Apples are everywhere in my kitchen right now: tumbling out of a bowl on the counter, crammed into the refrigerator crisper, stuffed into my pockets as I head out for a walk.
Our farmers markets are a source of wonderful local varieties that are only in season now. A good apple is a balance of complex flavors, the tart and the sweet. As the season progresses, the apple’s character is prone to change and the tastes become more distinct. Once picked, as the starch turns to sugar, most apples will sweeten a bit.
Fresh apples also will brighten a range of foods — sharp aged cheeses, cured meats, smoked fish. When choosing an apple for cooking, consider the variety best up to the task. What’s most important is whether an apple is the sort that keeps its shape or one that melts into a sweet, fragrant sauce. The drier the apple (such as Keepsake and Regent) the more likely it will be to retain its texture when cooked. The juicier and crisper the apple (think Honeycrisp, SweeTango and Zestar), the more likely it will be to collapse. When I’m making applesauce or baking a pie or a tart, I like to use a mix of each.
Thanks to the University of Minnesota’s robust apple program, there are more than 18 local varieties to choose from, each worth a taste. Find the list — along with flavor profiles and cooking properties — at mnhardy.umn.edu.
All apples are best stored in plastic bags in the refrigerator, away from carrots and cut onions, and will keep nicely for several weeks. To avoid loss of flavor, bring apples to room temperature before eating or using fresh in a salad or on an appetizer plate.
Rustic Apple, Shallot, and Manchego Tart
This free-form tart gets a savory twist with shallots, cheese and fresh thyme. It’s delicious served warm with a simple salad for lunch, or as a side to roast chicken or pork. From Beth Dooley.
• 1 1/2 c. flour, plus more for rolling dough
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 8 tbsp. (1 stick) very cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
• 3 to 5 tbsp. ice water
• 2 large apples, cored and sliced
• 1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
• 1/4 c. finely diced manchego or Gruyère cheese
• 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
• 1 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into bits
• 1 to 2 grinds black pepper
• 1 sprig thyme for garnish
To prepare the crust: Whisk together the flour and salt. With a pastry cutter, two knives or your fingers, work the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles small peas. Toss in 2 tablespoons of the ice water and keep adding more, a tablespoon at a time, until you have a chunky mixture. Gather and shape the dough into a disk about 1 inch thick, cover with plastic and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Remove the pie dough from the refrigerator and allow it to soften a bit. On a lightly floured surface, using a lightly dusted rolling pin, roll out the dough into a circle about 12 inches across. Gently lift the dough and set on the parchment-lined baking sheet.
To prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, toss together the apples, shallot, cheese and thyme. Pile the filling onto the dough. Dot the filling with the butter and a grind or two of pepper. Fold the edges of the dough over the filling so it covers most, but not all, of the apples (you want the filling to peek through). Cover the tart lightly with a piece of aluminum foil.
Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the crust is lightly browned and the apples are tender, about 20 minutes. Garnish with the sprig of thyme and serve warm or at room temperature.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.