Sunday, October 17, 2010

Grossing Out My Inner Child: Savory Apple-Onion Galette

When I was a kid, I had a couple of non-negotiable views about apples. First among these: they were fruit, which meant they didn’t count as dessert unless cooked and sweetened in some way. Apple pies and apple turnovers counted as suitable desserts. Slices of apple and apple pieces in fruit salad didn’t, and only marginally counted as acceptable after-school snacks.

My second fundamental belief about apples was that since they were fruit, they were sweet. And sweet things such as fruit didn’t belong anywhere near non-sweet things. Allowable exceptions were pineapple chunks in sweet-and-sour pork, which was inherently sweet anyhow, and the apple chunks Mom sometimes put in her chicken curry. But other mixtures of fruity and savory things were, quite simply, wrong. The idea of putting cheddar cheese on top of apple pie struck me as downright repulsive. And I made a point of not going to sleepovers at the homes of classmates whose tuna sandwiches contained apples or raisins. Eew.

An important part of growing is learning how to cope when your most cherished beliefs are challenged: When you’re small, you dig in your heels, cover your ears, and hope the offensive information just goes away. When you’re a bit bigger, you start thinking of ways to justify why your take on things is the only right one. Only much later does one develop the fortitude needed to consider the possible merits of an opposing view and, if needed, admit to being – gasp – WRONG!

My beliefs about the ontological status of apples were subverted, ever so slowly and sneakily, by the most unlikely of sources: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.

I grew up devouring Wilder’s tales of her girlhood on the American frontier in the mid-nineteenth century. I loved how honestly Wilder portrayed her youthful indiscretions: she worried about her looks, got thrown out of school for losing her temper, and wrote a snarky poem about an annoying teacher that, to her horror, went viral among her classmates at her one-room school. (This itself was an education for me: based on everything adults of my acquaintance had told me about their childhoods, I believed all kids until my era were perfectly behaved little angels.) I loved – as did most grade-school social studies teachers – how vividly she portrayed the daily routines of life on the frontier. But most of all, I loved how she wrote about food.

She wrote lustfully of crackling cornbread and biscuits and homemade (and home-grown) pickles and preserves. She described unfamiliar but scrumptious-sounding treats such as birds’ nest pudding – an eggy baked confection holding several whole, cooked apples and served with cream. Apples – ever the quintessential American fruit – played a big role in the culinary workings of her books: she described drying them for winter storage, making vinegar from their peels and cores, and feeding them to horses. Farmer Boy, the volume depicting her husband’s childhood on a prosperous farm in upstate New York, is almost non-stop food porn: meals on the Wilder farm invariably ended with several kinds of pies, including apple, followed a bit later by an after-dinner snack of buttered popcorn and yet more apples.

Farmer Boy also contained the most disturbing recipe in the series – one that grated against my sensibilities and haunted my nightmares for years. Horrifyingly, it was the favorite dish of Almanzo Wilder, Laura’s future husband:

...They talked about spareribs, and turkey with dressing, and baked beans, and crackling cornbread, and other good things. But Almanzo said that what he liked most in the world was fried apples ‘n’ onions.

When, at last, they went in to dinner, there on the table was a big dish of them! Mother knew what he liked best, and she had cooked it for him.

Apples. And onions. Fried together. Good God, this was just wrong. Reading this as a youth, I felt terribly disappointed in Almanzo, who otherwise seemed like a pretty cool kid. Everyone knows apples are supposed to go with cinnamon or caramel. And onions go with whatever you had for dinner before your apple dessert. But together? No way.

I eventually grew up and gave up childish things. And I had nearly recovered from the trauma of fried apples ‘n’ onions when, a few years after I’d finished college, I got a copy of The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories for Christmas. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one taken with an urge to make salt-rising bread and maple candy after reading the Little House books, and an intrepid soul painstakingly reconstructed many of those old-time recipes. And one of them was fried apples ‘n’ onions! Ack!

I read through that recipe with fascinated repulsion dozens of times, but didn’t quite work up the nerve to try it. But after years of trepidation, I’ve finally made peace with the concept.

The recipe in The Little House Cookbook involved sliced, unpeeled apples and sliced onions fried together in bacon fat. When I first saw the recipe, I grudgingly admitted that the presence of bacon fat made the dish seem slightly less repulsive. But now I realize why: First, bacon makes everything it touches taste better. Second, bacon has both sweet and savory notes, and could potentially mediate and meld the contrasting flavors of apples and onions. Pure freaking genius!

The more my rational adult mind thought of it, the better the apple/onion/bacon combo sounded. Onions are traditionally associated with savory dishes, but can be quite sweet when cooked. Chutneys, which I never found problematic even in my most finicky years, contain a mix of sweet fruit and savory vegetables. And now, previously unthinkable mixes of sweet and savory are almost mainstream: in some places, salt is an almost obligatory topping on caramels and chocolates, and bacon has worked its way into chocolate bars and even doughnuts.

The Little House Cookbook, written in the 1979, describes fried apples ‘n’ onions as a down-home country dish, one of those under-the-radar preparations so routine few people thought to write down recipes for it. Thirty years later, it feels downright modern, if not shamelessly trendy. And I’ve always wanted to be one of the cool trendy kids.

To make this old-time, yet weirdly prescient, preparation even more modern, I’ve enlivened the apples and onions with a touch of rosemary, and turned it into a filling for a galette – a free-form, open-face tart. (The galette dough recipe is lightly adapted from one of my favorite cookbooks, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.) It makes a nice light meal with a salad on the side. Think of it as an apple pie for grownups – that you get to have before dessert.


For the yeasted galette dough:

1/2 cup warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 cups flour, or as needed

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water in a medium size bowl.

2. Add egg, oil, and salt, then stir in the flour. When the dough is too stiff to stir with a spoon, turn it onto a floured surface for kneading.

3. Knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 4 minutes. Add additional flour if the dough is sticky.

4. Set the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and allow to rise until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.

For the apple-onion filling:

4 cups thinly sliced onions

4 cups sliced tart apples (such as Granny Smith)

1/4 pound bacon

1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary

salt and sugar to taste

1. Fry the bacon in a large skillet. When done, set aside. Remove all but 3 tablespoons bacon grease from the skillet.

2. Saute the onions in the remaining bacon fat until wilted. Toss in the rosemary while the onions are cooking.

3. Add the apples and another tablespoon of the bacon fat to the wilted onions. Stir and cook until the apples are tender.

4. Taste the mixture and add salt and sugar to taste. Set the filling aside to cool before assembling the galette.

To form the galette:

1. Roll the dough out into a thin 14-inch circle on a lightly floured surface. (The circle need not be completely regular.) If there is extra dough, cut it away and use for another purpose. Fold the dough into quarters and transfer it to the back of a sheet pan or a cookie sheet without sides. Unfold it. It will be larger than the pan.

2. Top the dough with the cooled filling, leaving a border 2 to 4 inches wide. Fold the edges of the dough over the fruit, overlapping them as you go. (The folded-over dough will not cover all the filling; the middle of the galette will remain exposed.)

3. Brush the folded-over dough with melted butter or an egg beaten with a little milk or cream. Sprinkle the glazed dough lightly with a mixture of equal parts sugar and salt. Bake the galette at 400 degrees until the crust is browned and the apples are tender, about 40 minutes.

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