Oy, the Quince! A Fragrant Fruit.
I was in a rush and bought two quince, thinking when I picked them up, that they were the biggest, most beautiful pears that I had ever seen. We were out of fruit at home, and I was trying to fill in with a little something. When I got to the check-out at our local Union Market, the check out person asked me, "are those pears?" And I replied, "of course they were." As always, so certain that what I believed to be true was the truth. In retrospect, funny, since there was a tag to be scanned, and they should have come up as quince. But the check out person did not notice, or if he did, did not bring this mistake to my attention. Perhaps he thought the quince was a type of pear. On my part, I had neglected to watch the print-out on the screen and so was in the dark until I got home. I must admit that I was suspicious. I had never seen such large, healthy looking pears. Once home, I looked at the tags, and lo and behold, they were quince. Not wanting Dan, my husband, to pick one up and bite into it, mistakenly thinking it was a beautiful bright yellow pear, I put the quince in a berry dish, a decorative piece of pottery which, when not in use, sits on a shelf in the living room off the kitchen. As you may know, you cannot eat raw quince.
Flowering quince in spring.
Later that evening, while visiting my son and his girlfriend, who live in the top floor apartment of our three story house, I noticed that they had also recently purchased two quince. I asked them what they would make with their quince. They weren't sure yet. I quickly tried to pawn off my two quince on them. I made the argument that they could do so much more with four quince than two, such as make a quince and apple pie, for instance. I was not successful in my lobbying. They were unconvinced and wanted to limit themselves to their own two quince.
The quince in the berry bowl haunted me every time I passed by the living room shelves. Oy, the quince! And so I decided to figuratively bite the quince and start cooking.
I wanted to go with something simple, and thought that I would just poach the quince in water with some sugar, the way you prepare apples to make apple sauce. But I would not mash the quince. I wanted the texture of whole pieces. Also, frankly, I wanted something low fat, because after being on what I like to refer to as "the pie diet" (I ate a lot of the cranberry pie with chocolate crust that I had recently made), it was time to cut back on calories. I looked in a few cookbooks. Nigel Slater writes so beautifully about quince in his cookbook Ripe, A cook in the orchard, dear reader, that you should all make an effort to find the book and read what his has written. Please, just don't "steal this book." You can always find a copy at the local library. Nigel Slater is truly a poetic writer. Besides his descriptive prose, he gives a history and background of the fruit. A less poetic history, and further background information on this fragrant fruit may also be found on Wikipedia.
In the end I decided to adapt the recipe, Quince and sweet Gorgonzola salad, from Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi. I can smell the fragrance of the quince, poaching in a pan in the oven, as I write a draft of this post.
The poaching part of the recipe called for 15 Black Peppercorns. Just out of curiosity, dear reader, when you make a recipe, do you count your peppercorns, or do you just eyeball it and throw some in? I have always been a stickler for following recipes exactly as they were written, but have been loosening up over the last five years or so. Two Thanksgivings ago, cooking with my son, who is more of a jazz player type cook than a marching band player, he watched me as I laboriously counted out a certain number of peppercorns to throw into the pot, and commented that he couldn't believe that I just did that. I think of that moment often, when cooking. I have loosened up a bit, and now sometimes cook in the mode of a scat singer, while other times I regress and still laboriously count out the peppercorns one by one.
But, first, going back in time a bit, there was a speed bump in the road. When I went to prepare the quince and cut into them, I discovered I had left them as a still life, too long. I quickly put on my sneakers and winter coat, alerted my husband that I was running out for a minute, and went back to Union market, hoping they still had quince, and that they would be fresher than the ones at home.
And then a bit of magic happened...
I found a small mound of quince hidden under some tired looking persimmons and star fruit. I lined up most of the quince, looking for the best specimens. Then someone I hadn't notice before, man, a total stranger, came up to me and, as New Yorkers are wont to do, started conversing. He seemed delighted that I was buying quince, and asked me if I would be making jelly. I told him my plans, and about my problem, that the quince I had at home did not look so good. He advised me on how to pick out the best ones available, that they shouldn't be all yellow, but should have a bit of green in them. He went on to strongly recommend I put cinnamon sticks in the pot when I cooked the quince. Then he told me that he was Romanian, and that it was his people's tradition to cook quince at the time of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday celebrated with Lulav and Etrog.
Sukkoth is a holiday that lives in my own mind, as my younger brother's Bar Mitzvah coincided with the holiday's celebration. All the congregants of our synagogue carried Lulav and Etrog on the clear, blue sky'd October day of my brother's Bar Mitzvah ceremony. This occasion was the first I had learned about these things, and it all seemed so special. What a visual treat, to see so many people holding long green fronds during the ceremony, and ambling home afterwards.
But back to my encounter at the Union market. My kind stranger's eyes were closed, as for the moment he was lost in his own special memories of his past. As I chose the quince, he left the store, telling me once more before leaving that I should use cinnamon sticks when I cooked the quince. Hearing him speak, it was as if we could both smell the fragrance of the simmered quince married to the aroma of the cinnamon. With those words, it seemed that he disappeared as quickly the Cheshire Cat had done in Alice in Wonderland. Now, as I cook this recipe, my first with quince, I can't help think of my own family and it's beginnings. I listen to the song Anatevka from Fiddler on the Roof, playing in the background of my mind, as I proceed with the recipe.
Quince and sweet Gorgonzola salad
- 1-¾ cups water
- 1-½ cups sugar
- 15 black peppercorns
- 4 strips of orange zest
- 2 bay leaves
- juice of ½ lemon/3/4 cup red wine
- 2 medium quinces
- 1 tsp. grainy mustard
- 2 tsp. cider vinegar
- 4 tbsp. olive oil plus extra to finish
- salt and black pepper
- 2-½ cups mixed leaves such as mizuna, dandelion, watercress or radicchio di Treviso
- 4 to 5 ox. Gorgonzola
- scant ½ cup shelled unsalted pistachios lightly toasted, some whole and some roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Take a medium-sized heavy pan that can go in the oven and for which you have a tight-fitting lid. Place inside the water, sugar, peppercorns, orange zest, bay leaves, lemon juice and red wine. Set on the stove and bring to a light simmer. As soon as the sugar dissolves, remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to peel the quinces; keep the skin. With a heavy knife, cut the fruit vertically into quarters and remove the core; keep this too. Cut each quarter into two segments. Place the quince segments, plus the skins and cores, in the sugar syrup. Cover the pan and put it into the oven to cook for about 2 hours. After this time the quince should be completely tender. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, uncovered.
Whisk together until smooth the mustard, vinegar, oil, 4 tablespoons of the quince cooking liquid, ½ teaspoon salt and a good grind of black pepper.
To finish the salad, place some salad leaves on four serving plates. Arrange four quince segments per portion and some hand-broken pieces of Gorgonzola on the leaves. Try to build the salad up. Place a few more leaves on top. Spoon the dressing over and scatter over the pistachios. Finish with a light drizzle of olive oil. Alternatively, arrange similarly in a large, central mixing bowl and bring to the table.