Of all the fragrant fruits that pass through my kitchen, quince is by far the most mysterious. Cultivated as long ago as biblical times, quince has been a highly prized fruit starting in the Fertile Crescent, where it is said to have originated, and then through Asia Minor, Persia, and the Mediterranean. Quince is a pome fruit, and its perfume hints at a distant relationship to apples and pears. Quinces can have a heady pineapple aroma with notes of vanilla and guava hibernating beneath a thick skin. Quince is different because it is inedible in its uncooked form; the raw flesh is bitter and astringent. When cooked, it takes on a pinkish hue with a tangy, spicy finish.
Carotenoid molecules give quinces their yellow color. Once cooked, they break down into compounds called lactones and ionones, which give cooked quinces their signature rose color and floral aroma. Phenolic chemicals in the raw fruit are what cause the fruit to taste astringent, but long exposure to heat turns them into anthocyanins that taste mellow and pleasing.
Because of its long, hot growing season, California’s San Joaquin Valley is the main producer of quinces in the United States. The harvest runs from late August to November, and the fruit, which stores well, can be seen in markets through January. Quinces have a high pectin content, which is why most of our experience with quince is in the form of jams and jellies. Though delicious, it is a shame to experience quince only in this way, because its sweet and tangy bite plays well in many different culinary forms.
Just in time for winter, the alluring aroma of quince can enliven many dull winter soups. For example, take the winter staple, potato leek soup. Adding quince to the soup and cooking it alongside the potatoes preserves the texture and heartiness of the classic but adds a mysterious, bright layer of flavor. The reserved skin can be sliced thin and fried for a unique garnish that adds a toasted yet citrusy flavor.
Poaching quince is the best way to preserve its signature rosy color and deep pearlike flavor. I add star anise, cloves, and cinnamon to the poaching liquid to accentuate the spiciness inherent in the flesh. Once cooked, quinces store easily, and you will find yourself using them as a garnish for pork dishes, an accompaniment to ice cream, and a sweet spicy condiment in salads. Frying quinces in a pan caramelizes the surface quickly to give you a nutty treat that is appropriate for a winter salad.
A classic jelly roll is the perfect platform to highlight the quince’s rich flavor profile. I don’t complicate my recipe with too many bells and whistles. It’s a well-executed sponge cake and a delicious quince butter—that’s about all you need for this dessert. The quince butter is equally tasty on a tray of cheese and crackers or spread over a muffin or croissant in the morning.
Quince cultivation reached its height in the mid-19th century. Today’s plantings are a fraction of what they once were, and the fruit seems to be disappearing. Throughout history, quinces have been revered and sought after for their unique aroma and flavor. These recipes only scratch the surface of the possibilities. So go out there, find some quinces, and explore this ancient and seductive fruit.
Try these exclusive recipes from Chef Edward Lee:
Spiced Poached Quince
1. In a large pot, combine the water, sugar, honey, anise, cloves, and cinnamon stick. Squeeze the lemon into the liquid and throw the halves into the pot. Place on high heat. While the poaching liquid is heating, peel, core, and quarter the quinces. Add the quinces to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and partially cover with a lid. Simmer for at least an hour or until the quinces are cooked through.
2. When a knife easily pierces a quince, it’s done. Allow to cool. Poached quince can be prepared a week in advance and stored in its poaching liquid. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Photo: Mitch Mandel/Rodale
Originally Published in Organic Gardening Magazine, December/January 2014