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Archive for the ‘Fruit and Veggies’ Category

Blushing Quince

In Fruit and Veggies on November 9, 2012 at 5:14 am

whole quincePale yellow, and shaped like a flattened pear, quince is one of those fruits which wasn’t even in my vocabulary up until the past few years, much less on my table. It sounded old fashioned and maybe even undesirable, like some kind of jelly that ancient Aunt Millie might bring out on Thanksgiving with her mincemeat pie.

But then I heard that quince (Cydonia oblonga) were related to roses, that a few slices would imbue other fruits with a rich, floral aroma, and that it worked some kind of kitchen alchemy, changing from white to ruby red when cooked. It also happens to be elusive: its season in late Autumn is short-lived, and you don’t always find it in grocery stores. I spotted it last year at a natural foods co-op, decided to think it over for next time, and then found that it was all sold out when “next time” came around. So I waited an entire year for another chance to find quince.

One day in mid-October, there it was, a small bushel basket sitting without fanfare among brimming mounds of California grapes, persimmons, and avocados. I asked the produce guy how to pick out a good quince. He grimaced thoughtfully. Usually he had answers at the tip of his tongue, but not this time. “I’m not really sure,” he admitted.

They were all similar, with multiple convex slopes, heavy, and hard as a rock. I just picked one out and added it to my cart.

At home, I had an entire lug of beautiful fresh crop pears (Packhams) from my friends at Valley View Farm in Zillah, Washington.  Quince and pears both belong to the same general fruit category called Pomes, which share a common trait with apples: a waxy, papery core which encloses its seeds. Botanists even consider quince the ancient cousin of pears, which were probably similar before they were domesticated and selectively bred to meet our preference for all things sweet and juicy.

I decided to keep things simple for my grand experiment. I peeled, cored, and chopped five good sized pears and dropped them into a stainless steel pot. Then I turned to my lone quince, rather flushed with anticipation.  I peeled it, finding its skin on the gritty side against the edge of my peeler. The interior was colorless, like a sheet of manila school paper, and about the same texture. Unlike the pears, it had no juice, and no scent, either. It was the driest, most unpromising piece of fruit I had seen, but I  cut out its sliced it into small, thin pieces, and added them to the pears. I decided against any sweetening and used no seasoning or spice, hoping to find out whether I would coax out the promised floral scent and flavor.

Thirty minutes later, my pear-quince mixture was bubbling cheerfully on the stove when I lifted the lid for my first peek. It was light tan, just like a luscious pot of cooked pears. Their scent was lovely: full and sweet, but also decidedly “pear.” The quince pieces were perhaps a little more on the yellowish side compared with the pears, but otherwise unchanged. My disappointment drove me to look around online, and poke around my reference books while the pot continued boiling. Learning that quince’s magic was slow acting, I turned down the burner to a simmer, sat back and waited.

Another thirty minutes passed before I checked again. This time, I noted that the entire pot of sauce had taken on a definite pink blush. Drawing near, I checked the scent again. This time, there was a change: a light honey fragrance. Encouraged, I set the lid back on the pot and found something else to do for yet another thirty minutes.

salmon red quince-pear sauceWhen I lifted the lid, my pear-quince medley was a gorgeous salmon-red. The warm, sweet pears were also infused with an intense honey-floral flavor that I thought a little like jasmine, but softer. Over the next couple of days, my family and I added pear-quince sauce to oatmeal, to creamy whole milk yogurt, and pancakes. Warm or cold, its honey perfume remained, and we marveled at the miracle of quince.

The kitchen science behind quince and its color change is also remarkable. It’s a rather complex transformation. The fruit is high in tannins, which give it an astringent, bitter taste in its raw form. A long, slow heat and acid break down some of the components in quince (proanthocyanidins) so that oxygen can react with these and morph them into another, highly pigmented compound (true anthocyanidins) . Anthocyanidins are the same plant chemicals which give a dark purple / red color to highly pigmented foods like chocolate, blueberries, elderberries, and purple cabbage. So in short, the pale quince is able to manufacture a highly colorful pigment while it is cooked.

Next time quince season comes around, I am going to try simmering them in simple syrup, alone, and unpeeled, since certain authorities (like Nostradamus, who apparently was fond of quince) suggest that color and flavor are even more pronounced when the peel is left intact.  And I might even make some quince jelly.

The Grape Labrusca

In Fruit and Veggies on October 23, 2012 at 4:26 am

Concord GrapesWhen I was a child, a neighbor had a grapevine that tumbled over into our yard. The grapes started out tiny and green. Shielded by broad, sheltering leaves they transformed over the summer, ripening into deep blue clusters that hung from the vine, fat with juice. I still remember being intrigued to find that the sweet-tart skins would slip off, leaving a pale green orb in my hand. They were transparent enough to view the seeds in its center; seeds which made a crunch if I just ate the grape whole. I was disappointed that the grape wasn’t the color of jam all the way through, but that didn’t stop my brother and me from picking and eating all the grapes we could reach.

If you grew up on standard green grapes, or even red table grapes, fresh concord grapes are a completely different experience. That’s because they are completely different. Concord grapes are descended from wild North American grapes, vitus labrusca (fox grape). When we think of “grape flavor,” it is the Concord that smells and tastes that way, not the European grape varieties we use on the table or make into wine. The intense fragrance is what makes eating fresh Concords such a sensory experience.

I usually find them for a short time in late summer or early fall at independent fruit markets, but they’re also easy to grow in the backyard for many North Americans. After all they are uniquely adapted, given their lineage. Their story is a New England original:

Mr. Ephraim Wales Bull has been described by contemporaries as a bit of an eccentric. After trying out so many varieties of grapes on his farm, Bull couldn’t seem to find one hardy enough to withstand the harsh Massachusetts winters, but he kept trying. After many attempts, in the late 1840’s he started eying the wild grape vines that rambled freely about the countryside. One day he dug up a vine and transplanted it near a Catawba grape, which was a popular variety that grew on his farm. A red grape cross between wild labrusca and European grapes, the Catawba most likely pollinated Mr. Bull’s wild transplant.

Whatever the parentage, Bull collected the grapes that grew on the wild vine that season and planted them, fruit and all, then waited to see what would emerge. One of these offspring proved to be exceptional. It had lovely flavor and aroma, and was early to ripen. Bull propagated his vine and entered it into the 1853 competition at the Boston Horticultural Society, where the Concord won first place. Not only was his grape wildly popular in home gardens, it inspired a massive shift in juice and jam-making.

I didn’t tell my six year old daughter what to expect when I snipped off a little cluster of dusky grapes from the market this fall. I watched as she discovered them for herself, slip skins, seeds, and all. She experimented with crunching up the seeds at first, but soon opted to spit them out and carefully build a small stack at the side of her plate as the grapes disappeared. And then she asked for more.

Fun Facts:

Welch’s grape juice was first made in a family kitchen, the experiment of a Temperance activist and doctor, Thomas Bramwell Welch, in 1869.  He wanted to create a replacement for communion wine. Welch successfully produced a non-fermenting grape juice by pasteurizing it in glass bottles on the stove top and first served it at his Methodist church.

Grape jam was first called Grapelade, made as a military ration in World War I. Even if the name didn’t stick, it became the most widely known companion to peanut butter in American sandwiches, also with a bit of help from Uncle Sam, who got American GI’s hooked on the combination during World War II.

Concord Grapes are rich in vitamin C as well as antioxidants. As a dark purple fruit, their color comes from anthocyanins, which has cardiovascular and immune supporting properties. The grapes also contain catechins (an antioxidant also found in green tea), as well as quercetin, another flavonoid with antihistamine action. The skins and seeds also contain resveratrol, which has also been studied for possible cardiovascular benefits.

Simmering Malus

In Fruit and Veggies on October 19, 2012 at 6:01 am

Fresh Crop Transparent Apples

Forget scented candles: they make you hungry but taste terrible. The real thing is so easy: a pot of bubbling apples, sifted generously with cinnamon and just enough sugar. The fragrance of simmering malus domestica fills the house with an inner sense of cozy that’s hard to replicate any other way.

Apples are taken for granted, I think. Shining like glass, waxy to the touch, the supermarket apple often disappoints at first crunch. It pales in contrast to the fresh, non-shiny ones you pick from your own tree or find at the farmers market in September, a leathery leaf still hanging on the odd stem. The best part about Farmer’s Markets and co-ops is finding there is more to apples than the half dozen varieties you see in the produce aisles. In fact, making sauce from some of the dessert varieties most commonly available is disappointing, as they disintegrate into blandness, due to their low acidity.

Living in Washington state, I’m lucky enough to have access to many different types, including hard to find Gravensteins and Pippins, but you can enjoy checking out your farmstands and local markets for vintage varieties wherever you are.

One of my all time favorites for simmering is the commonly available Granny Smith. Its green apple flavor adds a nice complexity in sauce or pie, and a perfect texture.

Another one worth mentioning is the Transparent. Early to ripen, it’s green, with a thinner skin than the Granny. Eaten out of hand, it’s mouth puckering, but in a sauce, transformational. It cooks down into a soft creamy white mass with perfect classic apple flavor.

If you can find Rome Beauty, you’ll get a nice pink applesauce if you throw in a few curls of peel to simmer with the chopped fruit. Adding half grannies to the mix would maximize the flavor, as well.

Fun Facts:

There really was a Granny Smith. Maria Ann Smith of New South Wales, Australia first cultivated this tart green apple in 1868. It’s thought that Grannies are a hybrid of malus domestica and its wild cousin, malus sylvestra.

Apple cider was one of the most commonly consumed beverages among colonial Americans, who often avoided fresh water. It was difficult to store fresh, so it frequently was drunk “hard.”

It turns out the old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” has some merit. Apples contain anti-viral properties and are also great for digestion because of the high pectin content in their skins.

German Puff Pancake

In Fruit and Veggies on August 3, 2010 at 7:35 pm

This has become one of my standbys. It is a puff pancake, crisp with a hint of custard flavor, folded over fruit filling and sliced into three wedges. Tart apples are nice, but cherry is the favorite in my house. Prepare the filling before starting the pancake, since you’ll need it on hand as soon as the pancake comes out of the oven.  A touch of almond extract heightens the cherry scent and flavor.

Makes two generous, or three moderate servings

Filling:

2 cups fresh or frozen pie cherries

½ cup water

1/2 cup unrefined sugar, such as Florida Crystals (not turbinado sugar)

¼ cup cold water

1 tbsp corn starch

1/2 tsp almond extract

In a medium saucepan, add ½ cup water, sugar, and cherries. Cook over medium heat until cherries are juicy and on the verge of boiling. In a small bowl, mix corn starch and ¼ cup water, stirring until smooth and free of lumps. Pour cornstarch mixture into hot fruit while stirring. Continue to stir as cherries thicken into a sauce. Add almond extract and remove from heat. Set aside.

Pancake:

3 large eggs

¾ cup whole milk

¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour

½ tsp salt

1 ½ tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Beat the eggs in a large bowl. Add milk, flour, and salt and whisk until smooth. Melt butter into a 12 inch iron or heavy stainless steel skillet, swirling around to coat the sides as well as the bottom. When the butter begins to sizzle, pour in the batter and immediately place skillet in the oven. After fifteen minutes, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake ten minutes longer.  Remove from oven.  Loosen the edges and then the bottom of the pancake with a silicone (heat resistant) spatula and carefully transfer entire pancake to a dinner plate (it should release from the pan quite readily). Pour about 2/3 of cherry filling into one half of the pancake, then use the spatula to help fold the other half on top of it. Slice into halves or thirds and use pancake turner to transfer each portion to another plate. Top each portion with more cherry filling and dust with a shake of confectioner’s sugar.