Thursday, April 16, 2009

Back in season, hooray!

One thing that is sadly disappearing from our shops is any sense of the passing of the seasons. These days we can buy strawberries, avocados, mangoes and all sorts of fruit and vegies at silly times of year when they never used to be available. With our sybaritic reluctance to 'do without' for even a few months I think we've lost some of the thrill and the appreciation of discovering that a favourite fruit is back in season. Call me perverse, but I think occasionally doing without is a worthwhile slice of humble pie.

Fortunately, some of the old-fashioned pleasure of enjoying fruit only when it's in season persists. Here in Sydney, for example, the fresh fig season, which is a late summer and early autumn thing here, is just starting to wind down after a deliciously squishy peak a few weeks ago. We won't see any more figs until next year, and so we shouldn't. It would spoil our delight at disovering that 'the figs are back' next summer. In the place of the figs it's now the quinces' turn to have their few months of glory. Hooray! Here are some quinces I slowly poached this afternoon. Lovely colour, wonderful fragrance, deeply complex flavour.

Changing colour from yellowy-white when raw to glowing-coal red when cooked, quinces set themselves apart from other fruit on colour alone. It's a little miracle.

Though Autumn is quince harvest time here in Australia, the best I can do is buy them, not harvest them, alas. Quinces (Cydonia oblonga) are a Mediterranean climate plant, preferring cool, wet winters and warm to hot, dry summers. That's not Sydney (our summers are far too humid), although they are classed as 'worth a try' here, and some gardeners here do manage to grow them. However, the killer for me is that I don't have space to grow a quince tree. I'd have to chop down one of my olive trees to make room, as a quince tree will reach 5-8 metres tall when mature. Pictured above are some quinces I bought late in the season last year, to make some quince jelly (a photo of which appears later on).

Here's one of the quinces I bought today. I searched through the selection on sale at my local greengrocer – Banana Joe's – to find one with the most prominent 'bloom' on its skin, just for this photo. Like a dusty book neglected on a shelf for too many years, quinces can acquire a downy, brown fuzzy-coating that's called a bloom. This fur rubs or washes off easily enough and does no harm. (And if you're wondering where I got the techno-green background from, that's my snazzy new green plastic chopping board.)

Couldn't resist tossing in another close-up of the furry bloom, which makes shoppers not familiar with quinces steer clear of them. The youngster working at the checkout at Banana Joe's, who is more comfy with apples, oranges and potatoes, looks at my bag of quinces, then looks at me, then looks again at the quinces, none the wiser. "They're quinces" I say, ending the mystery. And the old Greek lady behind me in the queue chimes in with "very nice, baked, long time, very good."

When you cut open quinces the flesh usually starts to brown within seconds. Rubbing the cut surface with lemon juice only delays the inevitable, and dropping them into acidulated water (ie, lemon juice and water) is of similar marginal help. As quinces change from yellowy-white to rich red as they cook, a bit of browning during their preparation doesn't matter in the end. Preparing them is rather like cutting up an apple, removing the woody core and seeds, plus peeling the skin, which is thicker than apple skin.

Quinces are wincingly bitter eaten raw, and so everyone cooks them. They can be baked, poached or cooked in various other ways (eg, they're nice included in a pork roast), but what I like to do is slowly poach them in the oven and then have the poached fruit for breakfast, combined with yoghurt or cereal or whatever takes our fancy. They're not bad as a simple dessert, served with cream or yoghurt mixed with honey. As you can see at the back of the pot, there's a whole cinnamon stick for flavour. Other than that there's just sugar and water, and quinces.

It takes around three to four hours for the quinces to change colour like this. After removing the cores and seeds from the fruit, I cut them into chunks, then add them to a wide, shallow, lidded casserole. Then I sprinkle over sugar (around one tablespoon per quince, so I added two here, for the two quinces). I add water so it comes about halfway up the depth of the fruit. Toss in the whole cinnamon stick, pop on the lid then bake them slowly, at about 110-120°C, for 3-4 hours. It's a good idea to check them at the 2-hour and 3-hour marks, to check that there's enough liquid there (add a splash of boiling water if there's not). And it's easy to tell when they're done, as the colour will be like this, the liquid will be reduced and the fragrance will be wafting through the house.

As mentioned earlier some of the quince photos came from late last year, when I had a go at making quince jelly. This is lovely on toast, with a really beautiful, quite delicate flavour that's remarkably different from the earthier flavour of the poached quinces.

Lots of people, including me, love eating quince paste with cheese platters but I haven't had a go at making my own quince paste yet. However, as the quince season is just starting I'm sure I'll be having a go at learning that skill the moment a thoroughly wet winter weekend is forecast.

But before I sign off, I thought I'd provide a few links to food-loving blog readers in search of some interesting food blogs – you can never find too many interesting blogs, I say – including some great food writing you may not have come across before.

First up, my old pal, Fenella, emailed to let me know that her wonderful article – 'Voyage Round my Kitchen', which first appeared in the magazine 'The Good Weekend' (the colour supplement with Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald, for which she is their best feature writer, in my humble opinion) has been put up on a blog run by a friend of hers, novelist Charlotte Wood. I am quite certain that the fact Fenella mentions me kindly in her article has absolutely no influence on my judgement that this is a wonderfully well-written, witty and insightful piece about food, cooks, cooking, friends, marriages, drudgery (that's where I come in), and lots more.

Fenella's article, which appears on Charlotte's blog, is here.
And Charlotte's blog itself, called How to Shuck an Oyster, is here.

Another food blog I have been enjoying lately is called Not Quite Nigella, and you can find it here. While she travels here and there, it's essentially Sydney-based and very well organised and entertaining.

Finally, another rich treasure trove of style, food, photos and creativity is Simon Leong's blog, which you can find here. He's a Sydney-based designer and his love for food is well worth checking out.

Extra text, added on June 19, 2009

A Sydney reader, Kyle, asked for the Quince Jelly recipe in her comments, and here it is, Kyle. Quince jelly is yummy on toast but it's also well worth experimenting with it, stirring a dollop into sauces/gravies for things such as roast pork, turkey or chicken.

Quince Jelly

Quinces (preferably white-fleshed ones, the older they get the more yellow the flesh and the lower the pectin level in the fruit)
Juice of 1 lemon
Caster sugar

Peel the quinces and cut into chunks, put into a stainless steel (ie, non-reactive, not aluminium) saucepan, just barely cover the fruit with water, adding in the lemon juice, too.

Bring to a boil then simmer for one and a quarter hours, then strain the liquid from the fruit overnight. To strain, set up fruit in a colander over a bowl, and cover fruit with a clean cloth (see tips, below).

The next day, discard the fruit and measure the strained liquid and add an equal quantity of caster sugar. Bring sugar and liquid slowly to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan, stirring once or twice until the sugar has dissolved. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface as it comes to the boil. Once bubbling, increase heat and boil rapidly for about 10 minutes then test that it has set.

Testing for setting: place an entrĂ©e plate into the fridge or freezer to make it very cold. Then, to test for setting, place a spoonful of liquid on the plate. Let it sit there a few seconds and push your finger through the middle of the blob of liquid. If the liquid separates into two blobs, and remains in two distinct halves, it has set. If it’s still liquid (and the blobs join together during the test) keep on boiling the mix, and test again 5 or so minutes later. Depending on how much pectin is in the fruit, it could take a while for it to reach setting point.

Once the jelly is set, pour into sterilised jars and seal.

1. Don’t cook the quinces for too long, as this destroys the natural pectin in the fruit, which is needed for setting jellies and jams.
2. When straining fruit overnight, never press down on the fruit to extract more juice. Just let it drain naturally, giving it plenty of time to drain. If you press down on the fruit there’s a danger the jelly will turn cloudy, and a good quince jelly should be beautifully red and clear. If you don’t have a clean cloth to cover the fruit, use a large plate, but don’t let the plate press down on the fruit itself.

This recipe borrows heavily from Stephanie Alexander’s ‘The Cook’s Companion’ but she uses Seville Oranges in her recipe, and I’m sure that would be lovely. The other part of this recipe (the lemon juice and some of the method) comes from one of my mum’s best old cookbooks ‘Australian Cookery of Today’, published in the 1940s.


Jenny said...

Have not had quince jam for years! My grandmother used to make it sometimes, must have had a quince tree on the farm.

charlotte said...

Hi Jamie, love your blog! You have inspired me about quinces (picked some at my sister's in Bathurst on the weekend) and I am jealous of your garden, and I agree that Fenella is the best writer there is. Am pleased to make the acquaintance of the famous Jamie.

Linda said...

There is a feral quince tree beside the road, long way from any houses, that I pass about four times a week. I am watching it carefully. It may need a good clean for stray oil (pick from side of tree furtherest from road).

Currently in Chutney-making mode - I think the time has come to invent a Quince Chutney.

PJ said...

Quinces seem to be following me at the moment. Baked for hours at my Aunt's over Easter, coming up in conversation several times since and now on your blog! If only the balcony garden were big enough for a quine. Still the vic markets are nearby, and you inspired me to have a go at quince paste. It's a couple of simmering hours in and turning ruby red - cheers so much for the final impetus of inspiration

PhotoVentura said...

So how about a recipe for this famous Quince Jelly?? I know, I know, this is a gardening blog, not a cooking blog... but the rules could surely bend for something you've grown in your own garden...?

Jamie said...

The Quince Jelly recipe is now there. Good luck with it!