Quinces 101

Quinces 101

The first time I ever tasted quince was in a jellied red paste served in thin, square slices alongside pieces of salty cheese. I was in a Spanish restaurant in Boston and the waiter had encouraged this unfamiliar choice instead of a more conventional dessert like flan. I instantly loved the complex sweetness of the sticky and grainy jelly against the creamy saltiness of the cheese.

This was membrillo and manchego: membrillo is a Spanish paste made from the naturally pectin-rich quince that is paired with the famed sheep's milk cheese, served both aged and fresh, the aging giving the manchego a drier texture and nuttier taste. It's one of those perfect pairings, like tomato and basil, or lime and tonic water, or meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

But for years the only way I ever tasted quince was in membrillo. I barely even registered that quince was a fruit, which wasn't totally unreasonable since until only about a decade ago it was rare to find, even at bountiful produce grocers like Fairway. But this has changed and quince has become a regular find at both Greenmarkets and grocers.

This past Friday I was at my weekly Greenmarket where among the wooden crates of New York apples was one filled with quinces. With the shape of a gnarled apple, these quinces were still unripe, with smooth, unblemished skins the color of a Bartlett pear. They also still had their faintly fuzzy surface and stems of crinkled leaves, making them look like a Chardin still life.

Quince. Even the name is as from another time. Along with apples and pears, quinces are members of the rose family and are said to show us what apples probably were like before centuries of cultivation.

But quinces have a unique feature and that is that they change color and flavor when cooked. The science that makes this possible has to do with this fruit's phenolic compounds that transform when heated. As pale white slices of quince are cooked in a sugar syrup, they not only lose their raw astringency and tannic, but also develop a ruby-red color and translucency. According to Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking, quinces contains compounds called anthroxanthins and anthrocyanins that behave in a way that is the opposite of chlorophyll: they are water-soluble and change color, as when red cabbage can turn blue when cooked or blueberries turn green in a pancake.

The fruit's natural pectin explains why quince is a choice for jam, paste and jelly. And while raw the fruit is hard, grainy and with an acidic flavor, when cooked both the flavor and texture soften.

Buying and Storing Quinces

A ripe quince has a yellow skin and is very firm, even rock hard. When buying quinces, look for ones with few marks or bruises and try to choose ones with a smooth surface, as these will be easier to peel.

If the only quinces you can find are still green, they're fine to buy but they may take a week or so to ripen. Resist cooking an unripe quince, as it won't have much flavor. Instead let them ripen by leaving green quinces at room temperature until the skin turns yellow and their fragrance becomes noticeable. You'll love their perfumed aroma which to my nose is a sweet combination of citrus and apple; it's said that in the past quinces were stored in household closets to give scent to linens and clothing -- much better than those chemically scented candles and plug-in things.

Like those I bought at my Greenmarket, quinces can have a fuzzy surface, as if covered in a fine down. This can be easily washed off under running water. Likewise if the surface is sticky -- just give it a rinse.

Quinces' harvest season starts in late summer and goes right through the middle of winter. Thinking ahead to the coming holidays and festive meals, I asked my apple farmer how much longer he'd have a supply and he said, "right through February."

While a few days left out on the counter won't cause a ripe quince to spoil, quinces should be refrigerated until you're ready to cook them, but they're hardy and can last a couple of months if kept chilled.

Cooking With Quinces

In addition to Spain's sweet membrillo paste, there are other traditional uses. In Portugal, quinces were used in some of the first ever marmalades. In some parts of the world, poached quinces are served at Rosh Hashanah or to break the fast at Yom Kippur. And it's common to find quince trees growing in Italian gardens where the fruit is used for jam and jelly.

It is also a popular ingredient in Moroccan cooking, as noted in Paula Wolfert's The Food of Morocco, which has three recipes featuring quince: one for Chicken with Caramelized Quinces and Toasted Walnuts, and two lamb and quince tagines, one of which includes okra.

Still, for many of us, aside from being turned into a confiture, quince is not a particularly familiar ingredient and certainly isn’t thought of as something to cook with.

But in fact it is versatile, sweet, and has an irresistible flavor. So if you come across quinces at a farmers' market, at your grocers -- or as my friend David can do, pick ones from a quince tree planted in the backyard of his house by the Italian man who built it eighty years ago -- here are a few ways to add quince to your fall and winter fruit choices:

I've found that dinner guests will be intrigued, and with one or two tastes will often prefer the poached quinces' taste to cranberry's tang. Perhaps you will love it enough to make it part of your regular Thanksgiving meal.





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