I have a confession to make.
It’s nowhere near Quince season. In fact, it’s so far away from Quince season that if the quince and I were geographical locations, we’d be antipodal points from each another, one of us sitting comfortably in her roofed, upland apartment, and the other plunked unfortunately off the southwestern coast of Madagascar. The poor quince hasn’t even taken its most nascent form as budding, barely-there fruit, and yet I feel the need to post a recipe on Poached Quinces, torturing you until the fall of 2010, when those fuzzy yellow apples finally hang from branches in their engorged, rotund glory, waiting to be picked.
Despite having feasted my mouth on plenty of exotic fruits – the kinds of which you can only find at small farmer’s markets in San Francisco, or at Berkeley Bowl, fruits like the Black Sapote, with its sweet, pudding flesh; the imposing Jackfruit of noisome, heavy musk; and the horned melon, or kiwano, whose rough hewn exterior has all the appearances of a child’s imagination, complete with preposterously slimy, green goo interior, the banana slug texture of which overshadows any ability to discern sweetness, savoriness, or any pleasure at all whilst eating it – I was only introduced to the Quince by way of familial, opportunistic coincidence. When my boyfriend first introduced me to his parents, the first thing I noticed about their home was not the darkly beckoning countenance of their forest green house, the thick planks of which are sandwiched in between bright, berry red frames and antique, apricot doors, nor the very prominent water tower jutting out alongside the overgrowth of jasmine that bordered the entire property. No, it was the large, magnificently drooping Quince tree, taking up a good one third of the front yard, that first caught my eye when we parked alongside that curb in November of two autumns past. The tree had this appearance of great strain, of barely standing under the weight of the plump, hairy quinces pulling its branches downward. The ground, too, was littered with quinces, some unfortunate in their premature demise, still green with a barely perceptible pubescence, while others were keenly ripe, radiantly yellow and with a full, peachy fuzz. My first inclination was to feast my wanton hands on this indelible showcase of uneaten fruit, but it occurred to me, just then, that I had absolutely no idea whether quinces could be eaten raw, if they were poisonous, or if they were best stewed, roasted, baked, boiled, or pureed.
Quinces absolutely cannot be eaten raw, unless you want your mouth to pucker in ways that only an unripe Hachiya Persimmon can mirror. Apparently, the only way they may be eaten raw is if they are submerged in salt water: the acids contained within quinces are composed of hydronium ions, which are solvated in water – when in water, the sour taste is neutralized because the hydrochloric acid becomes more dilute, and since our mechanism for detecting sour tastes is similar to that which detects salt tastes, the salt, too, is diminished in power, allowing any sweet taste to come through more prominently. In most cases, however, cooking trumps any experimentation with salt water, because the end result of cooking a quince is a perfumed, rosy, and earthy miracle.
Quinces may be used in many ways, so long as they’re cooked to a pulpy, blushing version of themselves. The Quince cannot be cooked, or reduced any further than it is for a marmalade, and this continues to be one of the best, and favorite ways to enjoy a quince, as apparent from the word marmalade, itself. Marmalade is derived from the Portuguese marmelo, which means “quince,”and the English marmalade originally referred to a jam composed of quince. In Mexico, quinces are called membrillos and are often cooked into a jelly form called dulce de membrillo, which is often eaten in tandem with manchego cheese, or even in sandwiches. Should you want a less processed dessert, Quinces may be added alongside apples and pears in tarts and pies, lending their rosy and woody scent to perk up an otherwise traditional treat. I, myself, enjoy them poached – as simply as I would pears, in white wine, with sugar and lemon, a few cloves and whole black peppers for an earthy edge. Once poached, they may be eaten as is, in their fragrant jus, or used as a topping for ice cream, folded in a dough and then baked, or even on top of granola for breakfast.
* * * * *
5 cups water
2 cups white wine (a nice, buttery chardonnay actually works well here – otherwise, just use all water)
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup honey
1/2 lemon, juiced
rosemary sprigs (just a handful)
black pepper (maybe 4-5 balls)
6-8 quinces *they should be yellow, and firm, not squishy, with a nice fragrance right at the stem ends*
Pour the water (and wine if using) in a large pot and add in the sugar, honey, and lemon, bringing it to a boil and then immediately lowering to a simmer. While the pot is heating, peel and cut the quinces into 1/8ths, coring them in the process. Be careful: quinces are incredibly hard to cut and if your knife is not sharp, or your hand not strong, you may slip and cut yourself. I cannot stress this enough: those suckers are slippery. Once the pot has boiled and you’ve reduced it to a simmer, add in the rosemary and black pepper, give it a stir, and add in all the quinces.
To keep the mixture from evaporating too much – and just to keep the heat in more readily without a full lid – make a parchment lid to cover the quinces. Fold a sheet of parchment in half, then in half again, the in half once more, put the folded contraption along the pot and eyeball the parchment tip approximately dead spot in the center, then make a mark where the parchment hits the pot at the other end. Cut at this point, unfold, and voila – a rough, parchment circle. Cut a small hole in the center to make sure the parchment doesn’t boil up all the time.
The quinces should simmer for however long it takes for them to become lusciously, deliciously ruby in color. Some take only an hour, but I once had a pot that took 2.5 hours. Don’t be deterred if you peek at the quinces after an hour and still see a yellowish, pear color, despite all softness to the contrary. And never raise the heat to higher than a simmer – you don’t want a mushy paste, do you? Please, just hold your horses: the color will come through eventually, and once you take a bite of your long-awaited quinces, you’ll never want to make anything else ever again.