Autumn in Jerusalem is beautiful. The first rains bring new grass, an experience akin to spring in most other places. So leaves turn yellow and fall onto young green grass - yes, many things are upside down here …
The days are short but prefect. Hot sun, cool air, clear blue skies. It's a crime to be indoors, especially since you know it’s possibly the last perfect day before winter sets in.
Autumn is also time for the olive harvest. In the valley beneath my house, the trees are heavy with fruit and in their villages, Palestinians and Israelis are collecting their olives, and taking them to be pressed into oil. The scene at the press on both sides of the line is wonderful. Will bring you a story from there in the future.
olives ... and MUSHROOMS
It’s also mushroom season. But no that isn't my bag full… It belongs to a Russian doctor and his family, whom I met out walking. You have to be Russian to dare to pick mushrooms in the forest, confident you know which ones won't kill you!
We met near the village’s star attraction – a new baby donkey. He belongs to the nearby convent, and he’s so keen to see you, that he runs over as soon as he hears your voice, like a puppy. If you don’t have a carrot for him, he will eat your fingers.
The first beautiful quinces of the season are here, and I can’t resist them. The lovely autumn fruit, along with the burst of green and the olive harvest, make the march to winter palatable.
A quince is like a Mediterranean nashi pear, but grumpier - larger, more sour and tougher. OK, much tougher. They are like old shoe leather to cut through and around.
You can’t eat them raw, and cooking them is not an easy business either. But still they are so beautiful, and fragrant, and reward you by enticingly turning from yellow to pink when you make the effort tocook them.
Quince was popular with the Jews of Spain before the expulsion in 1492, and at Food is Love we've been working our way through some of those old recipes, especially those using what the Spaniards then considered “Jewish fruit and vegetables”. For more details of the amazing food detective story that led us back to these recipes, you can dip into our October post where it's all laid out, Kitchen Inquisition.
These poached quinces, known as Letuario, originated in medieval Spain, and after the Expulsion, they became part of the cuisine of the Sephardic Jews of northern Morocco. (The dish was actually made with a wide variety of fruits, including eggplants!)
I’m happy to report that this Spanish Jewish classic is so simple it’s almost not a recipe. You throw your quince in pieces into a pot with water and spices and that’s it.
It’s also user-friendly since you do a lot of the heavy lifting after it’s cooked. You peel the quince beforehand, but you cut out the hard spots around the core afterwards, saving a lot of time and anguish. (I did try leaving the peel on, but it wasn't worth the effort of cutting it off lots of small pieces once it was soft.)
NOTE RE SUGAR
The original recipe called for a cup of sugar – way too much! I made it with 2 tablespoons of honey the first time, and that was quite sweet enough. This time I made it without any added honey or sugar at all and that was sweet enough too. In fact, I thought it was great.
Since we are living in the age of 'sugar is poison', try it without sweetener or with a minimal amount and if you do need more – like my boyfriend - then you can drizzle it with honey when you serve it. But I was surprised how sweet turned out to be with just alcohol and water.
- I kilo quinces (2 large fruit)
- 2 tablespoons honey – or omit altogether
- 6 cloves
- 3 cinnamon sticks
- Contents of 1 or 2 cardamom pods
- 2-3 star anise
- A few black peppercorns or Szechuan peppercorns
- 2-3 bay leaves, or Thai lime leaves
- Desert wine or sweet alcohol eg Muscat (I happened to have some home made something with citrus peel and I used that.)
1. Cut quinces in half, peel and cut into slices about ½ inch / 1cm thick. (Leave the seeds and hard core on the slices. You will remove them after cooking - it's much quicker that way.)
2. Place the quince slices, sugar or honey if using, and spices in a saucepan. Cover with water. Add alcohol – anywhere between a splash and a cup, it completely depends on taste.
3. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, uncovered, until the quinces turn pinkish and soft and the liquid has reduced and become thick, about 1 hour. (If the quinces become soft before then, remove them and continue simmering the liquid till it reduces and thickens.)
4. Let the quinces cool, then cut away core and seeds from the slices. Arrange them on a serving platter.
5. Strain the cooking liquid and then pour it over the quince slices. Let cool to room temperature. The liquid will continue to thicken as it cools. Cover and refrigerate till ready to serve.
JERUSALEM TEST KITCHEN
The original recipe calls this jellied quinces, but I used much less sugar and mine didn't turn into jelly -- though it was delicious!
I love the dense sour-sweet pink fruit, a great reward for the work involved in preparing them. The spices in this dish are wonderful. I like mixing it up, so I added Szechuan peppercorns, black peppercorns and bay leaves – and then got excited and added too many cloves.
Note to self: cloves are overpowering, don’t get carried away... though the kitchen smelt like Christmas while it cooked.
This is generally served as desert, with a soft white cheese, or a tastier sheep or goats cheese. But my favourite option is breakfast, with nuts, seeds and yoghurt. And a drizzle of honey too if you like. (Any excuse to use the honey from our holiday in the Galilee!)
Grind sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds together. Take 2 tablespoons of the mix and make into a paste with one tablespoon flaxseed oil. Pile fruit on top. And yoghurt on top of that. Plus a drizzle of honey for those who want it - and you're done.
MADRID TEST KITCHEN
This is not a recipe the Australian test kitchens can try at this time, since quince isn't in season in spring. Candice lives in Madrid, so she's in the right hemisphere, but says she’s not much of a quince fan, despite having lived in both Mexico and Spain, where they're basically the national fruit. Still, she's agreed to have a go - what a trooper!
“After pondering the fat, yellow fruits for a while, I decided to try for something I used to enjoy when I lived in Italy, a mostarda. Mostarda is a lovely condiment made with fruit and mustard, delicious with cheese and charcuterie. I had never eaten one with quince, but as it turned out, there is a such a variation made in Vicenza,” Cadice reported triumphantly.
This made me happy, since it fits with my interest in using “savoury” spices in deserts. The simplest recipe Candice found was made of quince stewed in grape juice and finished with lemons, Dijon mustard and mustard seeds.
When I read the recipe, it sounded similar to this Spanish dish, as it’s described as candied fruit with a mustard syrup.
But in fact it turned out to be something more like a chutney.
- 1 kg quince peeled, cored and chopped into 2 cm pieces
- 500 ml grape juice
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 sticks cinnamon
- 2 lemons, juice and peel ie peel with pith removed, cut into thin slivers
- 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
1. Stew the quince in the grape juice, sugar, and cinnamon until tender (adding a bit of water if it starts to dry out). Add the lemon peel, lemon juice, mustard and mustard seeds and cook until you reach a jammy consistency.
2. Place in sterilised jars while still hot and seal. The mostarda will keep for several months in a cool, dark place. If you prefer a smoother texture, leave it to cool slightly and blend and then place in jars.
Candice radically reduced the sugar to the small amount of honey, above.
“I didn't have any grape juice so I substituted pomegranate to cover with three cinnamon sticks, just 1 tablespoon of honey and a button of star anise. When the quince was just tender, I added a tablespoon of mustard seeds, the juice of two lemons with the peels (no white stuff) sliced into thin slivers and 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard. I let the whole thing simmer a bit more and pronounced it done."
"I ended up with a rather unlovely beige concoction that seemed a bit mushy. One might describe it as a chutney wannabe," says Candice.
"Sadly, the visuals were not particularly good, nor was the texture. I think it might have been better if I had cooked it less and used less juice as well as plopped in a LOT more mustard."
But despite all that - they liked it!
Candice served it with baby lamb roasted with carrots, turnips and shallots. And when she emailed 2 days later about something else, she reported that it was quite tasty cold right out of the fridge :-)
Next week, back to Eastern European baking with a fabulous cake from Food is Love grandmother Marysia Segan. It's a chocolate and nut confection in 2 colours, no butter, no flour - plus her amazing life story.