“Save the cooking liquid,” is a common Purple Kale refrain. Use grain water for a soup base, vegetable water for a mock stock. The strategy is to cook one thing, but take away two, the item you’re preparing and the liquid left over.

Sometimes, the cooking water is strictly utilitarian, not entirely flavorful on its own, but containing at least trace vitamins and aromas. On occasion, however, the cooking water catches me by surprise, and becomes something to savor all its own. This is what happened when I recently made Mock Apple Cider, a result of first making applesauce.

I started with bags of assorted apples sitting squat in the corner of my kitchen, picked in October from an orchard upstate. Honeycrisp, Empire, Ginger Gold, Macintosh, Gala, Macoun, Braeburn, Red Rome, and Crispin, together filling a 20-pound bag, almost 10 of which we ate throughout the month. I always intended to turn the bulk into tarts, never finding time to cut the butter to make the dough.

Instead, I enlisted my kids in the effort to make applesauce, a noble but regrettable decision, resulting in a number of comic messes. To streamline the unwieldy affair, I left the washed apples unpeeled, and piled pieces of them onto a steamer basket, placed into a covered pot, filled with about two inches of water. I cooked the apples in batches, putting them through a food mill as they turned soft. I kept adding apples, four batches in total, until the orchard bag emptied, my kids lost interest, and the milled sauce topped two quarts. I never replenished the steaming water, although I made sure it did not evaporate (and burn).

The applesauce was good–with apples grown this close and picked perfectly ripe, how else could it be? But the magic was what was left in the pot.

I poured the two cups of steaming, amber liquid into a couple of mugs, impulsively reaching for the cardamom and cinnamon. I reconsidered, after tasting how complex the liquid was on its own. The important factors, it turns out, were accidental: cooking a big batch of apples, in the same pot of liquid, and having them span the range of tart to sweet, even in unmeasured proportion. The resulting “cider” was astounding, fragrant like essential oil and complex like fine sherry. It was possibly the best thing I had tasted in months–just some liquid left at the bottom of the pot, otherwise destined for the drain.

Other “Otherwise, Trash” entries.

Learn to cook spontaneously, efficiently, sustainably, and in good taste:
Purple Kale Kitchenworks winter 2012 workshop schedule now up!

More information on workshops and custom classes.