While I peeled the apples for Apple Brown Betty recently (see recipe below), I had time to think about the food-related highs and lows of the past year.

What was my most disconcerting food experience of 2007? Three interactions with the industrial food system vie for first place.

We’re holding out for grape-sized apples.

Photo: Digital Visions

1) Last week I was in a large supermarket in Cambridge that shall remain nameless, and I saw some apples labeled as “grapples.” Now, I know what a grappling hook is, and I know what it means to grapple with an issue, but grapples? I looked at the label and discovered that these were grape-flavored apples.

“Did they cross-breed apples with grapes?” you are wondering. No. These apples have been shot through with artificial grape flavor. Yuck! At least it was done with apples and not oranges, because those would have to be called grunges. (I have actually been known to make grunge juice from time to time — mixing grape juice and orange juice. It’s pretty good, actually, and makes a good mixer for some truly déclassé cocktails. Just add vodka.)

2) While researching prices for the organic vs. conventional Thanksgiving article, my intern, Anna, and I visited the same supermarket where we saw the grapples.

Anna and I had just worked our way through the produce section and moved on to the dairy aisle when she stood still and gasped. “Look!” she said in a whisper, pointing to something on the top shelf of the dairy cooler.

I looked to the area where she was pointing and beheld a plastic bag full of precooked, pre-peeled hard-boiled eggs — evidently marketed to the can’t-boil-water crowd. The orbs were floating in some sort of opaque liquid. It was like looking at an alien egg pod. I was even more disturbed when I checked the expiration date: the eggs were nine days past their sell-by date! When we talked about the experience later Anna said, “I was aghast!” She was. She was the definition of aghast.

3) When I was in British Columbia last spring, someone showed me what looked like a Pantone set of color swatches, but all the colors were variations on the color of salmon flesh. It turned out that this was an ad for artificial beta-carotene additives that salmon farmers could add to their feed so that they could produce fish with the exact color of flesh their customers prefer.

Most transcendent moment in an organic garden

When I visited Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island last spring, I took a tour of the organic garden with Nichka Phillips. While showing me the herbs, she mentioned that the French use thyme in a tincture to treat respiratory ailments. I suddenly remembered the expression that I heard my father use all my life whenever the topic of healing came up — “Nothing heals as well as a tincture of time.” Might he really have been saying “a tincture of thyme“? It made me feel connected to him, even though he died a few years ago. The sense of feeling connected to someone I loved while standing in an aromatic garden in a beautiful place was completely lovely.

Most inspirational moments

Fortunately, these are many: Meeting and getting to know all the farmers and fishers that I encounter through my work, as well as all the chefs, home cooks, and food professionals whose paths I cross. Their commitment to feed us shows up in the work they do, the products they create, and their efforts to advocate for safe, healthy, and delicious food raised in ways that preserve the environment and respect agricultural and food-industry workers. Much of the work is hard, some of it is thankless, and some of it is risky, both financially and physically. We should remember to give thanks to all of them. I would love it if there were a national holiday specifically devoted to celebrating farmers, gardeners, and cooks. Doesn’t March lack a three-day weekend?

I also had the pleasure of meeting many members of the Grist staff this year when I was in Seattle, and I want to tell you all how hard they work to produce Grist day in and day out. I am personally grateful to them for giving me a place to write about issues I care about (and for always finding cool ways to illustrate my articles!).

Favorite new cookbooks

Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food combines the characteristics of a reliable workhorse (precise instructions for basic technique and unfussy recipes) with the excitement and fun of a more rarified one.

After introducing tools and ingredients, Waters covers menu planning and then presents different “foundation” recipes by category (soups, salads, bread, beans, pasta, etc.) before offering more complex versions. Like all of her books, it’s very striking. Many of the titles are in red while the rest of the text is black, which makes it look like a prayer book. It is, in a sense, a book of prayers.

It certainly inspired me to offer prayers of thanks for fresh produce and locally produced food in the form of wonderful dishes to serve to my friends. And, of course, a prayer of thanks for Alice Waters and all the hard work that she has done over the years is in order as well. Maybe that prayer should be called the Act of Nutrition? (A little Catholic school humor there … there’s a prayer one learns as a child called the Act of Contrition.)

I also really enjoyed reading Gluten-Free Girl by Shauna James Ahern. It’s the story of her diagnosis with celiac disease, the resulting reassessment of her relationship with food, and her quest to find foods full of nutrition and flavor without any gluten.

It may sound like a bit of a “niche” book, but I found it interesting, entertaining, and well written. I think it would be of interest to anyone who eats, period. Her blog, which I learned about through her book, is diverting as well.

The book also contains a unique and captivating love story that makes one wonder if perhaps there really is such a thing as fate. Not to spoil the story, but if you want to eat at a gluten-free restaurant go to Seattle’s Impromptu Wine Bar (where “the Chef” described in the book presides).

Here’s to more food for everyone who needs it, taking pleasure in cooking and eating, and time to spend with loved ones while sharing meals and KP duty in 2008.

And speaking of KP duty, here’s a fun and flavorful way to transform apples into a quick dessert.

An Apple Brown Betty features buttered, sweetened breadcrumbs or bread cubes as a topping. I like the texture of the bread cubes and the caramel/butterscotch flavor that they pick up from the combination of sugar, butter, and heat. Classic recipes call for three layers of crumbs or cubes — bottom, middle, and topping — but that’s a little bit more carb-rich luxury than I can handle or even desire.

I tested two versions: one in a 9″ x 11″ baking pan that was shallow enough so that I only had room for the apple or apple-dried fruit mixture and one layer of bread cubes (which I used as a topping), and another version in a deeper casserole so that I had room to add a bottom layer of bread cubes as well.

Personally, I like the one-layer, baking-pan version best. I just don’t think I need to eat two layers of those buttered bread cubes. The friends to whom I served the one-layer, topping-only version were completely content.

The friends who ate the multilayer betty that I baked in the casserole were happy as well. I asked them if they thought the extra layer of bread cubes was really necessary and they said yes. So there you have it. I suppose to get a semiscientific answer I’d have to also make a single-layer version for the friends who ate the multilayer betty, and a multilayer version for the friends who ate the two of the single-layer versions I made (one with dried fruit and one without) but I am all bettyed-out for at least a week. It is really good though — single- or double-layered!

I hope that you will enjoy this simple but delicious sweet start to a new year.

Apple Brown Betty Two Ways

I like to use a combination of Granny Smith apples (which are tart and firm) as well as red and yellow apples for a variety of flavors and textures.

Apple Brown Betty.

Photo: katbert

When I made this with dried fruit, I enjoyed the figs, red flame raisins, cranberries, and cherries, but I found that the prunes tasted slightly bitter and I left them out the next time. I was able to get organic versions of all of these dried fruits (as well as the apples).

This recipe makes about six light, modest servings in the 9″ x 11″ version, and about six rich servings in the casserole version. It’s delicious served with heavy cream, whipped cream, or slightly melted vanilla ice cream.

Apple Mixture

6-8 apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup brown sugar (optional)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
1/3 cup dried fruit, cut into small dice (optional)
1 tablespoon of lemon zest (ideally from an organic lemon)
1/4 cup cider or apple juice

Caramelized Breadcrumb Layer

(Make one recipe’s worth of this for the 9″ x 11″ version, which has one layer of crumbs on top, or make it twice for the casserole version, which has two layers, one on top and one on the bottom.)

3-4 slices of hearty white bread or French or Italian Bread, cut into 1/2″ cubes and left out to dry for a few hours
6 tablespoons of melted butter (use lightly salted, or if you use unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the butter once it’s melted)
1/4 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
  1. Set the oven rack in the middle of your oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Combine the sliced apples and other optional ingredients — brown sugar, cinnamon, dried fruit, and/or lemon zest — with the cider or apple juice. Stir so that everything is evenly distributed.
  3. If you are using a casserole dish, make two recipes’ worth of the bread-cube layer. If you are using a 9″ x 11″ baking dish, make only one recipe’s worth. Melt the butter (you can melt it in the microwave if you like) and then combine it with the sugar, bread cubes, and, if you’re using it, the cinnamon.
  4. For the casserole version, put a bottom layer of bread-cube mixture in the casserole, add the apple mixture, then top with the second recipe’s worth of bread cubes. For the 9″ x 11″ version, add the apples to the pan and then top with a layer of bread-cube mixture.
  5. I checked the 9″ x 11″ version after about 20 minutes and ended up baking it for about 30. For the casserole version, I started checking it after about 40 minutes and ended up cooking it for about 50 minutes.

Some recipes for Apple Brown Betty call for covering the pan with foil (or, if you are using a casserole dish, just use the casserole’s cover) so that the topping doesn’t burn while the apples cook. I haven’t found this to be a problem, but if you are worried that this might happen, feel free to cover the topping with foil and just remove it for the last 15-20 minutes.