Quinces aren't what one would call a staple these days. But in other parts of the world and in Colonial times in this country, they were as popular as apples and pears. Related to both, the quince is a hard, yellow fruit, whose pale white flesh turns pink when cooked. The flavor suggests both apple and pear, with a hint of spice and guava. Depending on the variety, the quince will be round or pear shaped, yellow or light green, smooth skinned or covered with a soft down.

Scholars believe that the golden apples of the Hesperides were actually quinces. Young Greek men gave quinces to their sweethearts; maidens ate them on their wedding night. Quince jelly was considered a princely gift in the Middle Ages: the grateful burgers of Orleans gave some to Joan of Arc when she lifted the English siege.

The Portuguese are considered the world's masters at making quince preserves. The Portuguese word for quince is marmelo, the origin of our term marmalade. Rich in pectin, quinces are, indeed, excellent for making jellies.

Quince aficionados claim that the fruit tastes best wheharvested after the first frost. Look for smooth, round jTC unblemished fruits with a fresh apple-pineapple-banana smell. Quinces are naturally hard and store well: You can keep them for up to two weeks at room temperature or for several months in the refrigerator.

In their natural state, some quinces are covered with a downfuzz. This should be rubbed off with a damp cloth. Some people (myself included) like to munch quinces raw, although they are somewhat astringent and bitter. Cooked, they are infinitely more palatable. The cooking time is longer than you would think: it takes 30 to 60 minutes of boiling or baking for the fruit to completely soften.

Most recipes call for quinces to be peeled, a time consuming and, as I recently discovered, unnecessary procedure. The skin is soft and perfectly palatable both before and after cooking.

To prepare quinces for cooking, cut in half with a large knife and use a melon baller to remove the core.

The fruit is low in calories and high in fiber, potassium and vitamin C. Quinces come to market in late fall and will be available through January.

*** Lamb and quince stew

Serves four to six.

2 pounds boneless lamb (leg or stew meat)

3 quinces (1 1/2 pounds)

3 carrots

2 potatoes

1 onion

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 teaspoon saffron

1 cup boiling water

salt and fresh black pepper to taste

5 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons paprika

cayenne pepper

Cut the lamb into 1-inch pieces. Peel and core the quinces, and peel carrots and potatoes; cut all into 1-inch pieces. Finely chop the onion. Place the raisins and saffron in a bowl. Add 1 cup boiling water.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan. Season the lamb with salt and pepper, and brown in batches over high heat.Transfer to a platter; discard the fat and add the remaining olive oil to the pan. Saute the onion and quince over medium heat for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the onion is tender but not browned. Stir in the paprika and cook for 15 seconds. Add lamb and the raisins and saffron with their soaking liquid. Cover the lamb with water and bring the stew to a boil.

Reduce the heat and gently simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the lamb is tender, adding water as necessary. The carrots and )) potatoes should be added half way through. When meat and vegetables are tender, correct the seasoning with salt, pepper and a little cayenne. Serve over rice or couscous.

***Baked stuffed quinces

Serves four.

4 quinces

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup currants

1/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans

2 tablespoons bourbon

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Core the quinces from the narrow top end (make a cavity deep enough to remove the seeds, but not so deep that it goes all the way through the fruit.)

Cream the butter. Beat in the sugar, currants, pecans, bourbon and spices. Spoon this mixture into the quinces. Place them in a small roasting pan. Bake the quinces at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until soft, spooning any melted filling back over the quinces.

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