Apple season brings sweet memories of pies cooling on the windowsill and apple crisps bursting with flavor. Just biting into a Gala or Rome Beauty variety evokes the familiar tastes of fall — especially in Henderson County, where 5,000 acres of trees makes it the top apple-producing county in the state, and seventh in the country.
Here, beginning Labor Day weekend with the annual North Carolina Apple Festival, the fruit reigns supreme.
More and more, local chefs are taking these traditions to the next level with apple dishes that go beyond cobbler or skillet pie. They are moving the humble apple into modern cuisines that push the boundaries of this fall staple.
Kimchi may not be a longstanding Appalachian dish, but Jason Reasoner — executive chef at Postero in Hendersonville — says his apple-based version of the pungent Korean condiment is right at home in barbecue country.
“I do an apple kimchi that I use as a topper for slow-cooked pork belly,” explains Reasoner. “It’s almost a play on slaw with barbecue, but it’s taking more of an international approach to it.”
Chili peppers take the place of the black pepper that is so integral to eastern Carolina ’cue; tangy fermentation stands in for vinegar. Adding apples to the mix brings this global dish one step closer to Hendersonville’s culinary traditions.
Postero also cycles through recipes for chow-chow, a type of Southern relish, highlighting the season’s fresh vegetables. This year, Reasoner is considering adding apples to his fall chow-chow.
“I’d really like to use either some Fuji apples, Honey Crisp, or Gala apples to shift that dish as we come into fall,” he says. “I think an apple chow-chow would be fantastic on some wood-grilled pork chops.”
Varietals are the spice of life
Marvin Owens is the director of the Henderson County Cooperative Extension and the apple agent for the region. He says the apple festival is more than a street fair — it’s also a chance to taste the newest apple varieties.
The festival’s taste test features six different varieties each day, some brand-new, selected by Owens and volunteers from the extension’s Master Pomology program.
Owens notes that the Galas always do very well, but that Honey Crisps “win hands down every year.” But he likes an older variety called Wolf River. It’s not an ideal eating apple, but it’s excellent for baking, dehydrating, and making chutney.
Why are older apple varieties making a comeback when new ones are bred each year? “People are interested in the way things were back in the day,” says Owens.
Old made new
Traditional apple varieties intrigue chef John Fleer of Rhubarb in Asheville. He was named one of the “Rising Stars of the 21st Century” by the James Beard Foundation, but his approach melds modern sensibilities with longstanding culinary traditions.
“I do see the appeal of some of the new varietals that are super sweet and super crispy, but I’ve gotten a little more old-fashioned in my taste for apples,” he says.
For Fleer, the key is finding a variety that can hold up to the heat of his wood-fired oven. The apple must be firm enough to stand the stress of cooking by flame.
Wood-roasted apples can be found alongside clams served in cider broth with hints of Benton’s bacon. Rabbit-leek rillette is served with apple-ginger mostarda; a spicy apple chutney takes full advantage of firm Mutsu apples.
“There’s something kind of magical about smoke and apples,” says Fleer.
Chef Jesse Roque of Never Blue in Hendersonville always looks to apples when planning her fall desserts.
“We made an apple crisp last year with a cinnamon buttermilk ice cream and bourbon caramel sauce,” says Roque, “and it was delicious.”
Roque used local Granny Smith apples from Stepp’s Hillcrest Orchard in Hendersonville, where anyone with a basket can pick nearly two dozen varieties each autumn.
Those halcyon days in the orchard continue to influence chef Jason Reasoner of Postero.
“I feel pulled to use apples because I grew up in Henderson County and in apple orchards, running around like a crazy little guy,” he recalls. “I’m still drawn to them.”
Harvest season runs from late August to late October, and many varieties are harvested around Labor Day weekend. The N.C. Apple Festival happens September 4-7 this year. Visit www.ncapplefestival.org for a complete list of activities.