Crab ApplesMostarda is a classic sweet and pungent, mustard-flavored, candied-fruit condiment that originated in northern Italy, specifically in Cremona, which is just under 40 miles southeast of Milan. It is made from gorgeously sugar-glazed whole fruits, such as cherries, apricots, and my favorite, crab apples, and is a traditional accompaniment to bollito misto or roast pork.
I got into making mostarda after a fall session at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York when I saw a huge basket of crab apples, those little palm-size green-red apples that aren’t sweet enough for eating out of hand but when cooked have an intense apple flavor. Looking at these perfect apples in miniature made me want to buy the whole load. Once I got back to the kitchen, I didn’t want to chop them up (their charm lies in their minuscule form). I thought of mostarda and its beautifully preserved orbs of fruit.
Making this traditional condiment of whole fruit suspended in a sweet-savory syrup is an excellent use for all sorts of underripe produce and consequently was a way for farmers to sell less than perfectly ripe fruit. Monks and other highly skilled artisans took it from there and began preserving the fruit in syrup, thereby creating a commodity that wouldn’t spoil and could be traded throughout the winter, when there wasn’t any fresh fruit to harvest. Their ingenuity led to one of the most incredible flavor bombs. It celebrates seasonality in a unique and timeless way, with the sweet fruit and syrup undercut by a bracing shock from the horseradish.
Photograph © Stéphanie de Rougé from Preserving Wild Foods
Crab Apple MostardaMakes 2 quarts (four 16-ounce jars)
The key to making a good mostarda is to select fruit that’s slightly underripe, so it stays intact during the cooking process. Naturally tart and tannic fruits, such as crab apples and clementines, provide the most balanced flavor. The procedure for making mostarda may seem time consuming, but after the initial preparation, it requires only 5 minutes a day for a week to complete it. I often include mostarda on a cheese board, alongside a hard mountain-style cheese such as a nutty tomme or a sharp Parmigiano-Reggiano, either of which stands up to mostarda’s boldness.
Stack two 4-inch-square pieces of cheesecloth. In the center place
1 (1½-inch) piece fresh horseradish root, peeled and sliced into three roundsGather the ends of the sachet and secure with a piece of butcher’s twine. Put it in a large heavy-bottomed pot and add
½ cinnamon stick
¼ cup brown mustard seeds
4 cups waterOver medium heat, bring the water to a simmer, stirring occasionally until all the sugar is dissolved. Let simmer for 10 minutes longer. Increase the heat to high and boil for 2 minutes, to reduce.
1 pound sugar (about 2½ cups)
While the liquid is reducing, with a sewing needle or a stickpin, poke at least a dozen holes in each of
2 pounds crab applesPut the crab apples in a 1-gallon ceramic, glass, or food-grade-plastic container (one that has a lid), and immediately pour the hot liquid (including the spice sachet) over the fruit. The fruit should be submerged. (If there’s not enough liquid, make a simple syrup by dissolving equal parts of sugar and water over medium heat and then bringing the mixture to a boil. Pour in as much as you need to cover the fruit.) Cover the container with the lid and leave on the countertop for 24 hours.
The next day, wearing gloves, strain the fruit through a fine-mesh sieve, separating the crab apples from the syrup. Return the crab apples to the container. Pour the syrup back into the pot, add the spice sachet, and bring to a boil. Cook the syrup over high heat for 30 seconds and then immediately pour it over the fruit. Cover the container and set aside for another 24 hours. Repeat the drain-boil-cover step every day for 4 days (you’ll be keeping the fruit in syrup for a total of 5 days).
Note: Always wear gloves and make sure all the equipment is scrupulously clean, so no unwanted bacteria contaminate the mostarda.
After a few days, you may not have enough syrup to cover the crab apples. This is a good thing: it means the fruit is absorbing the syrup, which will give it a distinctive, delicious flavor and a glassy appearance.
On the fifth day, use tongs to remove one crab apple from the container. Slice it in half and check to see if the fruit is candied and rosy red all the way to the core. If it is, you’re done. If the sample crab apple is not candied to the core (meaning the red blush doesn’t extend as far as you want), continue the strain-boil-cover step for another 2 days. At this point, the fruit will definitely be candied.
To store the mostarda, remove the spice sachet and either divide the mostarda into two sterilized 16-ounce jars (see page 19) and refrigerate for up to 6 months or follow the instructions for canning on page 21 and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath and store them in a cool, dark, dry place for years.
Note: The procedure for making mostarda is always the same, no matter what kind of fruit you use, but the number of days required for it to absorb enough syrup will vary. Small and soft fruits — cherries, apricots, and sugar plums, for example — average 5 days and larger and denser fruits — pears, navel oranges, and quince, to name a few — will need up to a week to candy.
Note: If any of the fruit bursts while it’s cooking, don’t worry: that won’t cause any harm or alter the flavor.
Note: Feel free to experiment by combining various spices in the sachet. Mustard seeds and horseradish are essential, but you can substitute 1 teaspoon of anise seeds (especially nice for a sour cherry mostarda), 6 allspice berries (used in pear mostarda), or 3 whole cloves (paired with navel oranges) for the cinnamon stick.
Recipe and text excerpted from Preserving Wild Foods © 2012 by Matthew Weingarten and Raquel Pelzel. All rights reserved.
Go to: A Twist on Tradition Thanksgiving Menu for more great Thanksgiving recipes.