From Blossom to Plate
I’ve become reacquainted with apple trees this fall. The reunion has been splendid. It’s been a singular celebration of what the apple harvest signifies. The long season of the apple is not without its perils, but the reward is a simple pleasure. The six month growth of the apple through their slow maturation during a long summer can be challenged by too much heat, too little rain, harmful bugs and damaging, high winds.
On a bike ride that cool, bright fall day when I rested at the picnic table under the apple trees behind the City’s Botanical Gardens, I thought how the long journey of the apples is similar to the process of food preparation and eating solo. Sometimes a meal is delightfully perfect and sometimes something unforeseen or frustrating comes up during the process. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t be overwhelmed. We have all had delicious successes and puzzling failures. Let’s take this bit by bit.
The apple trees also remind me that we should start with what we know. The fruit-filled canopies of those trees brought me back to the two apple trees and two pear trees in the yard of my childhood home. We would climb up to pick fruit with a canvass pack slung over our shoulder and a long pole with a wire basket at the end to snag the apples. My Mom would can applesauce and preserve it for the winter, a soothing reminder during the frigid Wisconsin winter of those crisp fall days in the trees. My Mom is now Grandmother to 11 spirited young people, who request “Grandma’s applesauce” for every family gathering.
Each individual apple is a crispy delight on its own but it couldn’t have come to fruition on that sturdy tree without the pollination of the bees, the sustenance of the rain, the nutrients from the soil, and crucially, the farmer of the orchard. There is a detailed expertise to knowing how to plant, grow and trim the trees so they bear the most beneficial fruit.
That is how we are going to approach cooking for one. I will present the pieces, that all interconnect, for successful meal preparation. I’m not going to simply focus on recipes because I think the craft and finesse of eating solo is more fundamental: it’s knowing what kitchen equipment to have on hand so a meal comes together with ease; it’s building the inventory of groceries on your shelves to form the backbone of many meals; it’s knowing how to strategically shop for food including taking advantage of prepared items, in different forms; it’s eating out with confidence. So ultimately, it is knowledge of ingredients and their versatility and of fundamental preparation techniques.
Start with the kinds of food you enjoy and expand from there. Whether it is tacos or pastas or stir fries that are your favorites, you can strategically shop and stock your kitchen to weave those favorite flavors into your meals. Start with the flavors you know.
So when I went to the apple orchard with my 12 year old nephew and two of my sisters, I knew I would take too many apples home even though I cook for one. All we could smell while we were walking through the orchard was apples! I know that most apples store well, in the fruit drawer of the refrigerator, especially since I knew they were super fresh.
On an evening when I want a simple bite, I can slice an apple and a block of Cheddar cheese and enjoy those with crackers and summer sausage. I can slice an apple into a spinach salad with cucumber, walnuts, and drizzle it with a poppy seed dressing or balsamic vinaigrette. I can add chopped apples into a grain salad like quinoa with sunflower seeds. I can dollop some of that applesauce I made, in homage to Mom, onto my instant oatmeal. Warm up the applesauce in the microwave for ten or twenty seconds and it will smell like apple pie when it hits the warm, grainy oatmeal. Lightly sprinkle the top with cinnamon or nutmeg. Herein is the process of the craft and finesse of cooking for one.
To make applesauce
Peel four apples with a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Cut apples into medium chunks. Don’t worry about the chunks being exactly the same size; they will soften as they turn into applesauce. Drop the apples into a medium sized pan with about one cup water, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. If you plan to use the applesauce over several days, add 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar or lemon juice to keep the apples from browning.
Turn the burner to medium heat and place pan with apples onto the burner. When you hear the water start to sizzle, stir the apples. Watch the apples to be sure there is always a slight bit of liquid on the bottom of the pan. Stir often. Turn down the heat a bit so they don’t burn. You want a small amount sizzling but not a lot. Turn the heat off when you reach the desired texture. Sometimes I like some chunks still intact or it can be cooked into a smooth sauce. Often it won’t need any sweetener, so taste and add a touch of sugar, maple syrup or honey to taste. Sprinkle with cinnamon, if you like.