Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which Nozlee Samadzadeh breaks down our favorite seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more by the numbers.
It seems so obvious that quinces are close cousins to apples and pears -- that is, until you bite into one. Astringent and sweetly bitter (very similar to persimmons, in fact), they're not easy to love. But with proper handling, some seed-saving, and the right recipes, you'll be stocking up on quinces all winter long.
1. A Quince by Any Other Name: Knobbly and gorgeously yellow-green, quinces look like they belong in still life paintings. They're indigenous to the Middle East (Turkey and Iran, particularly) although the biggest grower of quinces these days is China. Quince trees look just like stocky, shorter apple or pear trees -- in fact, you can graft pear stock onto them for a sturdier crop. Although most quinces you'll find in stores and at farmers' market are basically apple-shaped, there are pyriform varieties as well -- and quinces are more fragrant than apples and pears combined, with a bitter cardamom-like twang to their their intensely sweet aroma.
2. To Eat, or Not to Eat: Despite what you may have read or heard, quinces are perfectly edible when raw. The trick is eliminating their astringency: like persimmons, they must ripen far beyond your normal comfort zone to develop sweetness. Don't have time to wait? In Iran, quinces are put into a sturdy bag and then rapped with a mallet until they're soft all over. This bursts cells in the quinces' flesh, releasing their sweet juices to counteract the bitter flavors. (You could do this yourself by chewing a piece for a very long time, but it's much more fun with a blunt object.)
If you prefer your quinces cooked, you can skip those steps -- when exposed to heat, quince flesh goes soft, sweet, and pink. Membrillo, a quince jelly, is perhaps the most popular recipe to make with the fruit, because of the massive amounts of pectin in quince seeds. (Indeed, marmalade comes from the word for quince in various European languages.) Quinces also make a grand addition to any apple or pear baked good -- just a little bit boosts flavor, making the fruits taste even more like themselves. But quinces aren't relegated to desserts: there are many Middle Eastern dishes that pair the fruit with beef, lamb, and warm spices -- find one at the bottom of the page here. Because quince flesh doesn't fall apart during cooking, it's the ideal pair for long-simmered stews. And one more tip: if your recipe calls for peeled quince, save the skins. Simmered with equal parts sugar and water, they make a pale-pink syrup perfect for lemonades and cocktails.
3. Save those Seeds: Like their Rosaceae family cousins the apple and pear, quinces have five-petaled flowers that grow into five-chambered seed pods, yielding about a dozen seeds per fruit. Hold on to those seeds! Next time you make jam, toss them in for a pectin boost. Or you can soak a tablespoon of seeds in a half cup or so of water -- left overnight, the seeds develop a thick, mucilaginous liquid that is a traditional Middle Eastern palliative for sore throats (the mucilage, as it's called, coats the throat and relieves coughing). The gooey liquid may have even bigger possibilities -- there are scientific studies on its healing properties.
On a lighter note, quince mucilage can be mixed with cologne to make, of all things, a natural hair gel. For you Gone with the Wind fans: at one point in the book, Scarlett O'Hara asks Mammy to wash her hair then get her "a jar of quince seed jelly to make it lie down flat." If the effects of quince seed jelly worked on Rhett Butler…!
No matter how you prepare your quinces -- roasted with root vegetables, in a soup with celeriac, stuffed into adorable pastries, or rubbed into your hair -- you're now equipped to make the most of them. Have you ever cooked with quince?
Photos by James Ransom