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 sauté 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.


  1. Could I make this in the slow cooker?

  2. Lauren: I think you could, as long as you add the quince later in the cooking-otherwise it will fall apart.

  3. I've only cooked quince to make a sweet preserve. It was wonderful and turned a lovely pink.

  4. Did you know that quince a relative of the rose family? I've always enjoyed it for it ambrosial flavors and intoxicating aromas. I was lucky to have it in a fruit compote served with duck once, it goes so well with savory flavors. This dish looks so intriguing with the cinnamon, honey, ginger combined with braised lamb.

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