Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


What to do with little green apples


There’s a lyric in a song that I could look up if I felt like it.  You’ve probably heard it if you’re of a certain age or if, like me, you grew up with parents who listened to Oldies radio.  It says “God didn’t make little green apples.  And it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.”

Well, I live not too far from Indianapolis, and it’s steadily and beautifully raining at my house right now, on the almost-last-day of June.  And I’m not interested in debating theology, but I can tell you without question that little green apples start popping up at farmers’ markets and produce stands in my part of the country just about this time each year.

Where I grew up, they were called simply “June apples.”  Where I live now, they are labeled “Lodi apples” or “Transparents.”  From what I can figure out, “June apples” might be any of two or three different varieties, but Lodis are a cross between Transparents and something else, which makes them crisper, greener, and generally a little nicer than Transparents.  Transparents tend to be more yellow when they’re ripe. Honestly, I think they’re all delicious, and you can fix them all in just the same way.  If they are green-ish early-summer apples that cook down to applesauce, they count, in my book.

There is a little lady who tends a stand at the outer edge of my farmers’ market.  She is 80 years old.  They made the spot special for her, she says, so that she could come and sell without having to carry her produce too far.  She can back up her truck right to the edge of her spot, pop open her umbrella, turn on her smile, and be ready to go.  She is always the first to bring apples to the market.  A couple of weeks ago, I asked her how much longer I would need to wait, and she said, “Oh, they’re about this big yet, but they’ll grow fast with all this rain.”  Her twisted fingers made a circle the size of a half dollar.  I bought from her a little withered bunch of radishes and told her I’d be watching for those apples.  “You save me some,” I told her.   She smiled, and she said what she always does: “Not too many folks knows what to do with them apples, but those that does loves them.”

Well, I am one of those that does.  And I made sure to get to the market not long after the opening bell rang this Saturday in the hopes that the apples would be waiting.  I parked as near to my favorite little lady as I could, and from well away, I could see a little box heaped high with something round and pale. Oh, yes. They were apples.  I thought I hope that’s not all she has!  And then I saw, this, tucked below her table:

A half bushel of little green apples

A half bushel of little green apples

She sold me the whole half-bushel box for $15 and kept it hidden under her table until I’d finished all my shopping and come back to fetch it.  Then she offered to carry it to my car, if you can believe it!  She said, “I think toting around all these things is what keeps me going.  I’m 80 years old, you know.”  (I did know because she tells me that almost every time I speak with her!  She’s proud to be 80 and so strong.) Admittedly, I think I was a little emotional that morning, but she almost made me cry because then she said, “That and knowing there’s young people like you that knows what to do with them apples.”

Well, by the time I’d hefted my big box of little apples to the van, I’d already half-responded to three different people who asked me what in the world you do with those little green apples.  Make them into pies?  They don’t taste like much, do they?  I don’t know how anybody eats those things.

So, just in case you see some ostensibly crazy person carrying a big box of little green apples, let me save you the trouble of asking by telling you what do with my little green apples. It’s just what my mom did with hers and I’m sure what my grandma did, too.  In a place short on ancestral wisdom, I’m especially happy to have this bit.

“Fried Apples” (Tart Summer Applesauce)

A big pile of little green apples (enough to make about 8 cups, sliced)

Butter (I use about 1/4 cup, but you could get by with less if you wanted to)

Sugar (between 2/3 and 1 cup, probably, but all apples are different, so you’ll just have to taste them, darn it.  And taste them…and taste them…until you get it right.)

1. Rinse, slice, and core your apples.  Put them in a big bowl of water to keep them from turning brown.  If your apples will be hanging out in the water for a long time, it’s probably a good idea to squeeze a little lemon juice in there, too. If you’re working quickly, then just regular water will work.


2. Melt your butter in a big heavy pan over medium-high heat.  Drain and rinse your apple slices.  Then shake as much water out of the colander as you can.


3. Add the apples to the hot butter and mostly cover the pan.  (I broke the glass lid to my pan years ago in a popcorn-related accident, so I just put a baking sheet on top.  I like the way this one mostly covers the pan but allows some moisture to escape.)



The goal is to allow the apples to break down and to begin caramelizing.  After a few minutes, I’ll stir them and then mostly cover them again.


And then a few minutes later, I’ll stir them and mostly cover them again.


See how they are breaking down?

When they look like this, it’s time to turn down the heat.


That browned stuff on the bottom of the pan means the sugars are turning to caramel. I scrape it up so it won’t burn and then turn the heat down to low.

When they look like this, it’s time to add the sugar.


(Always go light at first and then add more if you need it.)  Don’t stir the sugar in.  Let it caramelize on top and trickle down to the bottom to turn golden.  Mostly cover the pan again and leave it alone for a few minutes.  Then stir it in and taste. Keep adding sugar (as necessary) and cooking it, over very low heat, uncovered, until you have a beautiful, caramelly applesauce with small bits of apple and peel.


The resulting sauce is fantastic warm with homemade biscuits for breakfast, warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert, cooled and then used as filling for fried pies (or “hand pies” as they are called around here), or, very simply, hot or cold with just a spoon, any time of day.


Now, you may still be thinking you’re still not sure a full half bushel of these apples sounds advisable.  I mean, how much applesauce can one family eat? And it’s true a half bushel is a lot of apples.  (And my little lady has promised to set aside another half bushel for me for next week, too!)


My apple processing system. Not only am I freezing lots of apples, I’m feeding my compost bin!

 I probably should mention that they don’t keep well, either–not like autumn apples.  Unrefrigerated, these will turn mushy in just a few days.  I suppose I could make the applesauce and can it, but I don’t like canning.  (It’s inconvenient that canning requires one to spend lots of time over a hot stove when the outdoors already feel like a steam bath.)  I just slice the apples and freeze them in 1-gallon bags.  That’s the perfect size to cook up a batch of fried apples on cold Saturday mornings in the winter.


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Quick Summer Soup

Whoever invented Daylight Saving Time was delusional.  Somehow, at my house, summer days are almost shorter than winter ones. Maybe it’s because we lack a solid schedule to hold us in our rightful slots.  With my husband and all three kids at home, every hour of the day swirls and bubbles past.  I sometimes think we need to install seatbelts on the sofas, so that we can get the kids to hold still just for one hot minute and watch some cotton-pickin’ television for crying out loud!  Then time could pleasantly slow and stretch and yawn and maybe we could all consider, during commercials or while the closing credits roll, in a rational way, whether there’s something we would like to do besides frantically scurry around, going in and out the back door, tracking in sand and cut grass, smearing peanut butter on the glass doors, and complaining that someone else “isn’t being nice!”

I’ve painted a picture that is far less pretty than the truth, I think.  For the most part, the maniacs play together in highly creative and minimally violent ways–indoors and outdoors in various states of innocent undress.  From time to time, I intervene to force someone to apologize for offenses he or she may or may not have committed.  But mostly, I just listen and watch them rush past, reminding them to wash their hands like they mean it or to put on their sunhats if they are going outside.

On good days and bad, though, time is short, and dinnertime sneaks up on me.  Even when I have a good plan (which I didn’t last week), I often look at the clock and realize that it’s too late for x, y, or z dish, unless we want to push back bedtime…and I can assure you that we do not want to push back bedtime.

In the interest of putting all of our sun-soaked children into their beds well before the summer sun sets, I share with you this quick soup that you can put together in a matter of 20 minutes, using the fruits of your early garden, the cans in your pantry, and/or your leftovers from the farmers’ market.

Summer Garden Soup


1 tablespoon of olive oil

1 onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, pressed

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

a good pinch of salt

4 cups of chicken or vegetable broth

2 cups of water

1 bunch of swiss chard greens (or spinach)

1 cup of sweet corn kernels (cut fresh from the cob or use good-quality canned corn)

1 summer crookneck squash or zucchini, cut into chunks

1 cup of small pasta (dried ravioletti add an extra burst of umami yumminess, but penne or corkscrews will do fine)

1.  Heat your olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat.

2. Saute your onions and garlic until soft and golden.  Then add your spices and salt and stir well to coat.  Allow the spices to become fragrant and toasty.


3. Add the broth and water and bring to a boil.

4. Add the pasta.  Simmer uncovered until about 5 minutes remain in the pasta’s cooking time.


5. Then stir in the vegetables and cook until they and the pasta are al dente.  Taste it.  It’s going to need salt, so salt it.


6. Serve topped with freshly grated Parmesan.


Now, feed those children and put them to bed!



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Last week’s menu

Last week, my kitchen was closed for remodeling.  Again.  Remodeling redux.

I don’t know whether you remember what it used to look like.  Heck, barely remember what it used to look like.  Here is a reminder:



Then, back in March, I painted the cabinets.  You can read about that saga here, if you have a lot of time to kill.


This is what it looked like in the middle of the painting process.


And this is what it looked like after the painting was finished.  Not bad, right?

Of course, you can’t see the floors in this picture.  That’s why I included the in-process photo above: so that you could, like everyone who has set foot in our house in the past two years, think What is up with those floors?  The answer is that we painted them.  We didn’t think it was going to look great, but we needed a quick-fix after we learned that the oak flooring lurking under the carpet we had pulled up couldn’t be refinished because it had been ruined however-many-decades-ago by a badly behaved dog (one with a truly impressive bladder capacity, I would add).  The painted floors were supposed to be a temporary fix.  I thought we would replace them last summer…but we didn’t.  And, right now, I’m glad we didn’t do it last summer because my brand new floors are beautiful and dimensional and rich and, well, brand new.  And they go straight through my kitchen.


I used to have ceramic tile in there.  It was unremarkable in every way…except for how badly it had been installed.  The people who did it actually tiled around the kitchen island.  And, when they were finished, they just left a gap.  No molding or bit of trim to disguise it.  Just a gap to catch crumbs…and errant crayons (yes, it was that big) in perpetuity.  There was also a tile missing–just entirely missing–under the cabinets in the corner next to the stove, beneath the lazy susan.  A 2-inch square of subfloor.  You can only imagine what accumulated there.

Now, I have beautiful wood floors through the whole space.  Seamless.  And installed immaculately by my very own hunky carpenter who not only did all of the work but barely complained about the process.

Yes, I got rid of my kitchen island, but that’s a temporary problem.  My hunky husband is planning to build me a new one–customized to my very own specifications!  (Did that last sentence sound as giddy on paper as it did in my head?)  I also have a new pantry cabinet, retrofitted to my needs, to fill in the storage gap in the meantime.


You can see that the baseboards are still not quite 100% finished, but otherwise…Well, wow.  I know it’s almost sacrilegious to say this, and I’m really waiting to be struck dead for even thinking it, but: My kitchen feels almost too roomy!  You could dance in there, for Pete’s sake.  When I’m finished here, as a matter of fact, I think I’ll go do that.

We didn’t eat much last week, though.  When your sofas are jammed up against the refrigerator door, it’s difficult even to drink anything (though we did manage to avoid dehydration, narrowly).  But it was so worth it.


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Grilled Pizza

My air conditioner blows.  And I don’t mean that in a good way. When it’s hot outside, it’s hot inside, even while the decrepit thing grinds away, feebly blowing cool-ish air in our general direction.  I wish it would just give up the ghost and allow us to avoid the ambiguity of deciding whether or not to replace a unit that, strictly speaking, works.  Maybe I’ll get lucky this summer…on a day when it isn’t 106 outdoors and 87 (and climbing) indoors.

In the meantime, I do what I can to rest my oven during the hottest part of the day.  That’s no small accommodation: You know I love my oven and all the goodies that issue from it.  My handy, hunky husband has suggested that he should just build me an outdoor brick oven, and anyone who knows him–and/or anyone who has seen the various wooden structures springing up in our backyard or heard the power tools whirring above the sound of the crickets, deep into the night–won’t doubt that he very well may do it.  But this summer, he’s busy.  He’s installing new flooring in our house, building a treehouse for the kids, and planning an outdoor shower, complete with hot & cold water, a drainage system to funnel greywater to the garden, and an elaborate cedar enclosure, the structure of which has yet to be determined.  (I only wish it were possible to construct a new air conditioning unit out of cedar and sheer ingenuity!)

In the meantime, we’ve got to eat–especially since all that constructing and contrapting really works up an appetite!  Fortunately, I have a few assets to enlist in this battle: a competent grill, a fair amount of culinary inventiveness, and a warm kitchen–which, to put a happy spin on a sweaty situation, makes for a fast-rising ball of dough.  Combine those three and you have grilled pizzas just waiting to happen.  I should probably also add to my list of assets a big pot of basil growing like crazy on the patio, three steps from the grill:


My “technique,” on the other hand, is not an asset.  I lack the wrist skills to slide the thin disks onto and off of a hot grill or oven without tearing or folding them in the process.  Fortunately, I know a work-around, so stay tuned.  If you’re feeling adventuresome (or tired of being sweaty and cooped up in your kitchen), give these summer pizzas a try…

Grilled pizzas

Step 1: Prepare your dough


I made a sourdough using…

1 cup of starter

1/2 cup warmish water

1 teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of sugar

~2 cups of all-purpose unbleached flour.

Whisk the starter with the water and then use a big wooden spoon to incorporate the dry ingredients.  Start with 1 1/2 cups of flour and then add in another 1/2 cup if you need it to encourage the dough to form a ball.  You can use your muscles, your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or just your hands to bring it all together. Then coat it with olive oil and let it rise.  In my warm kitchen, it takes only a couple of hours.  If you want to fix it in the morning, just pop it in the fridge for the day to slow the rise and then get it out before step 2.

(No sourdough?  Use 1 cup of water, 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and 2 1/2 to 3 cups of flour. Same procedure.)

Step 2: Divide the dough into three parts


Let them rise on a very floury surface, covered with a tea towel, for about an hour. (Maybe 2 hours if your dough has been refrigerated or if you are working in a kitchen that isn’t summery warm.)

Step 3: Heat your grill to about 400 degrees, and get all of your toppings ready.  That means chopping up plenty of whatever you want to go on your pizzas and grating your cheeses.  You will not have time to chop or grate once they start cooking, so don’t plan to multitask.  On a hot grill, your pizzas will move along quickly.  I had a hard time taking pictures they’re so quick.  Be prepared!


Step 4: Spread one well-oiled ball of your dough onto a pizza-sized pan.  (This is the step that is key to making successful grilled pizzas, when you aren’t a dough-slinging expert.)  You can use a rolling pin or just your hands, but be sure your dough is coated with oil, so that it won’t stick to the pan.  You’re going to need it to cooperate with you very shortly.  Now put the pan directly onto the grill.


Step 5: Let the dough set up on the pizza pan for just 2-3 minutes, until it is firm enough to move around without tearing.  Then move the dough to the grill grates to char on the bottom.  Use a second pizza stone, baking pan, or cookie sheet that will fit your grill to get a second dough ball ready.  You’ll have room for a second one in just a minute. The objective is to repeat the process with all three dough balls, in a staggered fashion.  (You probably won’t have room on your grill for all three at once anyway.) I told you that you wouldn’t have time to chop and grate once things got going, didn’t I?

Step 6: Flip your dough so that the other side can char.  Now go ahead and top your pizza.  Go lightly here.  If you put too much stuff on top, it’s impossible to get the cheese melted before the crust burns.  Leave it on the grill grates for just a couple of minutes, and then move it back to the pizza pan where it started.  This will keep the bottom from burning.  (By the way, when I tell you to move the pizzas around, you can use any tool you like.  A pizza peel works great, but a spatula and a hot mitt do the trick, too!)


Step 7: Put your second disk of pizza dough on your second baking sheet onto the grill next to the first one, where your first pizza is beginning to look pretty dang tasty.  After this dough has set, you’ll need to remove the pan from beneath it in order to have room to char it.  (Unless you have a monster grill, in which case, you can figure out your own system, you lucky dog.) Char it, flip it, top it, and then slide it back onto the pan and put the pan back on the grill.

Step 8: When your first pizza is done, you’ll have room for the third one.  If your pizzas don’t get melted enough on top to suit you (all that opening and closing the grill can be bad for melting cheese) pop them under your broiler for just a minute.  I assure you that the dough will be plenty baked, so all you need to do is finish off the melt.

I was nervous the first time I made this because the crust was pretty charred in some spots, and I figured the kids would all snarl and declare the black spots to be burnt and inedible.  But they loved the charred crust.  They actually preferred the black zones to the unblackened ones: go figure!

In any case, be fearless.  Thin crust, a hot grill, and a sense of adventure is all you really need to make something that looks and tastes like it came from the brick oven in at your favorite up-scale pizzeria…or the one my hunky husband is imagining in my backyard.