An ode to an almost-forgotten ingredient.
There was a time when arugula was unknown to New Yorkers, including me. Rocket—as it’s called in California, from its Italian name ruchetta—was to be found only at Kenny Migliorelli’s Greenmarket farm stand, his brown twine tied around each bunch. And I mean only, as in the only place in New York City. You couldn’t even find it at Balducci’s much less in plastic tubs of hothouse-grown baby arugula leaves that don’t taste like anything sold in every grocery store in town. Only the Italians knew what the stuff was. The rest of us were like Columbus thinking he had discovered America.
So, too, it was with quince. At Union Square, back in the ’80s when California was considered a type of cuisine, I stumbled upon the Greenmarket stand of Locust Grove Fruit Farm, a seventh-generation farm in Milton, New York, along the west side of the Hudson just across from Poughkeepsie. The Kents have been farming this land since the 1820s.
The apple trees in their orchards weren’t newly purchased from nurseries promoting the recent interest in heirlooms. These were just the trees the Kents had been tending in their orchards for generations, many of them planted by Chip Kent’s grandfather back in the early part of the 20th century. They were heirlooms before anyone thought to apply that word to food. It’s what was there.
At their stand I discovered a trove of apple varieties. Alongside the local ones I grew up with—like Cortland, McIntosh, Rome Beauty, Golden Delicious—was an even longer list of names I had never encountered: Northern Spy, Baldwin, Stayman Winesap, Wolf River, Sheep’s Nose, York Imperial, Arkansas Black, Ben Davis and, what soon became my favorites, Newtown Pippin and Golden Russet.
This discovery alone was reason enough for chef bliss, providing plenty of room for culinary exploration. But tucked over at the end of a side table far way from the mad trafficking in “bakers” and eating apples were some knobby-shaped yellow fruits covered in lots of gray fur. They had an alluring fragrance that revealed the plant’s place in the rose family more directly than any apple or pear ever will. It was intoxicatingly reminiscent of falling in love, nose first, with a resplendent rose blossom. No doubt you, too, have leaned over in a garden, drunk in a rose’s perfume and never wanted to stand up again.
Beneath the robe of gray fur was a voluptuous form; more like a Rubens woman when compared to sleek Galas or Honeycrisps, tantalizing in its voluminous magnificence, its perfect imperfection. But was it actually edible?
“Quince,” the sign read, with the following suggestions: “Use as sachet in your underwear drawer or bake them or stew them.” Not much help, but good farmers don’t necessarily make good cooks, in this country at least.
Back in the kitchen at Huberts restaurant on 22nd Street, the other cooks and I had to figure out for ourselves how best to use this local exotic. Eaten raw, the flesh is astonishingly astringent, a sobering wakeup call after drinking in the rosy perfume. Cooking, then, was an imperative.
Our first experiments, treating the quince as you would an apple, ended in disappointment—a pale tan mush only marginally better than applesauce. Quince flesh is very granular, high in stoney cells, leaving the flesh without much physical integrity so that when cooked quickly or with any degree of turbulence it completely falls apart.
We learned that slow, and I mean really slow, cooking not only retained the quince’s shape but also allowed a deep rose hue to develop that is as intriguing as its perfume. This discovery energized everyone in the kitchen, and we all began to look for ways to incorporate quince into our work. We used it in tarts, sliced on top of pastry cream or frangipane, as counterpoint to cheese, as a condiment to liver toasts or Hudson Valley foie gras, in chutneys to accompany braised pork, combined with apples to heighten the perfume in covered pies, as syrup to pour on French toast at brunch.
We were enthralled by the flavors, but just as importantly, we were inspired by the idea of quince. We actually discussed how quince was a symbol for everything we were trying to do in this new wave of cooking that much later solidified into farm-to-table cooking. The idea of quince was that a locally grown fruit—of longstanding culinary tradition, excellent in flavor, outside of mainstream conventional production, low yielding, not sweet and ready to eat, requiring patient slow cooking—would reward the cook and the diner with a singular taste experience. Quince expressed our journey as New York cooks looking for flavor and honesty in our work, newness without novelty. If boxed flats of baby carrots and baby pattypan squashes imported from the West Coast represented the cleverness of the marketplace, then finicky pectin-rich quince from the Middle East via the Hudson Valley represented wisdom. It became the quintessential beacon by which to “steer our bark.”
Invariably, whenever we developed a winter dish using quince, we would need to run the dish into January or February, beyond Kent quince availability. By late December, if there were still any around, rot would begin to spread throughout the crate or the flesh would varicose with brown oxidation in advance of a more complete deterioration. Our Hunt’s Point produce supplier could deliver quince, but they turned out to be pineapple quince from California, fuzz-free and carefully wrapped individually but either a not-very-flavorful variety or, like so much of the produce coming into New York from California, picked by commercial growers in advance of ripeness to extend shelf life, a mere whisper of what you can buy from October to December from upriver. Don’t be fooled. They are not equivalent.
Thirty years on, I’m still under quince’s spell. I mean, really, do you ever tire of leaning over in a garden to snatch a whiff of a great-smelling rose? Never. And so each fall when quince come back into market again I start by just looking (the early October ones are often muted in flavor because even the Kents sometimes rush their picking in order to get the fruit to market) and ponder how I might prepare them this year.
Taste one raw, without the peel. Squeeze the fragrant juice into your mouth making believe you are a cider press, then spit out the pulp. I know you are not supposed to eat them raw, but try it. It’s kind of amazing. Imagine what a little sugar and some time in a warm pot will do.
Now go cook some. Watch the magic for yourself, that transformation from opaque daffodil-yellow flesh into clear ruby-red syrup. Take a half that has been gently poached and slice it—neatly, keeping its shape—and then fan it out to reveal the rose edge and the pinker interior, a pattern of astonishing repetitive beauty. Always keep the poaching liquid and use it on pound cake or on waffles or even frozen as granita. Make a quince and goat cheese sandwich, riffing on the childhood classic cream cheese and jelly.
While the Kents and their English forbears mostly made marmalade with it, the Eastern Mediterranean, its original home, is a great source for exciting savory recipes. Look at a Persian recipe pairing it with slowly cooked lamb, saffron and a splash of honey. Ponder a pairing with dark-meat chicken, whole shallots, thyme and some burdock root.
Today more farmers in the region are growing quince than 30 years ago. Red Jacket, Samascott and Prospect Hill Orchards have all joined the Kents. With the explosion of the artisanal cheese movement joined by a new generation of Spanish restaurants in New York, diners are more familiar with the paste called “membrillo” and other quinaceous offerings.
But still, when I take the call from a journalist looking for nominations to the top 10 list of trending foods in the coming year, I’ll never be the one to nominate quince. By its very nature, quince will never go mainstream, and maybe that’s just as it should be.
Peter Hoffman is the chef/owner of the restaurants Back Forty and Back Forty West (the former Savoy) and is working on a culinary memoir.
Want to know how to prep a quince? Peter Hoffman shares his skill in this video.