There are more than 7,500 kinds of apples out there and now is the time to eat them. I've got a few ideas for how!
Apple season officially starts sometime in late August, but it's around this time of year when they really come into their own as the summer's stone fruits and berries start to disappear. Thanks to cold storage we can generally get locally grown apples all year long, but purists (like me) feel their texture is snappiest and flavors best right at harvest time. This is also the best time of year to explore some of the unique heritage varieties that are not grown on a large commercial scale but are easy to score at farmers' markets and U-Pick orchards for the next month or so. Why settle for a plain-Jane Red Delicious, McIntosh, or Empire when you can stock up on specimens with cool names like Barnack Beauty, Bloody Ploughman, and Byfleet Seedling (and that's just a few of the B's!).
Some varieties—the Annurca, for example, which hails from Campania, Italy, and dates back to the 16th century, or the Ballyfatten, an Irish varietal that can be traced back to 1740—are very old, while others are relatively new. The New Zealand Envy, a Royal Gala and Braeburn hybrid, was created in 2009, while the Autumn Glory, a cross between the Fuji and the Golden Delicious, was invented by growers in Washington's Yakima Valley in 2011. Don't be put off if these heirloom apples aren't quite as large or perfectly unblemished as their supermarket counterparts; it may take an extra minute to peel them, but what they lack in superficial perfection they generally make up for in taste.
Of course, apples make for great snacks: they're portable, they satisfy your sweet tooth, and a medium-size apple has around 50 to 80 calories, so they're pretty much guilt free. There's also a reason for the saying "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." Loaded with antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, apples have been linked to all sorts of health benefits, including lower LDL (bad cholesterol); reduced risk of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease; and improved brain function. I'm partial to Pippins (they have a really nice tangy crunch and I eat them raw, with almond butter or cheese, and baked), and Jade loves Pink Ladys. I like to cut some up to go along with her pancakes in the morning.
Other apples are ideal for cooking. Granny Smiths are a go-to for baking because they're firm and tart and can stand the heat—in fact, Granny Smiths are one of the most versatile apples and I use them for just about everything. They're great on their own, in sandwiches and salads; cook them down with some sugar and spices to make a chutney to go with your pork roast; or slice them thin for a tart, textured garnish. I do like to branch out every once in a while and I find that Honeycrisp (super sweet, super crisp) and Pink Lady (crunchy and balanced) are great for baking as well. I use Honeycrisp in my Sausage, Spinach, and Apple Strata and for my Salty-Sweet Apple Hand Pies, I use a mix of Pink Lady and Granny Smith. Since there are so many apples to choose from these days (including wild apples, which are often completely different varieties born of random cross-pollination!), I definitely encourage you to experiment with. If you're at the farmers' market, go ahead and ask the farmer about those varieties you don't recognize. Let him or her know what you're planning to make and try something new. Why not? You might discover a personal favorite.