Right around the middle of February we reach a point in the hard fruit season that often goes unnoticed in grocery stores throughout the country. This is the time of year when we find out if we have enough domestically produced, organically grown apples and pears in storage to make it until the fruit from the southern hemisphere starts to arrive. In the last few years this has not been a problem. Increased acreage in the U.S. Pacific Northwest has provided more than enough overlap for a seamless transition from the fall/winter domestic crop to the offshore imports of the spring and summer. This year is no different, but there are still some changes I make in how I buy (and store) apples.
Valentine's Day usually coincides with the last apples I buy from my local farmer's market - mid-February being about as far as you can go with regular cold storage fruit. The fruit is flavorful still but is often less crisp (even mushy). Storing apples longer requires precise harvest stages (that vary by variety) and exacting climate control that is difficult and expensive.
The key is respiration. As starches naturally convert to sugars, apples will take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide. To slow this process, growers in the Pacific Northwest and other large scale apple producing states use a method called Controlled Atmosphere (or CA) storage. This involves placing apples in large airtight rooms where the oxygen levels can be brought to near zero from the approximate 21% in the air we breathe. Humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide levels are also carefully monitored by variety and these rooms are opened at different times of the year depending on demand.This method works for some but not all apples. Early, less dense varieties like Macintosh do not store well under any circumstances. This is also true of varieties that owe their parentage in part to Mac-types. The hugely popular Honey Crisp is among those varieties that are better eaten at or shortly after harvest. Conversely, there are varieties that come off the tree very starchy that actually benefits from a stretch of time in storage, among these are the Pink Lady and Cameo.
One of many things we look for when inspecting apples out of storage is pressure. This is critical to insuring the apple is crisp for our customers. Fruit pressure and density will vary from variety too and varies according to size as well. Fruit size this year is uniformly larger, so pressure is something we are very careful about.My personal buying and storage habits change as we move into this time of year as well. If I am buying early harvest varieties like Gala, Delicious (red or gold), or even Braeburn, I will look for smaller sized fruit. I will also start putting some of my apples for the week in my refrigerator - keeping in my fruit bowl only those I know I will be eating in the next day or so. Fuji and Pink Lady varieties are the exception - both are denser apples and tend to have higher pressure (Pink Lady tends to size smaller as a variety anyway).February and March are difficult times for fruit in general. We start to lose some early citrus and berries are generally inconsistent until we get further into the spring. But thanks to the remarkable storage capabilities and range of production areas, apples will remain a part of my diet throughout the spring.Here's a simple but wonderful Apple Skillet Tart that I got from a friend. Give it a try.
3 small/ medium apples, skin and core removed and sliced long ways into ¼ inch thick slices
1/3 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
2 tablespoons chopped dried cranberries, cherries or raisins
Pinch of cinnamon to taste
One 12" frozen pie crust or sheet, slightly thawed (or homemade if you can do it - I cannot)
You'll need a skillet you can also use for baking in the oven. Preheat oven to 375°F. Start on your stovetop by melting your butter, cinnamon and brown sugar in the skillet. Remove from heat and add the chopped pecans and dried fruit, spreading them evenly to cover the entire bottom surface of the skillet. Hand place the apple slices on top of the nuts and dried fruit and then the pie crust on top of the apples. Place the entire skillet in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes until the crust is brown. Remove carefully and allow skillet to cool almost completely. Flip over on to a serving dish crust down and serve.Got a favorite late-season apple recipe? Let me know!Many thanks to Randy Davidson for contributing to this post.