnight guests, I want to make them a nice breakfast, but I never have the forethought to make an overnight baked French toast, and I never want to get up early to make fancy pastries. This has all the wow factor, but you can make it fast, so you can sleep in and still make a nice breakfast. It's also got protein, so you're not crashing an hour later. They're a little like gougères, which are my single favorite food -- I could live on them. I should have made an apple gougère. Dammit [laughs]. I hope to revisit the book in a few years, and I'll have to include a recipe for one.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757