By all rights last fall, Doug Woerner, my downtown farmers' market late-season quince source, should have been feeling the love. The October 2007 issue of Martha Stewart Living had an article on quince, with several simple recipes. But not even the blessing of that well-known purveyor of "good things" helped move many pints or pecks of the fruit off Woerner Orchards' market table.
I was, and still am, one of Woerner's only quince customers. I can't wait for his quince, with its knobby shape, glo-green color when not ready and almost fluorescent-yellow tone when ripe. My house smells happy, like a holiday, when the fruit's cooking. Its appearance at the market is one of the only good things I can say about having to bid summer adieu.
A particular pleasure of this market is the display savvy of farmers who juxtapose their goods by color and shape - almost like painting with produce. But quince made its almost invisible 2008 debut on Woerner's table the first Sunday of October, unhighlighted next to similarly shaped yellow Bartlett pears. Maybe Woerner's thoughts paralleled mine as I mournfully regarded and bought the last of his Gettysburg-area white peaches, marking the true spiritual end of summer. But then, after I had eased several boxes of quince into my rolling basket, autumn was off and running.
My early-season source is Richard Dilworth of Hills Forest Fruit Farm in Kingsville. His market table, almost back-to-back with Woerner's, sports quince from his ancestral tree a month ahead, courtesy of his more southerly location. Besides me, he has only one other rabid, regular customer, characterized as a Russian gentleman, which amuses me and makes me curious if he's Jewish, and of Ashkenazi descent, as am I. Quince are native to Iran and figure prominently in the distinctive Sephardic cuisine of Middle Eastern Jews.
Mostly, Dilworth brings quince to brighten up and fill up his table when his wares run low. I discovered he had quince quite by accident. One Sunday I commented on how his Ginger Gold apples approximated the odd hue of quince and, before I knew it, I had secured a new line of fruit. Dilworth brings them to market unripe and with the leaves on. I'm happy to plop them in bowls and just look at them, but I've also found this early variety needs to be refrigerated and cooked before it's fully ripe or it rots. Quickly.
Woerner's quince have more staying power. I've successfully stored his December end-of-season quince in the refrigerator for two months before the unblemished ripe fruit began to turn brown and go from firm to mushy. (Quince should never be brown and mushy.)
So why so little interest in quince? It's thought by biblical scholars, by the way, to be the fruit referenced in Genesis and Song of Solomon (quince predate apples).
Perhaps it's because quince must be cooked - no eating out of hand for fruit this tart and grainy when raw - and recipes are fairly scarce, so consequently, there's little demand. I don't recall seeing quince anywhere but at the downtown farmers' market. But every year at this time, I confront the temptation bookstores pose for me, hoping to ferret out at least one new simple recipe.
My favorite is a poached quince preparation, acquired serendipitously from an excellent Williams-Sonoma baking book. The poached quince is used in a tart recipe further back in the book, and I've also used it in other recipes that call for cooked quince. I admit, however, to usually poaching what's just been poached and not having enough for the tart, so I double up on the quince and the spices (but not the liquid) and I'm good to go.
Baking is all science and accuracy. Poaching fruit is usually anything but - but that's not the case with this recipe.
Following the poaching procedure to the letter guarantees that everything turns beet-red, albeit after a lot of nothing much happening until a full two hours in.
Orange muscat is essential to achieve the most exquisite flavor; save this recipe for another day if this muscat variety cannot be had. Use the least-expensive bottle available - a $12 orange muscat works just as well as a $22 bottle. While even $12 may sound a little dear, the recipe calls for only half the bottle.
With quince season so fleeting, I make this recipe weekly and am able to recycle the syrup by adding water and more spices, so I actually get four recipes' worth out of one bottle.
For an effortless introduction to cooking with quince (no peeling necessary), try a Martha Stewart Living recipe for quince preserves.
And despite the recipe's name, no exotic cooking vessel is necessary for Joan Nathan's Algerian Chicken Tagine With Quince - just a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid.
Quince poached in wine syrup
(makes 3 to 4 cups)
2 cups orange muscat
2 cups sugar
two 3-inch cinnamon sticks
5 whole cloves
1/4 teaspoon peppercorns
3 to 4 pounds golden quince, peeled, cored and cut into slices 3/4 inch thick
In an saucepan, combine orange muscat, sugar, spice and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stiring to dissolve sugar.
Add quince and return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and place parchment paper over the pan to cover. Simmer gently until quince are tender and pink, about 2 1/2 hours. Serve cold.
Adapted from "Cakes, Cookies, Pies & Tarts," by Williams-Sonoma
per 1/4 cup: 121 calories, 0 grams protein, 0 grams fat, 0 grams saturated fat, 32 grams carbohydrate, 1 gram fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 2 milligrams sodium