If it weren't for Peter Gideon, we might still be munching on crabapples, rather than the Haralson, Honeycrisp or SweeTango that Minnesota is known for.
In 1853, Gideon, a horticulturist, built a homestead on Lake Minnetonka, near Excelsior, and planted thousands of apple trees. Within a few years, all those non-hardy trees had succumbed to Minnesota winters, with the exception of a single Siberian crabapple.
Undaunted, Gideon bought seeds from sturdier stock from a grower in Maine. The new seed, crossed with his Siberian crabapple, resulted in a cultivar that became Minnesota's first claim to apple fame. Gideon named the fruit Wealthy, after his wife (and yes, that's an odd first name). By the turn of the century, the Wealthy apple was among the top five apples grown nationally.
And here we reach a moment almost biblical in the telling of its lineage: Wealthy joined with the Malinda apple and begat the Haralson apple, which was developed at the apple-breeding program at the University of Minnesota's Horticultural Research Center and was put on the market in 1922. The Haralson later begat the Honeygold in 1966 (the Golden Delicious had a little something to do with that, too, as one of its "parents").
Joan Donatelle tells the story — and more — in "Astonishing Apples," the next volume in the Northern Plate recipe-oriented series from the Minnesota Historical Society Press (175 pages, $17.95). Her cookbook gives a brief nod to the sweet side of apple use (with recipes for Honey Apple Crème Brûlée and an Umbrian Apple Roll, among them) and steers more toward the savory use of the fruit, in recipes such as Apple and Bacon-Stuffed French Toast, and Roasted Apples and Roots.
Donatelle, who has worked for Lunds & Byerlys for more than a decade, still loves apples after developing more than 130 recipes that feature them (99 of them found in the book).
"I'm very excited for this harvest season," she said with true enthusiasm, one apple orchard already under her belt.
Q: What's the intrigue about the apple?
A: It's fascinating, for one thing. Everyone knows that apples are good for you. But we kind of take them for granted. We forget they are a super food. I love to say it's a super food among us because we look for all these exotic super foods from far away, but we have some of the best apples in the world produced right here. Scientific evidence is coming forward all the time proving that apples are good for us.
The apple is part of the rose family and dates back hundreds of thousands of years to the oldest civilizations. Throughout history, in many cultures and religions, there are references to apples. It's deep-seated in our collective knowledge. Everyone loves apples; we can all relate to them. There are thousands of varieties produced in the U.S., but we generally think of a half-dozen varieties.
Q: What insight can you offer for cooking with apples, beyond apple pie?
A: Some apples cook down and are very soft. They may be great for sauce, but may not be as good if you want to retain any texture. That's the main difference. Apples bred today have much higher sugar content than long ago. Old recipes I looked at needed much more sugar than they do now because those apples were less sweet. Today you don't need as much sugar as you used to. In Minnesota, people like their apples crisp and their pears soft, and out East a lot of people like their apples soft and pears crisp. It's interesting how we have our regional preferences.
Q: Are cooks confused about types of apples?
A: People get a bit hyper about what kind of apple to use for a particular dish. You can substitute apples, but the main thing for nutrition is to include the peel. It gives more color and visual interest, too. In some of the book's recipes, the peel would get in the way in the dish, so I recommend peeling the apples. I tried to use as many Midwestern ingredients as I could, from wines, cheeses and ciders. The recipes definitely have a feeling of fall to them because that's when the local orchards have all the great apples. Some of the Minnesota apples will last through January.
Q: Are there any Minnesota cultivars that you lean on?
A: Honeycrisp, of course; that's our state apple. Different cultivars come in different parts of the season. Sweet Sixteen is a favorite of mine. SweeTango, of course. SnowSweet is very nice, but I haven't found it in many places. It comes out in October, and the flesh stays very white and doesn't oxidize; it's good on a cheese plate. Haralson is a great standard for pies. Prairie Spy is less available.
Q: Any tales of apple picking that you can share?
A: For the past two years, for the cookbook testing, we picked apples every weekend at a different orchard. Last year we went to Italy in the midst of this. When I came back, my car smelled like apples until January. It was like an air freshener.
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