A Fresh Look at Apples from an Eastern Iowa Orchard
Around 4:30 every afternoon, chef Matt Steigerwald steps outside. A valley drapes before him, fringed by oaks, striped with apple trees and carved down the middle by Rapid Creek, his restaurant's namesake. Matt listens for a pair of woodpeckers that have hung around since the orchard was dappled in bloom. And he breathes.
"That's not something every chef gets," he explains. "So many kitchens that I have worked in have more urban settings. Some don't even have windows. Here, we are in this beautiful orchard, and when I look up from my cutting board, I can see the patio. The space, the outdoors … it's just more calming. We're here to make people happy. And that all translates to the plate."
Matt has a long history of making eastern Iowans happy. About 17 years ago, his Lincoln Cafe brought fine dining to the town of Mount Vernon. He earned three James Beard nominations there (and launched the careers of several area chefs). When the cafe shuttered in 2013, people missed driving into the countryside for a memorable meal. Matt worked next at a nearby co-op market, quietly plugging more deeply into the local agricultural scene. Then, in 2016, he received an offer to helm a new restaurant at Wilson's Orchard on the outskirts of Iowa City. The chef agreed-as long as he could keep cooking creatively.
Katie Goering, whose parents own the orchard, wanted nothing less. In fact, her dad already had a few culinary passion projects. In addition to selling the usual pies and doughnuts, Paul Rasch bottles top-quality raw cider vinegar. In 2015, he launched a knockout line of hard cider. And he's using the nutrient-rich waste left after pressing apples to feed a herd of sheep and his neighbor's cattle. Katie wanted her baby, a new restaurant called Rapid Creek Cidery, to showcase all of that. Housed in a modern, cathedral-like barn, it ties Wilson's Orchard and its products to other Iowa farms, with a menu featuring local vegetables, cheeses, meats and even tofu.
During apple season, Paul pops into the kitchen each week to show Matt what's ripe. The fruit appears as accent more often than star, roasted until sweet or left raw for tartness. Last fall, the sleeper hit was a side dish of braised collards with apple, an update to greens Matt ate as a kid. The orchard's hard cider is available on tap or mixed in cocktails. And there's always an apple dessert. "But nothing too fancy or fussy," Matt says. Because no matter how inventive the menu, this is still a farm. A little dirt on the boots is just fine.
Take the trip
Just 3 miles off Interstate-80 near Iowa City, Wilson's Orchard and store are open through October, plus a few summer and winter weekends. Rapid Creek Cidery serves dinner Wednesday through Saturday, and Sunday brunch all year, except January.
Angry Orchard rules the supermarket. But across the Midwest, craft makers like Paul Rasch at Wilson's are pushing hard cider's boundaries.
Semisweet Most mass-market ciders (and Wilson's Goldfinch) land here-sweeter than beer, very apple-y, with a faint, lingering astringency that tells you it's not for kids.
Dry Still a novelty in the United States, dry ciders are a staple in Great Britain and elsewhere. Just as with dry wine, expect to encounter a more acidic, mineral flavor.
Hopped Beer and cider are both age-old drinks, but mixing hops with apples is new. They give cider layered complexity, with floral, piney or citrusy notes.
Fruit Infused Of course, it's all fruit. But some makers get creative. At Wilson's, Paul adds tart cherry juice to fermented apple cider to make his Cherry Crush.
Thirsty for more? In Tasting Cider, Erin James offers easy-to-follow education, plus recipes and profiles of cider makers around the U.S. (Storey, $20).
Long-Cooked Collards with Bacon and Apple
A slow braise tenderizes the greens and infuses them with the flavors of onion, bacon, garlic and pepper flakes. Try it as a side dish or spooned over grits for a meal. See the recipe for Long-Cooked Collards with Bacon and Apple.
Sweet Apple Risotto with Roast Chicken and Mushroom Jus
Matt stirs diced apple into his risotto and swaps apple juice for some of the broth. Served with herby chicken and savory mushroom sauce, the combo spells comfort. See the recipes for Sweet Apple Risotto and Roast Chicken and Mushroom Jus.
French 85 (left)
Dry hard cider replaces champagne in this easy twist on the classic French 75, an effervescent and lemony gin cocktail. See the recipe for French 85.
The Gold Fashioned (right)
A splash of semisweet hard cider adds fruity fizz to bourbon (not unlike the 7UP some Wisconsinites add to a brandy Old Fashioned). See the recipe for The Gold Fashioned.
Freestyle Apple Tarts
So many flavors and textures are happening here: buttery pastry, juicy fruit, Indian-spiced walnuts, bourbon caramel, honey-vanilla yogurt. But each element is dead simple to make. Do it all ahead and set up a dessert bar. See the recipe for Freestyle Apple Tarts.
Onion, Apple and Cheese Gratin
Imagine French onion soup, minus the soup-just a rich mélange of onion, crusty bread and Gruyère (plus cream, sage and apple). Matt likes individual dishes, but you can bake a family-style gratin in one pan. See the recipe for Onion, Apple and Cheese Gratin.