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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2003 02:20 pm

It’s apple-picking time!

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What tastes better on a cool fall day than an apple plucked right off the tree? Well, maybe a fresh apple pie, homemade applesauce, or apple butter. This month the fruit is ripening in many backyards and commercial pick-your-own orchards.

Besides tasting good, apples are also good for you. They're fat-free, sodium-free, and cholesterol-free. A medium-sized apple has about 80 calories and 5 grams of dietary fiber. With more than 2,500 varieties in the United States alone, there is an apple to suit nearly every taste bud. Local orchards offer 23 varieties, including:

Braeburn. Tangy, large red from New Zealand; good for eating; stores well; ripens in October.

Empire. Juicy, crunchy, mildly tart, medium-sized red developed in upstate New York; available in mid-September.

Fuji. Very sweet all-purpose red, one of the best for keeping--it will retain its crisp juicy texture for several months of cold storage; available in mid-October.

Gala. Small, crisp eating apple with a well-balanced flavor of sweetness and tartness; stays firm in the refrigerator, good raw in salads.

Golden Delicious. Large yellow, sweet and good for eating or cooking; available in early-September. Be gentle: tends to bruise easily.

Granny Smith. Tart, crisp, very firm, green; excellent for baking; ripens in October.

Honey Crisp. Crunchy, both sweet and tart; stores well; can ripen in September, but best in October.

Jonagold. Large cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious; well-balanced blend of tartness and sweetness; ripens in October.

Jonathan. Crisp, tender, juicy, and moderately tart, good for eating and cooking (retains shape when baked); medium-sized dark to bright red.

McIntosh.Small- to medium-sized spicy, mildly tart; can often be soft; good for eating, sauces, and juice.

Mutsu (Crispin). Sweet, firm, and crisp green; good for eating and cooking.

Northern Spy. Firm, crisp, tart; ideal for baking in a pie.

Ozark Gold. Juicy, mildly tart.

Red Delicious. Common sweet, crisp, juicy eating variety available in mid-September. Medium- to large-sized red; easy to identify by its five distinct bumps on the blossom end.

Suncrisp. Sweet all-purpose yellow with orange blush; a good keeper.

Winesap. Crisp, juicy apple with a wine-like, spicy, tart flavor; a sweet cider favorite; medium-sized violet red, available in mid-October; good for long-term storage.

Ripe apples should be easy to pick with the stems attached. Roll or twist the apple so its stem separates from the tree. Handle fruits carefully to avoid bruising. With refrigeration, firm, unbruised apples will keep from several weeks to several months.

This fall try at least one new variety. To learn more about apple varieties, recipes, festivals, growing, and storage, visit the University of Illinois Extension's "Apples & More" Web site at http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/apples/index.html.

Tips for picking

Be sure to call ahead to confirm the orchardÕs hours of operation and apple varieties currently available. Wear clothes that you can get dirty. Do not pick up apples from the ground. Watch out for yellowjackets! If youÕre planning to bake, youÕll need about two pounds of apples to make one 9-inch pie.

Local orchards

ItÕs a factÑlocal produce is fresher, more nutritious, and better-tasting than food picked before its ripe and shipped long distances. Check out one of these local apple orchards:

Applebarn, Chatham (483-6236), 20 varieties. Briggs Orchard, Springfield (544-1661). Jefferies Orchard, Springfield (487-7401). Rocky Creek Apples, Petersburg (632-3321). Sabattini Garden Center, Springfield (529-3620).

If you canÕt make it to an orchard, visit one of the vendors at the FarmersÕ Market held in downtown Springfield every Wednesday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., through October 29.

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