Apples put a crunch in fall salads

This season's fruit often appears in homey desserts – but now more chefs are tossing them with greens.

Autumn's apples, if not eaten out of hand, are most often enjoyed in homey desserts. Cooks love to bake them into pies, crisps, tarts, or simply with butter, brown sugar, and a dash of cinnamon. The combination of sweet and tart baked together and served warm with a spoonful of vanilla ice cream is perhaps the ultimate comfort food.

But the versatile apple is also excellent in savory dishes, and, these days, many cooks are featuring the fall fruit in great-tasting, creatively constructed salads. Summer is over, but salad season is going strong, and there's no better time to toss some just-picked apples with those greens.

The Waldorf Salad, created in 1896 by the mâitre d'hôtel at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, is the grand dame of apple salads. Oscar Tschirky's original recipe, which was an instant success, called for only apples, celery, and mayonnaise. Since then, many variations have sprouted, including those that simply adapt the dish as an entrée with the addition of strips of grilled salmon, chicken, smoked turkey, or pork loin. Other variations hardly resemble their 19th-century ancestor by including toasted pine nuts, peanuts, chopped dates, grapes, sliced pears, and even grapefruit slices.

But not every salad with apples is inspired by Mr. Tschirky's classic creation.

Many of today's cooks, in a growing effort to support local growers and buy the freshest produce they can, are embracing a more European approach and innovating recipes based on what's available that day at their local farmer's market.

If watercress is featured at the market one week, frisée the next, and dandelion greens another week, that's what might show up on menus at restaurants and takeout markets – along with apples and perhaps toasted nuts of some kind (walnuts, almonds, and pecans are good choices), and a soft cheese like Roquefort, chèvre, or feta.

Virtually any leafy green can be tossed with apples, toasted nuts, cheese, and a simple vinaigrette for a winning salad. Or skip the greens, and toss apples with carrots and raisins in a yogurt-based dressing for a colorful, sweeter salad. Add boiled potatoes and bacon for a heartier dish.

When making a salad with apples, one of the first decisions is the variety of fruit. If only it were as easy as choosing green-, red-, or gold-colored apples. Literally thousands of varieties of apples are grown throughout the world, yet only a few dozen are grown commercially in the United States. Still, the decision can be daunting.

To cut through the confusion, try a taste test. Keep in mind that apples are typically either sweet or tart in flavor and tender or crisp in texture. Some are juicier than others. In each of these categories – flavor, texture, and juiciness – ask yourself what you like best.

If you're looking for a tart apple with a crisp texture and not much juice, Granny Smith is a good choice. Lesser-known varieties in the tart family include Sierra Beauty, Golden Russett, and Macouns. For a sweeter apple, Fuji, Gala, or Empire varieties will satisfy. Macintosh, which strike a pretty good balance in all three categories, is one of the most popular choices for all types of dishes.

Once apples are sliced for salad, drizzle them with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. You can also drop just-peeled slices into cold salted water for a minute, another technique favored by some cooks.

Dressing, whether it is a light vinaigrette or a heavier yogurt-, sour cream-, or mayonnaise-based concoction, can be made in the salad bowl and left to sit (briefly) until the salad, constructed afterward on top of the dressing, is ready to be tossed – typically just before it is served.

Apple salads are a wonderful way to savor both the autumn season and those lingering Indian summer days before the yen for salads is replaced with one for soups and stews. And who said an apple salad can't be followed by a homey dessert?

Curried Apple and Chicken Salad

Debra Stark's salad is a popular item on the takeout menu at her store, the Natural Gourmet, in Concord, Mass. It was originally published in her cookbook "Debra's Natural Gourmet Cookbook: A Second Bite" (Keats Publishing).

For the salad:

1 to 1-1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken
1-1/2 cups seedless red grapes, halved
3 crisp apples (Granny Smith, Pink Ladies, or Braeburns), cored and diced
1-1/2 cups celery (about four stalks), diced
1 red onion, diced
1 cup jicama, peeled and diced (optional)
Lettuce (optional)

For the dressing:
1 tablespoon curry powder
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup mayonnaise

In a large frying pan, bring one inch of water to a light boil. Add chicken and simmer for about 10 minutes. While chicken is cooking, dice apples, celery, onion, and jicama, if using.

Remove chicken and cool slightly. Cut into bite-sized pieces and place in a salad bowl.

Add grapes and diced apples, celery, onion, and jicama.

To make dressing, combine remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Add half of the dressing to salad and mix well (add additional dressing as necessary).

Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Refrigerate for about one hour before serving. Serve on bed of lettuce if desired.

Serves 4 to 6.

Blue Cheese, Apple, and Fennel Salad

Even in lobster country, autumn's apples are showing up on restaurant menus. This recipe is from John Shaw, executive chef at the Kennebunkport Inn, located in the picturesque seaside village of Kennebunkport, Maine.

For the salad:

1 head frisée lettuce (or substitute mesclun greens)
3 Granny Smith apples, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup blue cheese, crumbled
1 fennel bulb, sliced
For the dressing:
2 teaspoons lemon peel, grated
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In a large salad bowl, mix frisée, apples, walnuts, blue cheese, and fennel. In a separate small bowl, whisk together dressing ingredients. Add dressing to salad and mix well. Serves 4.

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