Meet the Quince

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“Is that an oddly fuzzy pear? Or a jumbo-sized, weirdly knobbled apple?”

Deep yellow and wonderfully fragrant, the quince isn’t easy to identify on the first try.

Quinces are in the same pome-fruit family as the apple and pear, but these late-autumn beauties have a charm that’s all their own. Persian in origin, quinces have a long history in both sweet and savory cooking around the Mediterranean, from Greece and Crete to France, Spain, and Portugal, south to North Africa and east to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and on through Central Asia.

So why are they unfamiliar, even to fruit fans, here in the States? Most likely it’s because, unlike an easily munched Granny Smith apple or Bartlett pear, a raw quince is hard, grainy, and astringent; some would say they’re nearly inedible. But when slow-simmered or braised with sugar or honey, they soften and become meltingly tender, with a rich, complex flavor. In Morocco, quince slices are stewed with lamb and sweet spices and served over couscous; in Spain, they’re slow-cooked into membrillo, a thick, sliceable jelly that’s served with manchego, the salty sheep’s milk cheese.

My favorite way to cook quinces is to bake them in a low oven in a lightly spiced, lightly sweetened syrup until they’re a dazzling carnelian red. This compote can be spooned over yogurt or oatmeal for breakfast, accompany a stack of fluffy French toast or pancakes, or be served with ice cream, sorbet, or custard for dessert. You can also mash or purée the cooked fruit with a little syrup to make a delicious quince sauce, wonderful on its own or mixed with applesauce.

Look for quinces that are firm and fragrant, with a deep yellow (rather than green) skin. Quinces will last quite a long time at room temperature, and will perfume a room with their unique spicy-sweet scent. They’re very hard, so you’ll need to use a heavy, sharp knife or cleaver to slice them. Use a sturdy melon baller or a small, sharp knife to scrape out and discard the tightly packed brown seeds and tough cores.

Both quince compote and quince sauce make a perfect accompaniment for crisp fried latkes, the savory potato pancakes traditionally served during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. And while I love the classic potato version, I also like to mix it up this time of year, taking advantage of the season’s wide variety of beautifully colored roots and tubers to make variations like these Butternut Squash and Sage Latkes.

Quince Compote
If you want thicker syrup, remove the cooked quinces and set aside at the end of the baking time. Simmer the syrup over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes to concentrate it.   

INGREDIENTS
3 pounds quinces
1½ cups water
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons honey, optional
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
2 whole allspice berries

PREPARATION

  • Preheat oven to 300ºF. Using a sharp knife or sturdy peeler, peel quinces. Cut into quarters and remove seeds and cores.
  • In a heavy, non-reactive pot with a lid, bring water, sugar, honey if using, and spices to a boil. Add quince and bring to a simmer.
  • Cover pot and place in the oven. Bake the quinces, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 2½ hours, until quinces are deep red and very tender but still hold their shape.
  • Remove from the oven and let quinces cool in the cooking liquid. Serve warm or at room temperature with a little of the syrup. Refrigerate any extra quince covered in syrup.

Prep time, 20 minutes; cook time, 2½ hours.

 

Butternut Squash and Sage Latkes

INGREDIENTS
3 cups shredded butternut squash
¼ cup shredded red onion
1 egg
¼ cup matzoh meal or dry bread crumbs
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage, or to taste
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Vegetable oil for frying

PREPARATION

  • In a large bowl, mix together the squash, onion, egg, matzoh meal, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Line a baking sheet with several layers of paper towels.
  • In a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, heat ½ inch oil over medium heat. Drop a small amount of the latke mixture into the oil; it should sizzle and splutter if the oil is hot enough. Working in batches, slide spoonfuls of the squash mixture into the oil; latkes should be 2–3 inches in diameter. Fry, flipping once, until golden brown on both sides, about 4 minutes per side.
  • Using a spatula, lift latkes out of the oil and place on paper towel–lined baking sheet to drain. Repeat process with remaining squash mixture.
  • Serve with sour cream (or Greek yogurt) and quince compote.

Serves 4 (makes about 16 pancakes). Prep time, 30 minutes (includes peeling and shredding squash); cook time, 30 minutes.

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is the author of six books, including Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and Fun Food: Kids in the Kitchen (Williams-Sonoma). She writes frequently about seasonal cooking and holds a certificate in ecological horticulture from the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

 

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