Formidable Fruit

Quince is biblical,mythical and very much in season. But for Pete’s sake, don’t try to eat it raw.

Once a year around Halloween, a friend brings me a bag of quince from her aunt’s farm near Portland. “We have more of these than we know what to do with,” she says, “and we don’t know what to do with what we have.” Of course, I take them.

That’s quince, one syllable, with a “kwih” sound up front, not the hard k of the Spanish word for 15. Also known as the Apple of Discord that started the Trojan War. Also known as the Fruit Eve Ate. Quince are probably the comforting apples name-checked in the Song of Solomon and definitely the source of marmalade, originally made from quince and named for marmello, its Portuguese translation. It was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite, so it’s no surprise quince represented love, fertility and happiness in ancient Greece. I like to think the fruit’s difficult nature and quiet durability invited its symbolism in the first place.

Quince looks like a cross between a pie apple and a particularly curvaceous Bartlett pear. As part of the rose family, it is in fact cousin to both. The raw fruit smells amazing—like honey, roses and citrus—but its taste is usually described as “astringent,” which is a nice way to say it’s so sour and dry that each bite causes a brief episode of cottonmouth. When cooked, the flesh blushes to a light garnet and the taste softens into something more floral and pear-like. Of the few people I’ve met who eat quince at home, only one person eats it raw, with salt, as a point of pride because she’s Chilean and that’s how her family eats it.

To a pie-maker such as myself, quince signals the arrival of winter. After the extroversion of summer’s delicate berries and colorful stone fruits, quince is a taciturn contrast that suits winter’s darker days. I abandon them in a bowl for a couple of weeks and they’re perfectly content to ripen while they wait for me.

This is a cook’s fruit, not a grocery store favorite. At Spanish restaurants like the Harvest Vine, you’ll encounter it boiled down and sweetened into a ruby paste called membrillo, spread next to a hunk of Manchego. The Whale Wins, a new restaurant in Fremont, gives the pairing an American twist by matching their house-made quince jam with Beecher’s Flagship Reserved Cheddar. Deluxe Jam makes their quince jelly with fruit gathered from Seattle backyards. I’ve baked quince with pears and apples in pie and stewed them with pork; I’ve given them as gifts to my favorite Scorpios and Sagittarians. When I don’t know what else to do with my batch, I use them as air fresheners. They perfume a room until I come up with a better plan.

Quince trees were a feature in early colonial gardens, and though commercial orchards don’t grow many because there isn’t much of a market for them, they’re not impossible to find. Check PCC, Whole Foods, co-ops and Middle Eastern markets for fresh quince, and the cheese case of your local grocery store for membrillo. Check your yard, too— sometimes you’ll find an old quince tree producing its yearly weight of culinary gold.

Photo by Nate Watters

RECIPE: Rose Family Pie

Pairs of apples, pears and quince—all members of the Rosaceae family—cozy up with honey and cinnamon for a homey but sophisticated treat. Quinces take longer to bake than their softer cousins, so give them a head start by sautéing them in butter before adding them to the mix. A light, floral honey will frame their distinct flavors best. This pie is a bit of a proselytizer of pomology (the science of fruit tree cultivation—how’s that for a mouthful?). After I made it for Thanksgiving, my mother planted quince in her backyard.

1 recipe pastry for a double crust pie (Use your favorite. For a new favorite, join me at Pie School.)
2 quince (about one pound) peeled, cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 pears cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 apples cored and sliced 1/4 inch thick
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup honey
1/2 tsp cinnamon
small pinch nutmeg
pinch salt
1 heaping tablespoon of flour
milk or egg white wash
sugar for dusting

Sauté quince slices on medium heat in butter until tender. Quince cook quite slowly and can be sour if undercooked, so be patient and make sure they’re soft before you remove them from heat.

In a medium bowl combine the pears, apples and quince, cover them with honey, sprinkle them with cinnamon, nutmeg and salt, and stir until each slice is fairly evenly covered. Taste. Adjust salt and cinnamon if necessary. Then add the flour. Set aside while you prepare your crusts.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Roll out the bottom crust and place it in a pie pan. Tuck the dough into the pan and trim excess dough so the edge extends only 1 inch past the pie plate. Refrigerate while you prepare the top crust.

Roll out the top crust. Pour the filling into the bottom crust, smooth it into a mound with your hands and cover all with the top crust. Trim to 1 inch on all sides, form an upstanding ridge, then crimp and flute the edge to your taste. Cut generous steam vents. Brush the top crust but not the edges with milk or egg white wash (egg white and a splash of water, mixed) and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake the pie at 425 degrees for 15-20 minutes in the center of your oven. When the crust looks blistered and blonde, turn the heat down to 375 degrees and bake for 35-40 minutes. If the crust starts to get too brown, tent it with aluminum foil. The pie is done when the crust is golden and juices bubble slowly at the edge.

Cool on a wire rack for at least an hour before serving. If there are leftovers, wrap the pie plate in a loose kitchen towel and leave it on the counter.

RECIPE: Braised Pork Chops with Quince

This quick braise shows off quince’s savory side by simmering it with whole coriander—a spice that, like quince, can taste as good in dessert as it does in dinner. With thanks to Molly Stevens’s All About Braising for the inspiration.

4 1-inch-thick bone-in loin pork chops
salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon whole coriander
1 onion thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound quince, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water

Dry the pork chops with paper towels and season liberally with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a dutch oven on medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, place as many chops as will fit without touching and let them brown for 3-5 minutes. Don’t touch or move them. The idea is to sear the chops, not cook them through. Once you’ve got a nice brown crust on one side, flip them over to sear the other. Once that side is brown, put the chops on a plate and set them aside for the moment. If your chops don’t fit all at once in the pan, sear the rest in batches.

Lower the heat to medium and add the butter. Add the coriander and cook until fragrant, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. This should take about one minute. Then add the onions. Sauté the oil/butter/pork fat until soft, about 3-5 minutes, then stir in the quince and honey. Continue to cook until the quince are tender. This might take longer than you think.

Stir in wine (just use whatever you’re drinking that night) and water (or light stock if you have it). Nestle the pork chops into the quince and onions, cover tightly and braise on low for 20 minutes. The braising liquid should bubble lazily. Braise until the internal temperature is 150 degrees.

Transfer pork chops to a serving dish. Increase the heat under the braising liquid to medium and let boil to thicken gently. The pectin from the quince will make rich gravy.

Taste; adjust salt and sweet as needed.

Spoon quince, onions and gravy over the chops and serve.