Apples, unlike their brethren, are winter's fruit. Most varieties are available from early fall through spring.
For all its taste, the apple family has a dirty little secret. The seeds contain cyanide. There's no real risk from a seed or two. But people have died from eating roasted apple seeds. Maybe Darwin was right.
Snow White learned not to eat an apple offered by a wicked stepmother. Adam learned that Eve wasn't a very selective shopper. Give an apple to a goddess, as Paris did to Aphrodite, and you might start a (Trojan) war.
But the apple's history isn't all bad news and misdeeds.
Without the apple, Isaac Newton might never have discovered gravity. If William Tell hadn't shot an apple off his son's head with an arrow, his overture would never have been composed. What would the Lone Ranger do?
What would teachers' pets give their teachers? What would America do without apple pie? Where would any of us be today if it weren't for apples? All right, I just went too far.
When it comes to eating, apples are like art. Even if you don't know anything about them, you probably know what you like.
For some, sweetness is the most important quality. For others, an apple has to be tart or it's no good.
No matter what kind of flavor you expect, an apple's texture is always important. Crisp means fresh. A bite into a fresh apple is one of winter's few juicy, nectar-laden treats. Bite into a mealy apple and a few expletives I'd have to delete come to mind.
Recently, I was able to buy 10 varieties of apples in one stop at my local Albertsons. A neighbor told me that it has a nice produce department. And it does. Its selection was great. I picked up two more varieties at Safeway. Its selection was almost as good as Albertsons. I got four varieties at the Roadrunner Farmer's Market (35th Street and Cactus). Surprisingly, AJ's Purveyor of Fine Foods had a very small, mundane selection.
In all, I taste-tested 18 apples, including 12 non-organic varieties. I was able to get organic apples in five of those 12 varieties (and I got organic Red Delicious from two sources).
If you want organic, I found Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Red Delicious and Fuji at the farmers' market. Albertsons had Gala and Red Delicious. Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats generally have a selection of organic apples as well.
I was surprised to find that the organic apples aren't as tasty as their chemically fertilized brethren. I had expected the opposite. The one exception is the Red Delicious I got at the farmers' market. It was the best of its variety.
My favorite apple is the Braeburn. Jonagold is a close second. Braeburn is crisp and juicy with almost equal amounts of sweet and tart -- a nearly perfect apple. Jonagold is very sweet, with just a hint of tartness. It's incredibly juicy.
Empire (which I found only at Safeway) ranges from medium to very dark red. It's juicy and sweet without tasting sugary. It has just a hint of tartness to round out all that sweet. Pink Lady is not too sweet, and not too tart. Its only drawback is a slightly starchy feel that distracts from its superior flavor.
McIntosh is a tart apple with a sweet finish. McIntosh is juicy and firm, but not too hard.
Like the judges in the Miss America Pageant, I rated only the top five contestants. But all of the contestants deserve an introduction.
The Rome apple is medium sweet and juicy. It's a nice average apple. The dark red skin on the Rome I tasted was a bit wrinkled. If the apple is firm, the wrinkling isn't necessarily a bad thing. The wrinkled skin reminded me of a passage in Tolkien's Return of the King, where a hungry Hobbit was fed "bread, butter, and apples: the last of the winter store, wrinkled but sound and sweet . . ."
The Gala apples were okay -- mildly sweet, but a bit too starchy for me. I know a lot of people who think Galas are great. I'm just not their biggest fan. Fuji apples also have a lot of fans. They're sweet and crunchy at their best. The organic ones I tried were watery.
The Red Delicious is a bit bland. If you're caught in a storm and in desperate need of an apple (for some reason) and a Red Delicious is all you can find, pull into that port. The skins can be a bit thick and bitter. Even a sweet juicy fruit is ruined by bitter skin.
Red's "Golden" cousin saves the "Delicious" name from ruin. Golden Delicious is crisp, sweet, mildly tart and full of juice -- an all-around good eating apple.
For cooking, Granny Smith is a safe bet. Granny is a little too tart for most people, but if you butter her up and toss her in a little sugar, she becomes a real sweetie pie. Granny also has a reputation for keeping her shape when baked.
Last, and actually least, is the crabapple. Generally considered too tart to eat off the tree, it is used in jams and jellies or for decorative purposes. This is the only apple I didn't taste at least twice.
There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples, but only about a hundred are grown commercially. Red and Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and the occasional Rome or McIntosh dominated the market until a few years ago. Thankfully, apple diversity has arrived.
If you ran out and bought some honey after reading my recent column ("Hive and Seek," December 30), put it to good use. Buy a few apples. Pick up some Brie (semi-soft French cheese) and a bottle of your favorite red wine. Warm the Brie in a 250-degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes. Cut the apples into thin wedges.
Spread an apple slice with a little warmed Brie and a drizzle of honey. Have a sip of wine. You've just started the millennium the right way - with taste.
Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]