Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Q is for Quince

I am a Scrabble geek and have lately–I’ll admit it–allowed hours to spiral away into a certain black hole called Words with Friends. It's an iphone app with which you can carry on simultaneous scrabblesque games with similarly afflicted buddies, making moves at your leisure and drawing out tournaments over a matter of days–or weeks. There’s a cheater app too, but what’s the fun in that? I like the challenge of a Z or a Q, and I happen to know that quince can be a game-changer if you’re lucky enough to have the tiles and location for it (if you don't, qi does in a pinch).  

I don’t know why this has stuck with me, but remember the scene in White Men Can’t Jump, when Rosie Perez's character, Gloria, triumphs on Jeopardy! ? She nails the Daily Double, supplying “what is a quince?” to answer: “according to legend, this was the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden”. She shortly thereafter ditches the gambling-addicted Woody Harrelson character, who then rekindles his bromance with Wesley Snipes and goes off to find another game. No matter…the takeaway is that quince (and maybe Gloria) is the real winner.

I probably tasted the fruit for the first time in the form of sweet, chewy membrillo, or quince paste, during one of my many binges at Murray’s cheese shop (the original), which lay in wait around the corner from my old apartment. I think they were giving out samples one evening with some excellent manchego, and I was sold. On a tangential note, Ben and I once looked at an apartment directly above that Murray’s and decided it could never, ever be–less because the space smelled like a locker room on a hot day than because the downstairs temptations would be too fierce. Forbidden fruit, indeed.

I finally got around to cooking with quinces a few years back, after I quite literally stumbled upon a paper bag of them–one of those cute orchard bags printed with cheery baskets of apples–at Averill Farm. I had no idea what to do with those strange, hard and bulbous yellow fruits, but that was beside the point once I inhaled their citrusy-floral fragrance. If nothing else, I could perfume my kitchen with them. I ended up baking them in a pie along with the apples we'd picked that day, and their complex, nearly tropical aroma bumped the evening's dessert up to a whole new level. I've returned each year to buy more quinces, and I've noticed the proprietors have taken to hiding them–you have to be in the know, have to want them badly enough to ask. I've heard of other vendors, such as Red Jacket Orchards, hoarding their precious quinces in much the same way–as closely as Scrabble players guard their Q's.
I have since tried my hand at making membrillo, a staple in Spain and certain South American countries. The pale-fleshed quince cooks down magically to a brilliant, saturated shade of russet, and once firm can be cut into shapes to serve alongside cheese, or tossed in sugar to fashion grownup gumdrops. My next project will be quince syrup, to keep handy for fall cocktails. For other quince ideas and links, check out this informative article from Simply Recipes

But our favorite fall quince staple is not a sweet one at all. Despite the fact that a quince is a fruit, it contains much less sugar than its orchard cousins apples and pears, and is so hard and tart when raw as to be inedible. When braised together with meat, as is commonly done in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, it imparts an interesting fruity tartness without the cloying sweetness. As long as you don't overcook quinces, their texture holds up well, too. The recipe, from Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Fruit, hails from Morocco–hence the inclusion of saffron, ginger and cinnamon, which play subtly together with the quince, against the slight gaminess of the lamb. If you are expecting a spicy dish, please don't be disappointed–this is more of a delicate, comforting one. Claudia Roden features a very similar recipe in her cookbook The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, and also suggests that chicken can be substituted for lamb–or tart apples or pears in place of quince. A word about saffron, which is notoriously expensive: yes, it is expensive by weight, but considering you are only using a very small amount, it's a minor splurge. If the cost of saffron in your local store falls beyond your budget, Roden includes a Lebanese variation of the recipe below: swap 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds for the spices listed.
Lamb Tajine with Quinces  
Adapted from Chez Panisse Fruit 
Serves 4 
  • 3 pounds lamb stew meat (such as shoulder), cut into 2-inch cubes, excess fat removed  
  • salt and pepper  
  • olive or canola oil  
  • 2 largish onions, peeled and grated (use coarse side of grater over a bowl)  
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter  
  • 1 cinnamon stick  
  • 2 teaspoons grated, fresh ginger  
  • ½ teaspoon crumbled saffron  
  • 2 pounds quinces  
  • 2 tablespoons honey  
  • juice of ½ lemon
  1. Make sure lamb is trimmed of thick fat and silverskin (the tough, shiny connective tissue), and sprinkle it liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a large dutch oven, stew pot or wide, high-sided skillet over medium-high, and brown the meat lightly on all sides. You probably want to do this in batches, so as not to crowd meat—remove pieces to a plate as they brown. Once you’ve finished browning the meat, turn down heat and pour off oil.
  2. Add butter, onions, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron, and sautĂ© them, stirring occasionally and scraping up any brown bits from the bottom, for about 5 minutes. Stir meat back into pot, and pour in just enough water to cover meat. This is important—add too much water, and the delicate flavors will get diluted. Bring stew back up to a simmer, cover, and cook at a low temperature until meat is tender, about 1 ½ hours. 
  3. Meanwhile, wash the quinces, rubbing any fuzz off the skins. Cut each quince into eight wedges, and cut away the pithy cores. Do not peel, as the skin adds flavor and body to the stew. Put the wedges into lightly acidulated (with lemon juice or cider vinegar) water to keep them from turning brown. When the lamb is tender, add quinces, honey, and lemon juice, and simmer for another 15-30 minutes, until the quince wedges are tender but not mushy. Taste stew and add salt if needed. Serve over pearl couscous or basmati rice.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Butter beans, fall surprises

Sometimes life's little, day-to-day surprises are what add up to the greatest delight. I’m not talking reality-altering here, like new babies or lotto wins–though those are pretty terrific. I’m thinking more along the lines of three gorgeous fall days aligning in a single, long weekend, with good friends nearby…and having my hard-working husband take Monday off, after all…and my friend Kamila showing up for dinner bearing a stunning rendition of the very apple cake I posted here–with apples picked from her family’s tree, no less. 

And then there was the alpaca shawl and the country fair right around the corner–with a vintage tractor pull thrown in for good measure.

Surprise finds in a farmer’s market can hoist your day pretty far above ordinary, too, if you’re anything like I am. This time of year, that might take the form of stumbling upon tomatoes or corn, when you thought they'd given up the ghost. Or discovering a secret stash of fragrant quinces, as I did, tucked into a dark corner of the apple orchard's shop. Or take, for instance, going to the Kent farmer’s market on Saturday and seeing these shell beans, all heaped high in a wooden crate.
Ordinarily, fresh shell beans in and of themselves are enough to brighten my day. “Lima beans?” I inquired, even though the pods looked runtier than the ones I'd been getting all summer.

“Actually, those are Southern butter beans,” she replied, and my heart did a little pirouette. It's not just that finding butter beans in a market up north is akin to spotting a yeti (please correct me if I'm wrong, readers). You see, my Mom has elevated butter beans to pretty darn near mythical status, and their lore is somehow tied up with that of bantam chickens and swimming in quarries and heading out to the turnip patch on summer mornings with a salt shaker–and other rural pleasures I've never gotten to experience. 

It all has to do with Juju, my great-grandmother, who raised six children in DeWitt, VA (modern-day population: 1,528). I knew Juju (short for Julia) during my very early years, since she lived to the age of 96, but my memory of her is faint and probably collaged together from photographs and family stories. She was kind and gentle and, by necessity, more patient than I could ever hope to be. She tended her legendary garden until she was 90, and the vegetables that grew there nourished her children and grandchildren, and became the centerpiece of sprawling Sunday dinners. Pixie-like bantam chickens pecked around her yard and became, according to my Mom, the best fried chicken you could ever imagine. And as for the butter beans, she picked them when the pods were barely mature, the beans inside scarcely the size of a child's pinky nail. She had to have been setting herself up for a tremendous amount of labor, but she wouldn't have it any other way, and nor would my Mom, who never once served us regular old lima beans–insulting, as they were, to the memory of Juju's feasts. And Mom never could find butter beans in Northern Virginia, where she and my Dad moved before I was born.

So here I was, a New England transplant, sitting down to shell the very beans my great-grandmother used to tend in Virginia, and which I never had the chance to try in their purest form, since the opportunity for pinky-sized butterbeans apparently passed along with her and her garden. Except, as I set about the task of shelling the beans, another surprise awaited: after liberating a few of the small, celadon half-moons from their pods, I came upon these riotously-splotched specimens below.
Could those butter beans be dressing up for Halloween already? Perhaps masquerading as Pinto beans? I thought this was the case, until I had shelled all the beans, and here was the net result:
Cooked, they were creamy and sweet, with a hint of metallic sharpness. They yielded a rich broth–almost a soup in itself. A frenzy of internet research revealed that these speckled butter beans were just that: Florida speckled butter beans. They are, apparently, another variation of a lima bean (you can find the seeds here), but most likely not the one Juju raised–she probably grew sievas, or even, perhaps, dwarf butter beans. In any case, butter beans are first in my fantasy line-up for when I get the garden back together, whenever that may be. In the mean time if anyone spots the tiny variety in a market up north, please…surprise me.

Juju's butter beans: 
Put the shelled beans in a sturdy pot, pour water over them just to cover, add a pinch of salt, lots of ground black pepper, and good butter to taste. Simmer over low heat until very tender; this may take anywhere from 10 minutes to 25 minutes, depending on size and freshness of the beans.They should be creamy inside, and the cooking liquid will have turned into a thick broth. Add more salt if needed, and serve them in little bowls with their broth. 

*Note: this recipe can also be used for lima beans–just cook on the longer end. 

Shell bean notes: 
Lima beans require shorter cooking time than other shell beans, such as cranberry beans. The latter, once freed from their pods, may require closer to 30 minutes' cooking time, and should be simmered in lightly salted water until al dente. They may then be sauteed with other vegetables, bacon, or pancetta for flavor. They're also great in vegetable soups.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

It’s not over yet, ice cream maker

Things are happening! Up in our little corner of the hollow, the woods are filling with color and the clatter of plummeting acorns, and feeling undeniably crunchier underfoot. The squirrels and chipmunks? They're rummaging non-stop, which means our puppy is, too. And so, unfortunately, are the mice in our eaves. A tree crashed down in our yard just in time to provide a winter’s worth of warmth–just in time for the wood stove to blaze to life this past weekend, when temperatures hunkered in the 40’s at night, and blankets weren't enough. As much as I denied it for a while, full, bold autumn is here, and we're all a little bit cheery about digging out our flannel.
My trusty old ice cream maker, if she could talk, would beseech in her shrill voice: “please don’t give up on me yet!” And I won’t, because even though a bone-chilling drizzle fell outside earlier this week, and a big batch of chicken stock bubbled away on the stove, I’m not ready to throw in the towel. I would miss whisking together a batch of ice cream too much and will likely be going strong into the winter. Ice cream maker: if you thought you would ever get to hibernate, think again.

But my focus is changing a bit. Where I craved bright, juicy fruit flavors when the weather was hot–things like strawberry and peach and very lemony lemon to set off the fresh blueberries we picked–I’m going for spicy and deep now. Lavender-honey is still in the game, because it tastes dreamy with roasted pears. I just plucked the seeds from our runaway fennel plants and must try this recipe from Orangette. But before I do that, I can’t wait to reprise what turned out to be the home run of the summer–and to share it with you.

My sister, who is prone to kitchen epiphanies, came up with the idea for this one. If I can say one thing about Cass, it’s that she's the flavor genius of the family–no exaggeration. She’s never had a speck of training, and I’m not sure she actually owns a single cookbook–but
she somehow senses in her gut what will work and, most of the time, it does. Chocolate with a little salt? She was onto that long before it became trendy. Grilled pizza with duck confit, pickled onions, jalapenos, and goat cheese? Why not? Drizzled with her cilantro-based green sauce? Insanely good–though the first time she told me of this creation I couldn’t wrap my head around it, because my imagination just does not know the bounds hers does.

Since she doesn't really follow recipes, sometimes she’ll get an idea and call me up to see how, from a technical standpoint, she might work it into service. It always perplexes me to see an urgent text from her asking me at what temperature she should, say, roast a chicken–because I think of her as a pro. This July, when she and her family planned on joining us for a weekend in Connecticut, and she said “How about chocolate cardamom ice cream? Can you figure it out?” I knew we had a winner, and I knew that by pooling our resources we could make it happen. And we did! The recipe below was born while the cicadas buzzed outside, and the grass felt warm under our feet…but I know it will taste just as good with snow drifting against the windows.

We both have a thing for cardamom, with its heady twang–which, as it turns out, sings along nicely with the rich chocolate (and if we have another thing in common it's our fetish for obscene concentrations of chocolate…I'm talking migraine-inducing). If cardamom happens to be your cilantro, though, you can skip it and just make an ultra-chocolate ice cream with this recipe.

A word about the technique here: I roast and caramelize the crushed cardamom pods for a bit before mixing them with the other ingredients–it's a technique borrowed from Daniel Boulud, from The CafĂ© Boulud Cookbook (his recipe is for coffee-cardamom pots de creme). Don't be scared if you've never made caramel before, as the idea here is not to make a perfect, smooth caramel but to deepen and bring out the cardamom flavors more.  

Also, for ice cream, I generally make the French-style custard variety–which calls for egg yolks. In order to make this type of ice cream you have to literally cook it, gently tempering the hot milk and cream mixture into the egg yolks so they won't scramble and give you gross, lumpy ice cream. Just be patient and, if in doubt, lower the heat.
Dark chocolate-cardamom ice cream
  • 2 heaping Tablespoons cardamom pods (whole)
  • 1/3 cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar (I use natural evaporated cane juice)
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • 5 egg yolks
  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped or in small chips (I use Callebaut 60%)

  1. Crush cardamom pods, either with a mortar and pestle, a rolling pin, or by pulsing very briefly in a food processor. The idea is not to pulverize them, but to break up the pods and release the seeds. In a heavy-bottomed pot that will be just large enough to hold the milk and cream, place the cardamom and 2 Tablespoons sugar, and heat over medium-high while stirring occasionally. Watch carefully until sugar begins to melt. Turn down the heat if caramel seems to be bubbling rapidly. As soon as sugar begins to darken a little bit, pour in milk and cream–the sugar will seize and harden, but that's OK. Heat the milk mixture slowly, stirring to loosen caramel, until liquid begins to simmer. Throw in your pinch of salt.
  2. Meanwhile, have the chocolate ready in a large bowl with a fine mesh strainer set over it (line with cheesecloth if need be). Whisk the remaining 1/3 cup sugar into the egg yolks. Once milk has begun to simmer, lower heat and begin whisking milk, one spoonful at a time, into yolks. Do this until about half of the milk mixture is incorporated. Next, transfer yolk mixture into the pot with the milk, and whisk to combine. Over low heat cook this mixture, not even simmering, whisking the whole time–for about 5 minutes. You want the mixture to thicken slightly and the cardamom to steep for a bit longer. 
  3. When mixture has thickened enough to coat a spoon, carefully pour it into the strainer, over chocolate, and let that sit for a few minutes (discard solids in strainer). Then, with a clean whisk, stir until smooth. Chill the ice cream mixture in the fridge several hours, until quite cold. You can place the bowl over a larger bowl with ice in the bottom, to speed up chilling and get to your ice cream sooner. Whisk it occasionally so a skin doesn't form on top. Follow the instructions specified by the manufacturer of your ice cream maker; it generally takes about 20-25 minutes of spinning for my ice cream to thicken, plus a bit longer in the freezer to firm it up.