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.

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

“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
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 rare steed.

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

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

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.

Roz Cummins is a food writer
who has worked in every possible permutation of food co-op, natural
foods store, and granola-type restaurant. She lives in the greater
Boston area and feels it is her mission to put the “eco” back in home