“Fruits, like stocks and clothes, are ruled by the inscrutable laws of fashion. Quince may never regain its status as a major player, but in today’s food world, it’s so out it’s in.”
This is an excerpt from a lovely article written by David Karp for the Los Angeles Times back in 2009, detailing the many qualities and quandaries of the quince. I think that pretty much sums up the quince situation in today’s culinary arena. Have you ever eaten or cooked quince? Do you even know what it is? Well, living in California, you should.
California is currently the only United States grower and distributor of quinces. The only one. Just when I start to think that living in California is just okay, I’m hit smack-dab in the face with a new factoid to prove me wrong. We are absurdly lucky to have such an array of produce available to us within miles of our home.
Quince is another one of those awesome, underappreciated, and misunderstood fruits that I love. It’s another hipster fruit if you will. It’s so cool because it’s so un-cool.
Back in the day, quinces were much more popular because they were a top candidate for preserving and jam making due to their high concentration of pectin in their seeds. The advent of commercial powdered gelatin was a big blow to quince’s popularity. With readily-available powdered gelatin (and pectin), cooks could turn anything into gel, disregarding the naturally-occurring compound. Then, in the words of Mr. Karp, the quince went out of style.
Lucky for us, they’re back, and you need to know about them. If you were to imagine a bartlett pear and a golden delicious apple having a lovechild, a quince would be the result. They’re bulbous and bumpy with very fine grayish fur-like fibers sometimes present on their surface. Typically, we see them in markets when they are still pretty green as they’re picked when underripe to travel better. When very ripe, they are a pale yellow.
Quinces, when raw, are virtually inedible, much like my other hipster fruit, the Fuyu persimmon. They are very tannic and acrid. The best way to eat them is to cook them in simple syrup, slowly simmering on the stovetop for one to three hours. Some people peel and core them, but I don’t. According to one of my pastry idols, Kate Zuckerman, the best way to coax the exotic flavors and characteristics out of quince is to cook them with the seeds to extract all that natural pectin.
I also add a piece of orange zest to add another little hint of citrus flavor. The resulting quince can then be cooled down and strained. Then puree the quince, and strain to remove the seeds. The smooth puree will make the best sorbet on Earth (see Zuckerman’s killer recipe in her book A Sweet Life.) You could also simply strain out the flesh, and slice it thinly to be used as you would poached pears. The treatment is very similar, but the flavor is different and to die for. It’s commonly compared to the flavor of guava, pineapple, pear, and mango. It’s not citrusy, just very floral and exotic. The color transformation is amazing as well. Transitioning from green when raw to rosy red once cooked, it’s just as beautiful to look at as it is delicious to eat. Bonus!
They grow in California from late summer through early winter and are usually available in markets through January. As for preparation, the hands-on time is minimal, and the payoff is worth the wait. Cooked low and slow for hours, quince develops that complex depth of flavor and intoxicating floral aroma. Even though the cooking time is slow, slow food is good food.