An ode to the quince

How to cook beautiful quince and why you should.

When it comes to Mother Nature as a muse, some people find inspiration in sunsets or roses or mountains. Which are all lovely … but I go weak in the knees for produce. To me, beets rival jewels in terms of color and resplendence. (See Exhibit A here.) They come to life underground where they act as storage for the plant’s nutrients, and then there they are – an otherworldly fuschia thing that tastes deeply of fruit and the earth and all that is good.

But this isn’t about beets; we’re here to talk quince. Honestly, quince had me at “quince.” What other fruit starts with a “q” and sounds so charmingly quirky?

And beyond the name, quince endears. It really may be the most fragrant of all fruits. A few sitting on the counter can easily fill the kitchen with a scent that brings to mind the impossible love child of apple pie and a bouquet of roses. They are a bit goofy in appearance – like a squat and knobby pear, yet elegant and agreeable. They are gorgeous, they have character. They’d be right at home in a Dutch Master's still life. (Or, say, a still life by Vincent van Gogh.)

How to cook quinceVincent van Gogh/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

But it’s when the enchanting quince is opened that things get really pretty. If you try to eat one raw, all of the fruit’s beauty will come across as duplicitous – before they are cooked they are hard and woody and so astringent that involuntary spitting-out is possible. But once cooked, they transform into magic. Their blasé white flesh turns pink – a beautiful rosy salmon shade of pink – and their bitter flesh becomes soft and tastes like a mash-up of apple, pear, vanilla, flowers, citrus and fleeting perfection.

Many are the applications for cooked quince. They are high in pectin which renders their cooking liquid into a thick syrup, and the longer they sit in said syrup, the more scarlet they become. For the most basic preparation, quince love to be poached.

Poached quince

3 cups water
1/2 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 slice of lemon
1 vanilla bean or cinnamon stick (or ginger or star anise, suit yourself)
3-4 quinces

  • Combine everything but the quince in a pot and heat to a simmer on the stove. Carefully peel the quince and remove the core and any tough areas. As a piece is ready, drop it in the simmering liquid.
  • Cover loosely and allow to simmer until quince is cooked, which varies, but will likely take at least an hour. Remove from heat and allow to cool, marvel at their beauty.

Once they are cooked they can be paired with ice cream or yogurt or cheese, meat or poultry; they can be added to pies and tarts, cookies, cakes. The sky is the limit. The syrup can be employed in many ways as well: pancakes, cocktails, to sweeten tea … anywhere a hot pink floral blast of sweetness is needed, you’re all set.

You can also make membrillo, the Spanish quince paste served with cheese. This method is inspired by a recipe that I love to make by Nora Singley.

Membrillo recipe© HLPhoto

Homemade membrillo

3 pounds quince (about 4 large quince)
2 3/4 cups raw sugar
1 lemon, juiced

  • Peel, core and roughly chop the quince and add to a pot, cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil then turn down heat and allow to simmer until quite tender. Strain, saving 3/4 cup of the cooking liquid.
  • Return the fruit to the pot with liquid, sugar, and lemon juice. Gently boil, stirring regularly, allowing to reduce until very thick. (Be warned, this can take upwards of three hours, but goodness, the smell alone is worth it.)
  • Taste. Give it an extra squeeze of lemon if it needs balance. (For a smooth paste, strain through a sieve.) Pour into an oiled baking dish and refrigerate until firm, invert plate and slice. So good.

There is not a huge commercial quince industry and while you can find them at the market, you won't encounter them as readily as their apple and pear cousins. But you may be lucky enough to have a few quince trees nearby open for foraging. A fully ripe quince is completely yellow and its sweet fragrance has already developed. While they will continue to mature after being picked, they are their best when allowed to fully ripen on the branch. If you see them falling from the tree they are ready to be picked ... and ready to inspire.

Tags: Cooking | Fruits & Vegetables | Recipes

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