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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Autumn means apples

With Autumn upon us, my thoughts have turned to the ingredients of the season. I've been cooking pork roasts, making beef stew, chili, and other heartier fare. With the days getting shorter, I've also been getting a bit nostalgic, remembering the change of seasons when Kimberly and I lived in Connecticut.

When the first autumn of our married life rolled around, Kimberly and I went apple picking and, of course, that involved buying plenty of freshly pressed apple cider. We drank cider until you could just about see the delicious, rich, thick, brown liquid sloshing around in our eyes . All fall, we would buy locally produced cider in the grocery store, drinking it straight or mulled it and drinking it hot.

All that cider put me in mind of a vacation that my family had taken to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, back when I was a teenager. One of the fond memories of that trip was buying cider from an Amish family that were selling it at a roadside stand. We were staying in a pop-up camper that had a tiny refrigerator, so the cider never got refrigerated as it would have if we had been at home. A couple days after we had purchased the cider, the plastic jugs containing it had gotten a bit distended from carbon dioxide given off by the wee beasties that were doing their divinely ordained work of fermentation. When we drank that cider, it was extra-crisp and delightfully fizzy. (For those of you who might be shaking your heads and saying "tisk, tisk," at the notion of a teenage boy drinking this cider, the alcohol content was also very low, probably less than one percent.)

Anyhow, during that New England fall when Kimberly and I were newlyweds, I decided to make some hard cider, adding a bit of yeast to one of the cider jugs and replacing the screw-cap with a balloon, so that I could monitor the level of fermentation and allow the gas to escape. Each day, the balloon would magically inflate and each night, I would let the carbon dioxide to escape, until, one day, the process stopped. The alcohol content was high enough and/or the sugar content was low enough that the yeast just gave up and died. Now, I had hard cider that was worth the name.
I filtered the cider through an old t-shirt and put the clear, amber liquid back in a clean jug, but the process was only partway finished. During the colonial era, hard cider was often distilled into applejack by the process of freeze distilling, rather than by the better-known evaporation method. In freeze distilling, the water in the hard cider freezes before then alcohol, so the spirit can be drained off. Fortunately, the weather was cooperating that the temperatures had dropped below freezing, so I wrote my name and apartment number on the jug with a sharpie marker and set it outside to freeze during the night.

In the morning, I went out and found just what I had hoped for: slush at the top of the jug, with liquid below. I brought the jug in, poked a hole in the bottom with a knife, and caught the liquor in another container. With great anticipation, I tasted the applejack. It was definitely appley and certainly had a kick, but the flavor was a bit off, probably because I had used regular bread yeast instead of a brewer's or winemaker's yeast. The rest of the applejack went down the sink and I never got around to trying to make it again.

Fast forward to the present.

Just a few weeks ago, my family went apple picking at Prospect Hill Orchards in Milton, NY. It was a warm, sunny day and we quickly filled our buckets with enough apples for our family plus several buckets full of apples for my wife to give away at the Shade Tree Commission's table at the borough's "River Edge Day." We drank apple cider and enjoyed cider doughnuts before coming back home.

When I began planning the menu for the week, I knew that I wanted to cook with some of our fresh-picked apples. Having gotten somewhat tired of the salmon and potatoes recipe that is one of our regular grocery-night dinners, I decided to reprise a French fish recipe that I haven't made in years.

The recipe couldn't be easier and tastes great with flaky-yet-crisp fish and tangy-sweet apples:

French Fish with Apples
4 firm white fish fillets (I used tilapia, which worked well. Sole is too flimsy.)
6 apples of your favorite variety (I used six different kinds, just on principle.)
2 eggs, beaten
flour for dredging
4-6T butter
panko (Japanese bread crumbs) for dredging
juice of one lemon
2T apple brandy (Calvados is typical. I used Laird's Applejack, which made in New Jersey and is the original colonial era producer of the product.)
salt
pepper

Peel and core the apples. In a large skillet, melt 2-3T butter over medium heat. Add apples and cook, turning occasionally, until apples begin to brown, approximately 15 minutes. Transfer pan to warm oven.

Rinse and pat dry the fish fillets. In second skillet, melt 2-3T butter over medium-high heat. Add salt and pepper, to taste, to flour and dredge fish filets in mixture, then in egg, then in panko. Place in pan and cook for 4-5 minutes, until fish is mostly cooked. Turn and cook for a few minutes more until fish is done.

Remove apples from oven and mix in lemon juice and brandy. Spoon apples over fish and serve immediately.

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