Like the next person, I’m influenced by the images that surround me.
A recent example was the issue of Gourmet magazine that arrived with a photograph of quince on the front, all green and fuzzy against a black background.
I had to have one.
Every time I saw that cover on my work table, my urge kicked in again.
So, imagine my delight when I found organic quinces recently at the farmers market in Santa Fe, alongside the wild strawberries, just-picked raspberries, colorful garlic, watermelon radishes and, of course, roasted chiles.
I grabbed a basket for a couple of bucks, and then a quandary set in: Now that I had a half-dozen quinces, what would I do with them? Part of the appeal was that I’d never had a fresh quince before. Quince paste, or membrillo, sure. When I lived in Florida, plenty of friends would serve a block of quince paste alongside a block of sharp cheddar or Manchego, and let their guests mix the two complementary flavors. It’s an easy and satisfying appetizer.
So, I asked around, and most friends suggested jelly. That held no excitement whatsoever. It sounded too much like paste. Surely, the fruit was more versatile than that.
My research started with “A Passion for Fruit” by Lorenza de’Medici’s. The section on quince began with the following epigram from one Giacomo Castelvetro in 1614: “Branches of quinces trained against a wall made fine espaliers, and that concludes all I have to say about this noble fruit.”
Yikes! Is that really all there is to say?
De’Medici’s own story about quinces began with a tale of how she left a batch in her car one time and the aroma lasted for weeks. She went on to say people also use quince to perfume their linen closets.
She went on to cite it as the golden apple of Aphrodite before finally getting around to talking about how to use it. Her first example? Boiled meats.
I could hear a ka-ching from some invisible drummer as if another bad joke had just been spoken.
I put the quince away for the day and went on with my work. The next day, I happened to be leafing through Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein’s “Raw” when I came across a recipe for Quince-Apple Pavé that had cinnamon and rehydrated raisins in it. Sounded good.
That is, until I read Sharon Tyler Herbst’s definition in “Food Lover’s Companion”: “Ancient Romans used the flowers and fruit of the quince tree for everything from perfume to honey. It was also considered a symbol of love and given to one’s intended as a sign of commitment. Though the quince has been around for over 4,000 years throughout Asia and the Mediterranean countries, it’s not particularly popular with Americans. This yellow-skinned fruit looks and tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear. The hard yellowish-white flesh is quite dry and has an astringent, tart flavor, which makes it better cooked than raw.”
OK, scratch the raw dish. And once again, more information about using this member of the rose family for its aromatics than its culinary appeal.
The Mediterranean connection, though, sent me to Ayla Algar’s “Classical Turkish Cooking,” where I found a recipe for Lamb Shanks Braised With Cinnamon-Glazed Quince.
An Internet search turned up a tarte tatin recipe that also sounded good. But which should I make? Sweet? Or savory?
Why not do both, a friend suggested. Why not, indeed.
So, I made a compote that will let me braise some of the fruit with the lamb and the rest in the tarte tatin. Perfect compromise.
Making the compote was harder than expected, because it took a long time to prepare the fruit.
First, you wash off the fuzz on the outside, then peel the fruit. Don’t taste the peeling as it is excessively tannic; not quite as bad as popping a fresh olive into your mouth, but close. (I made the olive mistake on my first trip to Portugal and will never make it again.)
Quinces are not soft like pears or apples. Cutting through them required the meat cleaver. Even then, removing the core was a chore. I wouldn’t try but a sliver of them raw. Though the flavor is appealing, the texture is not. Imagine biting into a gritty, tough, unripe pear, only worse.
But once in the pot, with a bit of vanilla paste stirred in, an enormous bouquet of scents made all negative feelings about the work go away. It was every bit as aromatic as all the writers had suggested, and on a rainy afternoon, it was pure comfort perfuming the entire house.
Once it had stewed for a half hour, it was also just what I had wanted, soft, if not quite silky, yet loaded with fruit flavors reminiscent of pear and lemon, perfect for both a tart and a lamb dish.
No more quandaries. Just the aroma of good things to come.
4 pounds quinces, peeled, quartered, cored, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
2 cups dry white wine
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, or 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
Bring quinces, water, sugar and wine to boil in heavy large saucepan, stirring often. Scrape in seeds from vanilla bean; add bean. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until fruit is soft, stirring occasionally, about 40 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer fruit to bowl. Boil juices uncovered until reduced to 3 cups, about 30 minutes. Pour syrup over fruit. Cover and chill overnight.
Adapted from Epicurious. com.