Personal history: I grew up in the part of the country where (according to my father) there are more apple trees than people. Where autumn is marked not by the crisp weather as much as by tangy cider and cake donuts consumed, if not at the cider mill itself, then on a tractor-pulled cart bumping through orchards of Johnny Golds and vintage Sheep Nose trees.
I've often driven past the Motts and Seneca plants in Western New York, where apples are processed into saucy snack-packs. I know Fleischmann's by the larger-than-life wooden casks leaking the pleasant bite of vinegar into the air. And, though I've never been crowned "Apple Blossom Princess" (yes, such a thing exists), I like to think I know my way around the crunchy fruit.
Fans -- and organizers -- of the annual North Carolina Apple Festival, held in Hendersonville, can levy a similar claim. This year's theme is "60 Years of Apples and Fun," and the Labor Day-weekend event features plenty of family-friendly activities, like the King Apple Parade, the Apple Recipe Contest, an apple-orchard tour, and Mountain Repertory Theatre's Vaudeville-style Apple Festival Follies.
But, instead of opting for anything as pedestrian as pie, fritters or cider, Xpress is celebrating local apples with upscale and/or trendy dishes, plucked from the recipe files of fashionable local restaurants.
Pecan Encrusted Pork Medallions topped with Fried Apples, from Early Girl Eatery
This recipe serves six. You'll need a food processor, a mixing bowl, and a heavy-bottom saute pan.
Ingredients: 1 each pork loin; 1 cup buttermilk; 3 cups pecans, shelled; 1 cup flour; 1/2 tbsp. salt; 1/4 tbsp. pepper; 1 tbsp. oil; 1/2 cup brown sugar; 1/2 tsp. cinnamon; 6 medium apples, firm and tart.
The Pork: Cut pork medallions and soak in buttermilk. In food processor, grind nuts with flour until it's the consistency of bread crumbs. Add salt, pepper and put into a bowl. Dredge pork in pecan crumbs. Heat oil in pan to medium-high and brown pork on both sides.
The Apples: Core and slice apples, peel if desired. Toss brown sugar and cinnamon in bowl with apples. Saute on low heat ("we prefer to cover them to bring out the natural juices," says Early Girl). You may add water, butter, bacon fat or lemon juice, but they're not necessary.
Putting it Together: Top the pork with fried apples and finish cooking in oven at 425 for five minutes or until the pork is done.
Visit the Early Girl Eatery at 8 Wall St., Asheville; 259-9292.
Butternut Squash and Apple Soup from Michelle Kelley at the Richmond Hill Inn
Caramelize: 1/2 lb. butter; 1 bunch of leeks, sliced; 2 large onions, sliced; 4 cloves garlic; 2 medium carrots, sliced; 1 tbsp. salt
Deglaze: 1/2 cup white wine
Add: 5 lbs. butternut squash, peeled and chopped; 2 apples, peeled and chopped; 1 quart water (enough to cover the ingredients by 2 inches); salt to taste.
After all ingredients are cooked until soft, puree in batches.
Richmond Hill Inn is located at 87 Richmond Hill Drive, Asheville; 252-7313.
Apple Jack BBQ Sauce from Ed Boudreaux's Bayou BBQ
This recipe yields 36 ounces.
Ingredients: 4 cups apples, peeled, cored, diced; 1 cup onions, diced; 4 cups tomatoes, diced (or substitute 2 cups ketchup); 1/2 cup brown sugar; 1 tsp. cinnamon; 1 cup Jack Daniels whiskey; 1 cup cider vinegar; 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce; 1 tbsp. Louisiana hot sauce.
Saute the apples and onions. Add the tomatoes, brown sugar, cinnamon and Jack Daniels; simmer for half an hour. Allow to cool, then add the remaining ingredients.
Ed Boudreaux's Bayou BBQ is at 48 Biltmore Ave., Asheville; 253-5812.
Grilled Apple Relish from Highland Lake Inn
This recipe serves six.
Ingredients: 4 fresh Granny Smith apples, washed, halved and cored; 1 red pepper, washed and finely diced; 1 red onion, washed and finely diced; 1 bunch scallions, washed and sliced; 1/3 cup fresh mint, washed and chopped; 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil; 2 tbsp. Champagne vinegar; 1/4 cup honey (preferably local); sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Procedure: Preheat grill. Toss apple halves with 1 tsp. olive oil and grill on both sides for two minutes. Chill, then dice the apple and combine with the other vegetables, mint, olive oil, honey and Champagne vinegar. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Find Seasons Restaurant at Highland Lake Inn at 180 N. Highland Lake Road, Flat Rock; 693-6812.
The 60th Annual North Carolina Apple Festival, a free street fair, runs Friday, Sept. 1 through Monday, Sept. 4, in downtown Hendersonville, including singer/songwriters, square-dancing and big-band music; clowns, cloggers and gospel quartets; crafts and vendors; and, of course, apples and apple products. For a schedule of auxiliary events, including the Apple Country Bike Tour, visit ncapplefestival.org or call (828) 697-4557.