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