There are some people who like to cook, but want an explicit recipe to follow. Then there are others who dare to plunge in with new ingredients, new techniques, making it up as they go along. It’s Carolyn today and for all of my professional life, through five cookbooks, I’ve belonged to the later group. Most of my experimental cooking over the years has involved wild plants, but this week I began to make friends with an old-fashioned cultivar: the quince. There is plenty of advice for how to cook quinces, I’d just never done it before. And the advice isn’t foolproof.
Quince is native to rocky slopes and woodland margins in Western Asia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Georgia and from northern Iran to Afghanistan. It was brought to the New World by the Spanish and is very popular in Sonora, Mexico. Several years ago, the Kino Fruit Tree Project propagated cuttings from quince trees in Sonora and many of those cuttings have grown into huge and prolific trees in the Mission Garden in Tucson. I write about these in my new book A Desert Feast: Celebrating Tucson’s Culinary History. Quinces aren’t as popular as apples, to which they are related, because they can’t be plucked from the tree and eaten. They are hard and astringent and they need to be cooked to be good.
After looking through a number of recipes, I decided to take a risk and combine a couple of them. One bit of advice that ran through all the recipes was not to peel the quinces because that’s where much of the pectin (the jelling factor) lies. I decided to use half quince and half green apple and chose a technique of grating the fruit rather than chopping it. Then I mixed the sugar with the fruit, lemon juice, and water and cooked it. I kept having to add more water to get the fruit soft. Because I had added the sugar right away, the mixture jelled before it was adequately soft.
This is a case of I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Quince, even when shredded is a hard fruit and takes a long time to cook. When I finally gave up, the resulting jam was rather chewy.
In the middle of my experiment, I reached out to gardening and cooking expert Dena Cowan for advice. Maybe I should have done that first. Here is her response: “For the past two years I have been making it in the crock pot! I cook the whole quinces first in a pot full of water for about 10 or 15 minutes, just to make it easier to cut them. (If you have a microwave, you can put the whole fruit in it for a minute). No need to peel. I cut around the core and wrap all the cores in cheesecloth. Then I dice the rest of the quince. I put the diced quince, the cores in the cheesecloth, and the cane sugar into the crock pot, stir it up, and leave it overnight. In the morning I mush the core and use what in Spain they call a “chino” (basically a strainer) to get the gelatin out of the cooked core. Then I mush all the quince with a masher and leave it a couple of hours more.”
Ultimately, I used my jam as filling for some turnovers. The texture is perfect for them. I have about a cup left. We can use it on toast or I might try it as an alternate filling in a recipe I have used for fig or date bars.
2 quinces, unpeeled
2 green apples, unpeeled
¼ cup lemon juice
½ cup water (be prepared to add more)
2 cups sugar
Cut washed fruit in quarters and remove cores. Grate apples into a bowl; grate quince into heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Add water to grated quince and cook over low heat until soft, about 15 minutes. Add grated apple, lemon juice, sugar, and more water if necessary. Cook over medium heat, watching closely and adding more water as necessary, around another 15 minutes. The mixture is done when it turns pink. Makes about 1 pint.
A Desert Feast: Celebrating Tucson’s Culinary Heritage tells the history of how residents of the Santa Cruz Valley have fed themselves over thousands of years, why they are still eating some of the same foods over that time, and how that led to Tucson’s designation of the first American city to earn the coveted UNESCO City of Gastronomy. You can order the book from your favorite bookstore, on-line, or from the Native Seeds/SEARCH bookstore.