Cider: A Winter Kitchen's Secret Weapon
Apples. From the moment their season starts, they're the Miss America of fruit, piled high in the supermarket, tucked into your kid's lunchbox, hanging heavy and low in the orchards like original sin itself. You may like them sweet and shiny, you may like them russet and tart, but at this time of year, you hardly need to choose. They're everywhere, so distractingly delicious that you may not even notice the plastic jug on the neighboring cooler shelf, with its homely brown elixir.
Today, we think of cider primarily as something sweet to drink. We pack it on lunch outings. We drink it after school. We drink it hot and spiced after raking leaves. We even drink it after giving blood. But the surprising thing is that cider isn't merely good by its own sweet self.
Cider has all the flavor of the apple and none of the looks. But then, looks were never really the point, at least at the outset. In the early days of the American colonies, the sweet, abundant fruit we think of as an apple was, for the most part, neither abundant nor all that sweet. The earliest apples came with European settlers, and they were cider apples — Roxbury russets, say, with their chewy thick skins, or the aggressively tart winesap.
From the start, cider was a way of drinking down an apple. Once collected and casked, cider was a way of storing an apple. And, as those weeks in storage took their inevitable fermenting course, cider was a way of getting drunk on an apple.
New England, people quickly discovered, was a lousy place to grow grapes, so that ruled out wine. It wasn't the best place in the world to grow grain, either, which made beer a proposition for a later, more civilized date. But apple trees took to the rocks and windswept hillsides as if they were a second home, and before long cider fizzed its way into our hearts. If syrup from the cold, snow-clenched trunk of a March maple was the first sweet taste of the year, December cider was the last.
It was for the sake of cider, not apples, that John Chapman planted his nurseries, wending his barefoot way straight through to the heartland. It was from pomace, the discarded residue of cider mills — not discarded apple cores from the table — that he got the apple seeds that gave him his nickname. We may think of the apple as an all-American star, but its juice was in the lifeblood of this country, weaving through its mythic circulatory system like a brown river.
Cider, the alcoholic quaff of a young democracy, underwent a linguistic makeover after Prohibition. It became cider, the nonalcoholic juice of the pressed apple — fit for even children and temperate adults. (Even today, it's only Americans who call the unfermented, raw juice of the apple "cider." Everywhere else, "cider" still has a buzz.) Today, we think of cider primarily as something sweet to drink. We pack it on lunch outings. We drink it after school. We drink it hot and spiced after raking leaves. We even drink it after giving blood.
But the surprising thing is that cider isn't merely good by its own sweet self. Use it as a savory ingredient, and it lends character, subtlety and earthy sweetness to a wide variety of dishes. Although you might not have thought of it this way, cider has something in common with the juice of citrus fruits — lemons, limes, oranges: You can use it at all different dilutions to achieve different effects.
Water it down generously for a brine, and cider provides an aromatic bath for its traditional companion, pork. Or you can use it at full strength in a vinaigrette, allowing its natural tartness to brighten mixed greens. And if you set cider on the stove, and simmer it down to its essence, what do you have? Cider glaze, an appealing and lustrous finish for cold-weather vegetables and roasts.
In fact, you could with very little effort assemble a complete feast whose sweet and secret theme was apple cider. Unless you told them, there's a good chance your guests would never know, but nobody would complain. The only question, you might find yourself wondering, is: What to drink with it? The answer, I think you'll find, is hidden in plain sight.
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