This time of year it’s hard to resist the lure of the apple orchard. Which is fine, except my son and I usually get carried away.
In short order we pick our way to enough pecks to keep ourselves stocked with pies, sauces, crisps and muffins until Christmas.
So I usually spend the better part of fall finding new and creative ways to use up our stockpile. And my son’s lunch box is a fine place to start.
Trouble is — as anyone who has ever packed an apple in a lunch knows — browning is a major issue. Slice an apple and within minutes it starts browning. And as we all know, all it takes is a little bit of brown to send a picky eater over the edge.
Sure, you could leave it whole. Except whole apples day after day are kind of dull. And if your kid is anything like mine — which is to say, he somehow “I don’t know!” beats the snot out of his lunch box to, from and during school — those whole apples end up bruised and mushed by lunch.
So what’s a lunch packer to do? I’ve got a few tricks for beating the apple packing blues. And truth is, I never send whole apples. Not just because they get mushed. But also because they take kids longer to eat than apples that have been cut up into more manageable pieces. Because I’m tired of the “I didn’t have time” excuses. Just like you.
Here are a few ideas to help you pack apples without suffering a brownout.
1. Add them to fruit salad
As long as there is something acidic in it, such as grapefruit or oranges, the apples won’t brown. And fruit salads don’t need to be complicated. Cut up an apple and toss it with canned pineapple (sugar-free) chunks. Done.
2. Do some acid
Same concept as the fruit salad, but even easier. Cut the apple into chunks (big or small) and toss with lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice, pineapple juice, whatever. Vinegar works, too, but kids may not like it. Drain, then pack. That’s it.
3. Salt ‘em!
Seriously. Salt water has the same anti-browning effect as acid. I cut my apple into chunks, then mix a teaspoon of salt with 1/2 cup or so of water in a bowl. Add the apples, toss, then drain. I love the taste of salted apples (my great grandmother used to prepare them for me that way — so delicious). So does my son. If you don’t, just rinse them before packing.
4. Slather them
Cut apples turn brown when exposed to air. So don’t let me be exposed. Slice an apple in half top to bottom. Use a melon baller to scoop out the core. Now smear peanut butter into the cavity and over the entire cut side of each half. You could stop here, but to make it even yummier, dunk the peanut butter sides into granola or breakfast cereal. Maybe even chocolate chips.
5. Get sauced!
It takes just minutes (all of it unattended) to turn apples into applesauce. And while you could plan ahead and make a big batch at night, it’s also easy to make a single serving. Just slice up an apple or two at breakfast, pop them in a saucepan or skillet, add a splash of water, a sprinkle of cinnamon and cover. Bring to a simmer. Done.
6. Brown ‘em!
File this under “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Slice the apple in half and scoop out the core. Melt a little butter in a skillet (use the same one you cooked your egg in — nobody will notice). Sprinkle in some brown sugar, then set the apples in cut side down. Turn the heat to low, then walk away. When the apples are tender and lightly browned, pop them in a thermos.
7. Bake ‘em!
If you have the time at dinner the night before, core a couple apples and sprinkle the insides with brown sugar, cinnamon and whatever else inspires you. Put them in a baking dish with a splash of juice, then bake at 400 F until browned and tender. Refrigerate and pack cold, or nuke briefly and pack hot in a wide thermos.
8. Salad them
Fresh apples are delicious chopped into a salad. But they’d brown if you added them straight up when packing in the morning. The acid in a vinaigrette will protect them, but you shouldn’t dress a salad with vinaigrette until ready to eat it (the same acid that will protect the apples will also wilt the greens). So instead, finely chop your apple and pop the pieces in a container with your vinaigrette. Assemble the rest of your salad, then toss with the apples-vinaigrette just before eating at lunch.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs about the trials and tribulations of his son’s lunches at LunchBoxBlues.com. His cookbook, Beating the Lunch Box Blues, is the first to be released by Rachael’s new publishing venture, Rachael Ray Books. Hirsch’s previous books include High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking and Venturesome Vegan Cooking. He lives in New Hampshire with his son, wife, and too many cats.